Tuesday, January 18, 2011

National Organization of Marriage's 2009 Tax Returns: Catholic Values Still for Sale?

In the final months of 2010, I spent quite a bit of time reporting on and critiquing the decision of the Catholic bishops of Minnesota to accept what is thought to have been a sizable donation from an unnamed donor or donors, permitting the bishops to produce a video attacking same-sex marriage and to mail that video to every Catholic household in the state.  As my several postings about this event note, there are a number of troubling aspects to this story: these include the decision of a group of bishops to make an issue out of something that had not been raised as a significant issue in the 2010 election in their state; their decision to attack a vulnerable minority for the political benefit of a particular political party; and their willingness to weigh into the election debates in a clearly partisan way.

But most troubling of all in the behavior of the bishops of Minnesota during the 2010 elections was the willingness to accept a large amount of funds from a donor or donors they refused to name in order to pursue these partisan political objectives.  As I noted in a number of postings about this issue, in behaving this way, the Catholic bishops of Minnesota have contributed to what is a growing, and exceedingly dangerous, trend of American political culture at present: they have contributed to the buying and selling of democracy by wealthy hidden donors, who exercise disproportionate influence on the democratic process, often by using tax-exempt faith-based groups like the Catholic church to shield their identities as they wheel and deal behind the scenes in attempts to influence the outcome of elections.

This is a story that is not over with in 2011, by any means.  As Don Hazen reports at Alternet, there is increasing concern in many sectors of American society about the hidden influence of wealthy behind-the-scenes far-right political activists such as the Koch brothers, whose fingerprints are all over the Tea Party movement of the past several years.  This month, the Koch brothers will sponsor a top-secret meeting in Palm Springs of conservative activists--including Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas--to strategize about their right-wing takeover of the American political process.

This story about the Koch brothers and their hidden behind-the-scenes influence on the political process, the story of the Minnesota Catholic bishops in the 2010 elections, and the story of one prominent anti-gay activist group in the U.S. dovetail as stories about the way in which the political life of the U.S. is increasingly controlled by a small group of exceptionally wealthy right-wing donors, whose identities are rarely disclosed, and who sometimes use religious organizations, with their tax-exempt status that shields their financial transactions from public scrutiny, as fronts for their political activity.  The prominent anti-gay activist group of which I'm speaking is the National Organization of Marriage (NOM).

Even as I write this posting, NOM is dropping major sums of money into Rhode Island to try to block civil marriage for gay citizens in that state.  Because of NOM's influence, because this quasi-religious group works tirelessly around the nation to try to block civil rights for gay and lesbian citizens and to attack gay and lesbian persons, and because its chief spokesperson, Maggie Gallagher, persistently represents NOM's anti-gay positions as Catholic positions on gay and lesbian issues, the question of NOM's funding sources deserves careful attention, particularly by anyone concerned to defend the authentic Catholic tradition of support for universal human rights.  This question deserves particular attention in light of the willingness of many U.S. Catholic bishops, including the bishops of Minnesota in 2010, to ally themselves with and use the resources of this anti-gay political activist group.

But here's the problem: we don't know who funds this exceptionally powerful anti-gay political activist group that claims to represent "the" Catholic position on gay and lesbian issues, any more than we know who gave the Minnesota bishops money to pursue an out-of-the-blue gay-bashing campaign in the 2010 elections--even as some of those same bishops were closing churches and merging parishes due to financial exigency.  We don't know who is funding these quasi-religious crusades against gay and lesbian human beings and their human rights in the U.S., which appeal to the Catholic church for their legitimacy.

As I've reported previously on this blog, NOM is exceptionally secretive about its funding sources, and is even willing to skirt federal and state laws in order to keep the identity of its funders secret.  And this continues: as Luke Johnson reports recently at The American Independent*, after repeated requests to disclose its 2009 IRS tax returns, which have to be disclosed to the public because NOM is a 501(c)(4)organization, NOM has finally released at least a part of its 2009 tax returns.

And though what NOM has made public is still not complete, what the 2009 returns reveal is interesting, indeed.  As Johnson notes, NOM's 2009 tax returns show that 68% of its funds in 2009 came from three unnamed and obviously well-heeled donors.  Two more unnamed donors also gave large sums to NOM, bringing the total of its funding base in 2009 to five unnamed donors, who provided three-quarters of NOM's funding.

A number of points deserve attention here.  As Luke Johnson notes, NOM is fond of representing itself as a grassroots organization whose base of support is the general public--or, at least, a segment of the public energized by its right-wing, anti-gay politics.  But NOM's 2009 tax report belies the organization's representation of itself as a grassroots organization.

When one examines NOM's funding sources, the conclusion one has to reach is this: this influential right-wing anti-gay activist group, which represents itself as a quasi-religious organization with the endorsement of the Catholic church, is funded by a handful of unknown wealthy donors, who exercise disproportionate influence on the American political sphere through this organization--and through the Catholic church, insofar as its leaders continue accepting donations from these hidden donors, and acting as a quasi-religious front for their political activities.  While their identities and their motives are unknown, shielded from public scrutiny, since NOM does not disclose the identities of these donors.

Second, NOM's 2009 tax returns deserve careful attention, because there's reason to believe they still do not tell the whole story--the whole story of NOM's funding base.  For instance, as Luke Johnson points out, Jesse Zwick of the Washington Independent has uncovered a $1.4 million donation to NOM in 2009 by the Catholic fraternal organization the Knights of Columbus.  And for some reason, that large donation is not listed in NOM's 2009 tax return.

As I've noted in various Bilgrimage postings for some time now, under the leadership of their current Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson, who began his public career in the Reagan administration and has continued to have an exceptionally cozy relationship with top Republican leaders, the Knights of Columbus have become in the view of many observers an outright political operative group doing the work of the Republican party, and, in particular, bolstering the anti-gay campaign of key Republican leaders.

And the Knights pursue these goals while claiming to represent the Catholic church in their politically oriented anti-gay activities.  Last year, while the Knights gave $3 million to traditional charitable ministries such as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, they gave $4.7 million to anti-gay groups, to attack gay and lesbian human beings and seek to block the human rights of these human beings.

And yet, with this dishonorable recent history, with his organization's now overt connection to the Republican party (a connection criticized even by some of his fellow Knights), and with the $1+ million that his organization donated to remove the right of civil marriage from gay citizens of California, Mr. Anderson can still say, with a straight face, that he strongly supports the beatification of John Paul II because the Catholic church "stand[s] up for human rights when they are attacked"?!

Standing up for human rights when they are attacked hardly seems to be what either the National Organization of Marriage or the Knights of Columbus, both claiming to represent the Catholic church, are all about.  Nor does it seem to be what the Catholic bishops are about, as they ally themselves with political groups whose primary purpose in attacking a vulnerable minority and blocking the human rights of that minority is to score points for a particular political party.

What many Catholic pastoral leaders are doing these days, vis-a-vis their brothers and sisters who happen to be gay and lesbian, and what the Vatican itself encourages in this regard, radically undercuts the claim of the Catholic church to stand for human rights and against the oppression of stigmatized minorities.  Linking the canonization process of Pope John Paul II to movements that attack the human rights of minority groups--and that's what Carl Anderson is doing here, as he defends John Paul as a champion of human rights while his own Catholic organization fights tooth and nail to remove rights from LGBT persons--calls into question the meaning of John Paul II's sanctity and his canonization process.

And makes one wonder, given the propensity of some of the Catholic groups I've just discussed for accepting huge donations from hidden donors whose identities they shield from public scrutiny, how much money changes hands behind the scenes with a canonization process that is hardly above political manipulation, as it precipitously advances the former pope to sainthood.  If the Catholic church expects its sanctity to be apparent to the world at large, it needs to do a better job at transparency, and at dialogue with contemporary culture.  And it needs to stop trying to strongarm the political process in democratic societies that value open disclosure of information in the public square and the contributions of everyone to dialogues about the Acommon good, while selling itself to wealthy right-wing donors. At the same time it seeks to represent itself as all about compassion and healing the world . . . .

People aren't fools.  They see through the smoke-and-mirrors machinations of this canonization process. Large numbers of people understand that what is going on with this canonization is yet another diversionary spectacle designed to distract our attention from the ongoing, lamentable, and highly publicized failure of top Catholic leaders to manifest core Catholic values in their pastoral leadership at this point in history.

The abusive treatment of gay and lesbian persons by the current regime of Catholic leaders is only one facet of a much larger story, which includes shocking mistreatment of survivors of childhood clerical sexual abuse and of women.  And no amount of ecclesial showmanship--of resplendent scarlet cappae magnae or vials of blood drawn from a dying pope and displayed at retro-medieval shrines--is going to stop many people from wondering just what the Catholic church imagines it's proclaiming to the world today about human rights, as it bashes gays and lesbians, excommunicates religious women who embody mercy in their dealings with people caught in complex moral situations, and trashes survivors of abuse.

For many of us, what comes through loud and clear in these actions is not the commitment to embattled human rights of which Supreme Knight Anderson speaks so eloquently (and, obviously, insincerely).  It's precisely the opposite of this commitment.  And this is why Catholics will continue to walk away from the church in ever increasing numbers, as the intellectual elite of the church, its centrist theological caste who keep producing one apologia after another for the indefensible actions of the church's shepherds, continues to babble on about the need for theological pertinence while never engaging these issues in which the church's pertinence is most clearly at stake at this point in history.

*I'm not sure why the link to this report is leading to a blank webpage; I'll keep trying the link to see if the story reappears, and will update the posting and remove this link if it continues not to work. (Later in day: it seems to be working now.)

No comments: