Sunday, May 1, 2016

If You Cherish Daniel Berrigan's Legacy, Do Not Forget the Racist Roots of the Trump Phenomenon — and of the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Bogus "Religious Freedom" Crusade

Daniel Berrigan, No Bars to Manhood (NY: Doubleday, 1970), p. 64

In his moving tribute in this morning's Washington Post to Daniel Berrigan, who died yesterday,  fellow Catholic radical and peace activist Colman McCarthy reminds us that Berrigan spent two years in federal prison after burning draft files at the old Knights of Columbus hall housing a Secret Service office in Catonsville, Maryland, in 1968. As McCarthy notes, Berrigan was a "willing recidivist" who was repeatedly arrested for protesting the American military machine. He died with a rap sheet as long as his winding sheet.

McCarthy suggests succinctly that Berrigan's life of radical Christian activism began in the following way:

Daniel Joseph Berrigan was born May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minn., the fifth of six sons of a pro-union father and a mother who opened her home to the poor.

Daniel Lewis's obituary of Berrigan in today's New York Times today reminds us of the specific historical context within which Berrigan first began to speak out in a public and prominent way against the Vietnam War — and racial injustice in American society:

The United States was tearing itself apart over civil rights and the war in Southeast Asia when Father Berrigan emerged in the 1960s as an intellectual star of the Roman Catholic "new left," articulating a view that racism and poverty, militarism and capitalist greed were interconnected pieces of the same big problem: an unjust society. 
It was an essentially religious position, based on a stringent reading of the Scriptures that some called pure and others radical. But it would have explosive political consequences as Father Berrigan; his brother Philip, a Josephite priest; and their allies took their case to the streets with rising disregard for the law or their personal fortunes.

That was then. Now here's today: here's David Masciotra writing yesterday about Trump voters and the very specific historical context out of which the Trump phenomenon arises:

The Voting Rights Act later aggravated white voters to the point of mania, but so did Johnson's War on Poverty, and not because of bromides about "big government." White voters in the decades leading up to the Great Society initiative had no objection to generous social programs of assistance for the poor, disabled and illiterate. The Homestead Act, the GI Bill, Social Security, the rural electrification policies of the New Deal, and other public aid programs were uncontroversial – popular with the white working class, because they were the sole beneficiaries of government largesse. It was not until the federal government started spending white tax dollars on anti-poverty relief for spics and niggers that low-income white voters went into hysterics about the evils of dependency. Up until the Great Society, most government programs were, like Southern hotels and diners, white only. 
At one point, [in his Vox essay chastising smug American liberals for producing Trump and his supporters, Emmett] Rensin refers to the "evangelical revival" as one possible explanation for the rise of the right-wing white voter, but demonstrates no awareness of the hideous racial politics at the center of Christian Conservatism. 
Randall Balmer, in his excellent biography of President Jimmy Carter, Redeemer, documents and describes how white evangelicals were largely apathetic and apolitical prior to the 1976 presidential election. They swarmed the polls in high numbers to help usher one of their own into office. Carter's faith and testimony seemed genuine, and white evangelicals supported him for cultural and theological reasons, rather than anything having to do with politics or public policy. By 1980, those same voters were carrying placards for the "Reagan revolution." As Balmer explains, "Although homosexuality and, eventually, abortion, would figure into their (white evangelicals) critique, the real catalyst for their disaffection was race, especially the issue of desegregation." 
Early in his single term as president, Carter instructed the IRS, the Justice Department, and the EEOC to investigate private Christian schools and universities in the South for refusal to admit black students. It quickly became clear that religious academies, Bob Jones University, and other Christian colleges were discriminating against black families and applicants to preserve the universal whiteness of their student bodies. Under the Carter administration, the IRS then removed the tax-exempt status of these schools. Paul Weyrich, considered by Balmer and many others as the chief architect of the religious right, told Conservative Digest, "When the Internal Revenue Service tried to deny tax exemption to private schools, that more than any single act brought the fundamentalists and evangelicals into the political process."

That was then. Trump is now. Memory is our bridge to the whys and wherefores of the Trump phenomenon in American politics today. Conservative religious leaders in the U.S. — the U.S. Catholic bishops among them — would sorely like for us to forget, to forget that their bogus "religious freedom" crusade began with shameful opposition to the U.S. government's demand that religiously affiliated colleges and universities stop discriminating on the basis of race while receiving federal funds.

The U.S. Catholic bishops continue to clamor for the "right" of Catholic colleges and universities and other Catholic institutions to receive federal funding while discriminating on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. They want us to imagine that there's some tremendous qualitative difference between faith-based racial discrimination, a kind of discrimination increasingly judged as insupportable on religious grounds in our society, and faith-based discrimination in the area of gender and sexual orientation. They have just produced yet another bogus "religious freedom" fright video warning in dire hysterical terms that the U.S. government is out to get true Christians who are clinging to traditional Christian morality . . . 

A bogus "religious freedom" fright video with its phony claims about government persecution of true Christians that is rooted in the most direct way possible in the reaction of white Southern evangelicals and working-class white Catholics allied with them to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . . . . A bogus "religious freedom" hysteria video directly linked to the Bob Jones story and the assertion of Bob Jones University that it should be allowed to receive federal funding while practicing racial discrimination on the basis of faith . . . .

If we cherish Daniel Berrigan and what he stood for, we will not allow the U.S. Catholic bishops and their allies in the right-wing white evangelical community to deceive us about these matters. If we remember Daniel Berrigan, we will remember his warning to recognize that  racism and poverty, militarism and capitalist greed — and, I would add, discrimination against women and queer people —  are interconnected pieces of the same big problem: an unjust society. 

The quotation at the head of the posting is from Daniel Berrigan's 1970 autobiography No Bars to Manhood. I'm grateful to Andy Dillon for highlighting this passage in a tweet last year.

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