Anti-Americanism is as old (if not older) as the American Revolution itself. Like all nations, America has its flaws. But these defects attract disproportionate attention from the rest of the world. This is partly because of the size and worldwide reach of America’s media as well as the United States’ superpower status. On a global scale, the choices made by, say, Argentina and Italy just aren’t as important for international affairs as decisions made by the United States.
Some of the most insightful analyses of America have been written by non-Americans. The exemplar is Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835/1840). Yet despite the scale and intensity of the attention given to the United States, it’s not hard to find articles written by intelligent non-Americans which reflect serious misunderstandings and occasional outright ignorance of the political, economic and cultural currents shaping America.
This brings me to a very odd article that recently appeared in La Civiltà Cattolica: the Italian Jesuit periodical published twice a month and which enjoys a quasi-official status inasmuch as the Vatican’s Secretariat of State exercises oversight over the articles it publishes. Entitled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism,” its authors Father Antonio Spadaro SJ (Civiltà Cattolica’s Editor-in-chief) and Rev. Marcelo Figueroa (a Presbyterian pastor who is Editor-in-chief of L’Osservatore Romano’s Argentinean edition), make various assertions about specific political and religious trends in the United States: claims which are, at best, tenuous and certainly badly informed.
Consider, for instance, the authors’ analogy between the theological outlook of particular strands of American Evangelicalism and ISIS. As far as I am aware, American self-described fundamentalists are not destroying 2000 year-old architectural treasures, decapitating Muslims, crucifying Middle Eastern Christians, promoting vile anti-Semitic literature, or slaughtering octogenarian French priests. Another questionable contention made in the article is that the Holy Roman Empire was constituted as an effort to realize the Kingdom of God on earth. This particular analysis will come as news to serious historians of that complicated political entity which became, as the saying goes, neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire.
Various links are also made between climate change skepticism, the faith of white southern Christians (comments which, if applied to other racial groups, would be denounced by some as verging on bigotry), and apocalyptic thinking among some American Evangelicals. Taken together, it is claimed, these things reflect and help fuel a Manichean view of the world on the United States’ part. Then there is the article’s peculiar association of the heresy of the Prosperity Gospel with recent efforts to protect religious liberty in America.
No doubt, Evangelical scholars and others will highlight the many problems characterizing the article’s grasp of the history of Evangelical Christianity and fundamentalism in America. One agnostic friend of mine who happens to be a leading historian of American Evangelicalism at a prestigious secular university described the article’s take on this subject to me as “laughably ignorant.” I also suspect Rev. Figueroa and Father Spadaro are oblivious, for instance, to many Evangelicals’ embrace of natural law thinking in recent decades: something that, by definition, immunizes any serious Christian from fideist tendencies. But two particular claims made by the authors require a more detailed response.
Who’s a Manichean?
As noted, the authors assert that Evangelical Fundamentalism has contributed to America adopting a Manichean understanding of international affairs. They argue, however, that Pope Francis rejects any outlook which sees the world in terms of forces of light and forces of darkness. Instead, they maintain, the pope wisely recognizes that at the root of conflicts between nations “there is always a fight for power.”
No doubt, the desire for power motivates some international actors. But it is also important to acknowledge that certain ideas—such as Marxism-Leninism, Islamist jihadism, or National Socialism—have driven transnational movements and nation-states to act in ways that are evil because the ideas themselves are evil. For Americans (and anyone else) to recognize this and call these things by their name is not to buy into Manichaeism. It is simply recognition that some ideas are indeed wicked and lead to many people, even nations, engaging in gravely evil acts.
You can’t understand, for example, the left-populist regime that’s presently destroying Venezuela unless you grasp that its leadership and many of its supporters are partly motivated by a deeply conflictual view of the world. Much of this comes straight from Marx and Lenin (as anyone who has listened to any of the late Hugo Chávez’s short three-hour television rants will tell you). It’s worth recalling that when President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the evil empire” in 1983, millions of people behind the Iron Curtain instantly understood what he was talking about. They knew that the systems under which they lived were grounded upon evil ideas about the nature of man and society.
Furthermore, the fact that some Americans describe (often accurately) particular regimes as evil doesn’t mean that they view America as an embryonic Kingdom of God on earth. Plenty of American Evangelicals today are deeply distressed, for example, by the state of elite and popular culture in the United States. Nor are they slow to point out these failings, including when these weaknesses manifest themselves in their own ranks. That should make any Western European or Latin American pause before they start attributing Manichaean views of the world to millions of American Christians.
Ecumenism, Evangelicals, and Catholics
A second problematic thesis characterizing the Spadaro-Figueroa article which requires more attention is its characterization of the relationship between many Catholics and Evangelicals in America: a rapport which the priest and the minister plainly have great reservations about.
Father Spadaro and Rev. Figueroa correctly observe that many Catholics and Evangelicals have found common cause in recent decades around issues such as “abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools and other matters generally considered moral or tied to values.” They then add that “Both Evangelical and Catholic Integralists condemn traditional ecumenism and yet promote an ecumenism of conflict that unites them in the nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state.”
By “Catholic Integralists,” we can safely presume that the authors mean the many American Catholics (routinely labeled as “conservative”) who have chosen to ally themselves with Evangelicals to defend things such as the culture of life and religious freedom from the type of doctrinaire secularism which ran rampant under the Obama Administration. But the vast majority of these Catholics aren’t “integralists,” let alone theocrats-in-waiting. Quite the contrary. Nor are the vast majority of Evangelicals in America pushing theocratic agendas.
If one looks, for example, at statements put together by various scholars and intellectuals involved in movements such as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” they contain not a shred of theocratic aspiration. The ecumenical discussion between those involved in these endeavors have led over time to genuine fruit in terms of clarification of points in common, removing misconceptions, identifying real doctrinal road-blocks, and identifying areas where practical work to promote the common good can be pursued together. This stands in stark contrast to the bromides and non-sequiturs that characterize ecumenical discussion with the rapidly declining liberal mainstream Protestant confessions who long ago abandoned very basic Christian orthodoxies on faith and morals which most Evangelicals continue to rigorously affirm.
Moreover, when it comes to Evangelical and Catholic Christians in America making the argument that, for example, unborn human beings are entitled to the same protections from the unjust use of lethal force as any other human being, or that religious liberty is more than just freedom of worship, or that parents are entitled to insist that their children not be subjected to the nonsense of “gender theory’ at school, these arguments have increasingly been presented in terms of public reason. Catholics have a long tradition of doing this. Yet it is also an approach that many Evangelicals have started embracing in recent years.
This does not add up to the imposition of theocracy or the claiming of special privileges, let alone trying to facilitate quasi-Throne-and-Altar arrangements or some type of Evangelical/Catholic American Nationalism. Contrary to the claims of Father Spadaro and Rev. Figueroa, this is not “a direct virtual challenge to the secularity of the state.” It’s about maintaining that the truths knowable by all people via their natural reason may be legitimately reflected in the public square of pluralist societies like the United States. Furthermore, the assertion of these truths in this way not only helps facilitate freedom and genuine pluralism (as opposed to the ideology of “diversity”) in America; they also help protect non-Christians and non-believers from unjust coercion as much as any other American.
A Credibility Problem
If the Civiltà Cattolica article simply reflected the views of a random Western European Catholic priest and an Argentine Presbyterian minister, few would be concerned about its content. But Civiltà Cattolica articles are subject to scrutiny from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. Hence, it’s curious that whoever signed off on this article (assuming it was properly vetted) at the Secretariat of State didn’t pick up on the authors’ conflation of tangentially related matters, or raise questions about the article’s emotivist tone, or alert Father Spadaro and Rev. Figueroa to their distinctly amateur grasp of American religious history and the finer points of American politics. If it is the case that red flags were not raised—or were ignored—then all Catholics, American or otherwise, have reason for concern. It is simply not in the universal Church’s interests to develop or encourage substantially false understandings of the United States or the Anglosphere more generally.
People—including the pope and his advisors—are free to form views of different nations and the conduct of international affairs. No one expects the bishop of Rome to be uncritical of the United States, or any other country. There is plenty to criticize about America, just as there is to criticize about Argentina (such the economic delusions, systematic envy, and personality-cults encouraged by the poison of Peronism) or Italy (such as the corruption and rampant clientelism in its political and economic culture to which Vatican officials and Italian clerics have not, sadly, proved immune).
Nevertheless, the development of such views should be informed by careful reflection, a command of detail, and an accurate understanding of the history and development of a country. Regrettably, these are lacking in the Spadaro-Figueroa article—and it shows. The greatest damage, however, is to the Holy See’s credibility as a serious contributor to international affairs. And that benefits no one, least of all Pope Francis.