Sunday, December 18, 2022

Recent Religion + Politics Commentary: "Pro-Life" Movement, Christian Nationalism, Southern Baptists and United Methodists, Leonard Leo and New USCCB President

Here are some valuable articles I've read in the past week or two about religion and politics and their intersection:

In "The Anti-Abortion Movement Is More Conspiracy-Addled Than Ever," Audrey Claire Farley takes a close look at where the "pro-life" movement has ended up and concludes that, "[f]rom rampant antisemitism to groomer panic, pro-life activists are knee-deep in the far-right fever swamp." She writes:

The “pro-life” movement has gone full groomer. Scroll the Twitter feed of the movement’s darling, Live Action founder Lila Rose, and you’ll find as many recent posts about the sexualization of children as you will see missives that are singularly about abortion. Take a gander at the feed of Students for Life, and you’ll find people calling Planned Parenthood staff “groomers.” Turn the television channel to EWTN, a staunchly anti-abortion Catholic network and the largest religious broadcast in the world, and you’ll find hosts decrying Disney’s “transgender grooming” of kids.

The alarm couldn’t appear more disingenuous. 

Jeff Brumley reports, "Amanda Tyler testifies before Congress against Christian nationalism," on testimony Amanda Tyler, executive director of Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, gave oin 13 December at a U.S. congressional hearing on the rise of anti-democratic extremism. Tyler stated:

The problem of white Christian nationalism exactly fits with our mission of defending and extending religious freedom for all people. And that’s because Christian nationalism strikes at the heart of the foundational ideas of what religious freedom means and how it’s protected in this country, and that is with the institution of separation of church and state.

She also stated:

Christian nationalism is a political ideology and cultural framework that seeks to fuse American and Christian identities. It suggests that "real" Americans are Christians and that "true" Christians hold a particular set of political beliefs.

Brumley notes: "But the Christianity presented by the movement is more of an 'ethno-identity' than a religion, she said." And then Tyler stated:

Opposition to Christian nationalism is not opposition to Christianity, and a growing number of Christians feel a religious imperative to stand against Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism uses the language, symbols and imagery of Christianity — in fact, it may look and sound like Christianity to the casual observer. However, closer examination reveals that it uses the veneer of Christianity to point not to Jesus the Christ but to a political figure, party or ideology. 

In "Pastors guilty of sexual abuse should never be restored to ministry," Beth Allison Barr comments on the story of Johnny Hunt, Southern Baptist pastor and former Southern Baptist Convention president, who was credibly accused of sexual abuse of a wife of another pastor. In 2021, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution stating that pastors credibly accused of sexual abuse should be "permamently" removed from ministry.

Yet recently, four pastors — all white men like Johnny Hunt — declared that Hunt was fully qualified to resume ministry. Though the current SBC president Bart Barber has asserted that the abuse charges against Hunt are credible…. But Barber says he has no authority to act in the case of Hunt's restoration to ministry, since each SBC church is autonomous.

Beth Allison Barr tells Barber what women hear when they hear his words: 

What women hear is the 1250 Southern Baptist (mostly male) leaders who thought it more important to stand against women as pastors than to stand against pastors who abuse women.

What women hear are male pastors more interested in protecting their friends than protecting women in their congregations from men like Johnny Hunt.

What women hear is the cacophony of churches that care more about supporting male pastors and male headship than helping female victims.

What women hear is that men like Johnny Hunt matter more than we do.

While I appreciate Bart Barber’s words, I hope he - and all the male pastors like him - hear me when I say that their words are not enough.

In "‘Everybody’s doing it’: United Methodists ignoring their own rules as break-up continues," Cynthia Astle reports on the splintering of the United Methodist Church over the issue of welcoming and including queer people in UMC churches. 

She points to some glaring injustices that are occurring in UMC circles as the splintering takes place. To wit:

In October, Gregory S. Neal wed his fiancĂ©, Kade Rogers, at 200-member Lakewood United Methodist Church in Dallas where Neal serves as pastor. In so doing, Neal broke three United Methodist rules: 'coming out' as a gay man who is ordained, legally marrying his same-gender partner, and holding their marriage ceremony in a United Methodist church. Since that fateful ceremony Oct. 1, Neal has been suspended from ministry — a punishment deemed excessive at this time when South Central Jurisdiction delegates centrists and progressives recently voted overwhelmingly to urge their regional conferences to refrain from pursuing complaints against those who transgress anti-LGBTQ laws while the UMC’s future remains murky.

At the same time that Gregory Neal was coming out, marrying his partner, and then being stiffly punished by the church as he was removed from ministry, Arthur Jones, senior pastor of 6,500-member St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano (a wealthy Dallas suburb), announced that his church was leaving the UMC (the issue of inclusion of LGBT people in UMC churches looms large in this decision) and would not follow UMC exit rules as it did so. 

Jones has not been punished by the UMC as Neal has. His father Bishop Scott J. Jones is, after all, an influential UMC leader in Houston who has been spurring the exodus of UMC churches who refuse to welcome and include LGBTQ people.

Go figure.

In the four weeks or so since members of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) elected their new leaders, the worst fears of many "people in the pews" have been confirmed. Initially, there were worries over the choice of Archbishop Timothy Broglio, head of the Military Ordinariate since 2008, as the conference president. They stemmed from the former Vatican diplomat's controversial stances on a variety of issues, from blaming the abuse crisis on homosexuals to supporting those opposing the Covid vaccine

But now it has emerged that Archbishop Broglio, who will soon be 71 and ineligible for re-election, recently dined in Washington, D.C. with the leaders of the Napa Institute. This is a conservative Catholic organization with lots of money that has consistently pushed an ecclesial-political agenda opposed in almost every way to Pope Francis' vision for the Church and the society. Among those at the table were the institute's founder, Timothy Busch, and the co-chairperson of the Federalist Society, Leonard Leo.

Faggioli concludes,

[T]here is a parallel between the USCCB leadership cozying up with hard-right conservative groups and the deterioration of American democracy and its growing vulnerability to authoritarian challenges. The overwhelming influence of corporate money is not just a threat to American democracy. It is also a threat to the Catholic Church. American oligarchs threaten to destroy their own country's democracy; American Catholic oligarchs could do the same to Catholicism in the US – but, as usual, in the name of saving the faith from its enemies. 

And as you consider the preceding report and its conclusion, consider as well Andy Kroll, Andrew Perez, and Aditi Ramaswami's recent exposĂ© of Leonard Leo in "Conservative Activist Poured Millions Into Groups Seeking To Influence Supreme Court On Elections And Discrimination." They write,

Flush with money after receiving the largest-known political advocacy donation in U.S. history, conservative activist Leonard Leo and his associates are spending millions of dollars to influence some of the Supreme Court’s most consequential recent cases, newly released tax documents obtained by ProPublica and The Lever show.

The documents detail how Leo, who helped build the Supreme Court’s conservative majority as an adviser to President Donald Trump, has used a sprawling network of opaque nonprofits to fund groups advocating for ending affirmative action, rolling back anti-discrimination protections and allowing state legislatures unreviewable oversight of federal elections.

As Massimo Faggioli notes, the new head of the US Catholic bishops' conference, Timothy Broglio, is directly connected to Leonard Leo and other hard-right Catholic influencers and shakers with deep pockets, who pose a threat to American democracy and are determined to undermine Pope Francis as he seeks to rehabilitate Catholic social teaching. Leo is not only Catholic: he belongs to the secretive, wealthy Catholic cult called Opus Dei, which has explicit theocratic aspirations. At the Federalist Society, Leo has for some years now been the Supreme Court kingmaker. The bloc of right-wing Catholics now controlling the court include several with close ties to Opus Dei.

And the money Leo is using to influence the direction of the Supreme Court is, Kroll, Perez, and Ramaswami underscore, money flowing "mostly through so-called dark money groups, which don’t have to disclose their donors. They are required to reveal the recipients of their spending in their annual tax returns, which are released to the public, but often those are also dark money groups or other entities that have minimal disclosure rules."

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