Tag Archives: Liberalism

Obamacare and the American Cult of Individualism

South Carolina resident Luis Lang is the classic example of the perils of taking ideology too far.

South Carolina resident Luis Lang is the classic example of the perils of taking ideology too far.

Few things in this world are more dangerous than the true believer. If you’re thoroughly convinced that the world should be ordered in accordance with your predetermined ideology, then reality can slap you until your mug is redder than a beefsteak tomato at Uncle Bernie’s Memorial Day cookout and you still won’t change your mind. But every once in a while, the true believer is faced with the ultimate test of his belief: believe or die, or at least believe or get horribly maimed. In some of these instances, the true believer must open his maw wide and swallow that quarter-inch-wide, grainy pill known as pride without so much as a sip of water until that pill tumbles down his gullet and activates his gut’s underutilized reality-check nerve.

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Social Security: America’s Longest Legislative War

President Barack Obama delivers the 2015 State of the Union Address. Behind him, Vice-President  Joe Biden thinks about capturing Bigfoot while Speaker of the House John Boehner imagines constructing a tanning salon in the House chamber.

President Barack Obama delivers the 2015 State of the Union Address. Behind him, Vice-President Joe Biden thinks about capturing Bigfoot, while Speaker of the House John Boehner imagines constructing a tanning salon in the House chamber.

The State of the Union Address is typically an annual demonstration of frictional political masturbation, in which the sitting Chief Executive uses up an entire bottle of presidential speech-writers’ lube in an attempt to assure the American public that the future is bright and that they aren’t getting royally screwed from every possible angle by a sweaty, panting, Viagra-popping combination of sociopathic plutocrats and re-election-obsessed government drones. As a result, the SOTU usually ends up as a crusty rhetorical sock in the national bedroom’s unattended hamper: forgotten, unacknowledged, a source of necessary shame.

But on January 20, 2015, President Barack Obama, a Commander-in-Chief now well into the twilight, lame-duck years of his two-terms in the Oval Office, decided to kick off his last years in power by using the State of the Union address to launch a bucket-full of rhetorical grenades into the squawking macaw gallery that is the Republican Party. Now free from the burden of re-election, and facing a conservative-controlled House and Senate that won’t touch his legislative proposals with a thirty-nine and a half-foot pole, Obama nonetheless gave a full-throated defense of American liberalism. He defended the use of government to mitigate the blunt force of market fundamentalism that, for decades now, has left American wages stagnant, has flooded the one-percent’s coffers with Scrooge McDuck levels of cash, and has turned the government into one giant, sticky-floored lobbyists’ whore-house. Continue reading

Obamacare: The Ultimate American Wedge Issue

The pro and anti-Obamacare protesters at the the Supreme Court epitomize the ultimate divide in American politics.

Obamacare is dead; long live Obamacare. Or maybe not. Early in 2015, thanks to incessant conservative teeth gnashing, the Supreme Court will once again gird up its robe-covered loins to make a major ruling on Barack Obama’s signature law.

The plaintiffs in the upcoming King v. Burwell case claim that, according to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) statute, the IRS exceeded the limits of its regulatory powers by allowing for both state-run AND federal exchanges. It’s a classic right-wing “states’ rights” argument. 22 states have already balked on setting up exchanges, and conservatives are betting that weeding out the federal cash that’s picking up the slack in red states will undermine the entire structure of Obamacare. No matter that blocking federal subsidies could yank insurance coverage away from upwards of 11.8 million people: after all, are there no prisons, no poorhouses?! Continue reading

Todd Starnes, Fox News, and Nostalgia’s Twisted History

Tod Starnes, the epitomome of American manhood, thinks the Doobie Brothers never smoked weed.

Fleshy Fox News gas geyser Todd Starnes, the epitome of American manhood, thinks the Doobie Brothers never smoked weed. Isn’t that precious.

It’s a fairly well-established trope in American politics that conservatives are overly obsessed with the past. Anyone whose ever spent time experiencing the ear-invading ceti-eel that is conservative talk-radio, or viewing the idiot-box propaganda that is Fox News knows that conservatives love to reference a past that was invariably better than the allegedly freedom-crushing nightmare of the Obama era.

For those to the right of the political spectrum, the space-time continuum is defined by two — and only two — eras: before and after the authoritarian reign of Barack Obama. And, of course, the era before Obama’s conquest was much better (and whiter). That’s because conservatives imagine the past to be a simpler, morally superior time, and they want to return to that time pronto!

The problem with yearning for a more wholesome (and by extension, less liberal) time is that such a time never actually existed. The idea of a simpler American past over which right-wingers salivate like golden retrievers anticipating a bag of Beggin’ Strips is, in fact, a past constructed from nostalgia.

In his classic article “Nostalgia and the American,” the historian Arthur Dudden defined nostalgia as “a preference for things as they are believed to have been.”* Conservatives use nostalgia to rally their followers (usually, but not exclusively, grey-haired, government-hating medicare beneficiaries) into supporting Republican political candidates who promise to destroy liberalism and bring America back to a mythical time when the federal government was non-existent and most people lived in a version of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, went to church every day, and didn’t have to deal with teh gayz.

Case in point: Todd Starnes — a pasty cross between Lou Dobbs and Lewis from Revenge of the Nerds who regularly serves as Fox News’ resident front-line correspondent for the non-existent “culture wars” — has written a new book that uses nostalgia to condemn all-things liberal. Brilliantly titled God Less America: Real Stories from the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values (conservatives don’t do irony), Starnes’ book is a standard collection of right-wing boilerplate describing the so-called assault on Christian values by the ever-expanding army of liberal heathens who are apparently intent on dragging the U.S. into a hellish orgy of critical thinking and secularism.

In most respects, Starnes’ screed differs little from the stack of conservative polemics published by the (now-threatened) right-wing book industry on a yearly basis that warn of America’s impending slide into moral anarchy. But Starnes’ book is notable thanks to its unbelievable reliance on hackneyed nostalgic clichés to describe a completely fictitious American past in which conservatism reigned supreme and that Barack Obama took away.

As this Andy Griffith statue in Raleigh, North Carolina demonstarte, the myth of a Mayberry-style small town still shapes American identity.

As this Andy Griffith statue in Raleigh, North Carolina demonstrates, the myth of a Mayberry-style small town still shapes American identity.

Andrew Kirell over at Mediaite first alerted me to the truly Shaksperian verbiage contained within Starnes’ mighty tome, and he dares people to actually get through the first six pages without bursting into uncontrollable (and possibly dangerous) fits of laughter. Take these paragraphs from Starnes’ Introduction,* in which the Fox News poet layeth down the corn-pone characteristics that defined his humble youth in small-town America:

I grew up in a much simpler time — when blackberry was a pie and dirty dancing meant somebody forgot to clean out the barn for the square dance. It was a time when father still knew best — when the girls were girls and the men were men. I grew up in a time when a rainbow was a sign of God’s promise, not gay rights.

And:

When I grew up, spam was something you ate and a hard drive was the twelve-hour trip to grandma’s house without any bathroom breaks. It was a time when a virus was cleared up with a bowl of chicken soup, not the Geek Squad from Best Buy. It was a time when Doobie was a brother and hip-hop was something a bunny rabbit did.

In a truly stunning feat of deception laced with stupidity, Starnes uses nostalgia to create a fictitious American past that is completely untethered from any actual time and space. Just look at the disparate pop-culture references he manages to cram into those two paragraphs: Square-dancing hasn’t been en vogue since at least the late-1970s; the film Dirty Dancing (which Starnes references to comment on the decline of American sexual values) came out in 1987; Best Buy’s Geek Squad was founded in 1994, and modern computers have been around in some form or another since the 1970s. This alleged “time” when Starnes “grew up” is an imaginary past that he created using nostalgia to stitch together disparate time-periods and pop-culture references into a mythical American historical cloth.

And then there’s the sheer obtuseness displayed in some of Starnes’ references to pop-culture, which he uses to contrast a simpler past with a more complicated present. Seriously, is there anything simple about what goes into making a can of Spam?! And what about the reference to a “Doobie” being merely a “brother?” If Starnes thinks that the name of seventies band the Doobie Brothers wasn’t a verbal nod to smoking weed — then he’s really, really dumb. Starnes commits the cardinal sin of all nostalgia mongers: he believes that because the past happened before, then it must have been simpler than what happened after. Of course, as historians have long pointed out, the past was never, ever “simple.”

So why do Starnes and other conservatives insist on viewing the past through nostalgia-colored lenses? Well, they do so because nostalgia simplifies the past and purports to offer solutions to problems in the present. In his book, Starnes invokes what scholar Andrew Murphy calls “Golden Age politics” by reappropriating the past in order to present a “solution to present difficulties.” Murphy writes that “nostalgic and Golden Age politics depend on the…claim that some aspect of the past offers the best way forward in addressing the inadequacies and corruptions of the present.”* In God Less America, Starnes is doing just that by claiming that the (fictional) America of his youth was simpler and, by extension, better than, the overly complex and morally depraved present that is the Obama era.

I’ve written about nostalgia before, particularly in reference to the reality show American Pickers and in terms of how nostalgia shapes the enduring myth of small-town U.S.A., and I’ve noted that nostalgia in-and-of-itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in some circumstances, it CAN be a bad thing, especially when conservatives use it reshape the past in an effort to disingenuously comment on the present.

Writing in the 1960s, Arthur Dudden recognized how nostalgia, which he characterized as a type of “cultural homesickness,” could be manipulated to serve devious ends. “Nostalgia implies a certain dissatisfaction with present circumstances, and very likely also a dissatisfaction with the apparent direction of trends leading into the future,” Dudden wrote — and I’ll be damned if he didn’t describe the essence of modern conservatism as promoted by Todd Starnes.*

For Todd Starnes, America begins and ends with this painting.

For Todd Starnes, America begins and ends with this painting.

But by invoking a mythical past to fix what they see as a “broken” present, conservatives like Starnes fail to see how their own beliefs and policies have shaped a contemporary world that seems so much more complex and amoral than the “simple” past they claim to remember. Consider conservatives’ sanctification of free market capitalism. As Erica Grieder notes, “capitalism encourages mobility and disruption. It therefore represents a particular challenge to the traditional structures, like family or civil society, that used to represent a person’s personal safety net.” Grieder recognizes how the inherent dynamism of capitalism pays no heed to traditional structures like family, church, and small-town communities that conservatives want to preserve.

All of the complexities of modern society — which Starnes sees embodied in things like the Blackberry device, the film industry, popular music, the internet age, and urbanization — are the direct result of the relentless free-market dynamism that conservatives promote. Market forces drive the onslaught of technology by creating products that people want to buy, and if, in the process, these same market forces decimate small towns by shipping jobs to Third World countries, or make employment so scarce that tight-knit families and communities are forced to split up in order to find work that is increasingly concentrated in big cities, as opposed to the small towns over which Starnes waxes nostalgic, then so be it.

Market capitalism doesn’t care about disrupting American social institutions, but Todd Starnes does, and like other conservatives, he’s unable to recognize how his undying support for free-market capitalism creates the contemporary conditions that he views as far less simple than the idealized past that he longs to return to in God Less America. And therein lies the dangerous aspect of nostalgia: by creating a fictional and overly simplified vision of the past, it renders people unable to deal with the present as it is.

While it’s worth reiterating that nostalgia isn’t always a bad thing, it’s nonetheless something that can prevent people from understanding the very real complexities of the modern world. Shameless nostalgia mongers like Todd Starnes only make things worse by promoting a past that never existed in order to fix a present that they simply don’t like. So suck it up Todd; your gay rainbow is here to stay.

* See Todd Starnes, God Less America: Real Stories from the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2014), 1-2.

* See Arthur P. Dudden, “Nostalgia and the American,” Journal of the History of Ideas 22 (Oct. – Dec., 1961): 517.

* See Andrew R. Murphy, “Longing, Nostalgia, and Golden Age Politics: The American Jeremiad and the Power of the Past,” Perspectives on Politics 7 (Mar., 2009): 126.

Jonathan Chait and the Shadow of Race in the Obama Era

Whether you voted for or against Barack Obama was in many ways dependent on a socially constructed concept known as "race" that, at least scientifically, doesn't even exist.

Whether you voted for or against Barack Obama was in many ways dependent on a socially constructed concept known as “race.”

There’s an old adage that goes something like this: in America, everything is about race, even when race has nothing to do with it. Ever since the colonial era, Americans of all stripes have dealt with the race issue because it’s been a crucial element in determining what it means to be an American from day one. Race was, of course, the major factor that drove America’s original sin of slavery (it’s rumored that early drafts of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence read: “All men are created equal, except for those dusky fellers picking my tobacco.) But long after slavery’s demise, race still lingers in American political discourse and, if you believe Jonathan Chait, race has been the defining theme of Barack Obama’s presidency.

In a simultaneously contentious, frustrating, and illuminating piece for the New Yorker, Chait performs some impressive mental gymnastics in order to argue that race — particularly the politics of white racial resentment towards African-Americans — is the core theme that has shaped modern conservatism while also arguing that liberals are wrong to call conservatives racists for opposing Barack Obama’s policies. You got that? Chait admits that “at the level of electoral campaign messaging, conservatism and white racial resentment are functionally identical,” but warns of “an increasing liberal tendency to define conservatism as a form of covert racial discrimination” that is both politically wrongheaded and factually untrue.

Plenty of otherwise like-minded commentators have taken Chait to the proverbial woodshed for his Charlie Brown-style wishy washiness on the race issue. Salon’s Joan Walsh, for example, chides Chait for pointing out recent Republican efforts to restrict minority voting rights and refusing to expand Medicaid — measures that disproportionately target black Americans — and then having the gall to chastise liberals for “mostly telling the truth about all of those things, while occasionally exaggerating it.” Meanwhile, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie characterizes Chait’s piece as “a story of mutual grievance between Americans on the left and right, with little interest in the lived experiences of racism from black Americans and other people of color.”

So is Chait wrong to worry about all characterizations of conservatism being reduced to mere anti-black (and anti-Latino) racial resentment? The short answer is “Yes;” the long answer is “No.” As has always been the case in American history, the issue of race is monumentally complicated, with multiple streams and rivers that flow into a much bigger — and much muddier — racial pool.

Chait is correct that being politically conservative in America doesn’t make you a racist in the most visceral, black-hating, pointed hood–donning sense, but he’s also wrong to claim that liberals start out with “a sound analysis of Republican racial animosity” but then extend this analysis into “paranoia.” This is why every issue in America comes down to race — even when it doesn’t.

Once upon a time, in the nineteenth century, the Democrats accused the Republicans of being the party that catered to black people. The more things change...

Once upon a time, in the nineteenth century, the Democrats accused the Republicans of being the party that catered to black people. The more things change…

Allow me to explain a bit further. What Chait, and so many others before him, always seem to stumble on is defining what they mean when they use the term “racism.” In his book Racism: A Short History, the eminent historian George Fredrickson defines racism in both broad and specific terms. Generally, racism is “the hostile or negative feelings of one ethnic group or ‘people’ toward another and the actions resulting from such attitudes.”* Specifically, however, racism differs from more standard human conflict via the crucial additions of difference and power. Together, these two components create “a mindset that regards ‘them’ as different from ‘us’ in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable.” Fredrickson writes that, “racism expresses itself in the practices, institutions, and structures that a sense of deep difference justifies or validates.”* In other words, racism doesn’t just create racist individuals; it also creates racist societies.

Chait is looking for examples of conservatives playing the racist role, as defined by Fredrickson, by explicitly enacting practices that mark blacks as different from, and less powerful than, whites. Thus, what he’s really trying to pin down is to what extent the U.S. is, or isn’t, a racist society — one in which whites still actively discriminate against blacks. Liberals say that it is; conservatives say that it isn’t. The answer, however, is “yes:” the U.S. has been, and continues to be, a racist society. But — and this is crucial — the U.S. isn’t as racist as it was thirty, fifty, a hundred, or two-hundred years ago, and it’s getting less racist every year. The problem is that racism, being so entwined into the fabric of American society, won’t just disappear over night, and before it dies entirely, it devolves into a less-potent — but no less influential idea — which I call “racialism.”

I didn’t invent the term “racialism;” it’s been bandied about for years by various types of academics looking for a way to describe racially tinged ideas that didn’t seem to fit into the full-on “racist” category. For my purposes, racialism is the belief that racial differences exist, and it constitutes the various ways, both positive and negative, that Americans have tried to shape and influence social and political policies in accordance with that belief.

Here’s an example of how racialism differs from racism. Growing up in Northeast Ohio’s Rust Belt, I often heard a racially insensitive joke that went something like this: Q: “What’s the difference between a large pizza and a black man?” A: “The large pizza can feed a family of four.” Anyone whose ever paid attention to the American welfare debate knows why this joke is supposed to be “funny:” it invokes long-running stereotypes depicting blacks as lazy, shiftless, and unwilling to work for themselves. Those stereotypes, in turn, go all the way back to the era of slavery, when whites deemed blacks as “inferior” and in need of the guiding light of white control. In modern political parlance, the “lazy black” idea fueled Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” story and continues to drive conservative hostility to welfare programs that allegedly benefit blacks at whites’ expense.

Not all conservatives are racists, but then again some are.

Not all conservatives are racists, but then again some are.

Any white person I knew who either told or heard that joke would deny that they were racists, and in terms of the popular understanding of what racists do, they’d probably be right. They would never join the Ku Klux Klan, harass black people, or do any of the other nasty stuff that racists are supposed to do. But a good many of them think that, due to “cultural” reasons, blacks are lazy, prone to criminality, and abuse welfare programs paid for by hard-working (read: white) taxpayers. But they’d be the first to tell you that they aren’t racist, even though you’d never hear them talking about all the rural, white Americans on welfare.

The thing is, you don’t have to be outwardly (or even inwardly racist) to “get” that joke. It invokes historically entrenched cultural ideas of alleged differences between blacks and whites that are still ingrained in American society, even if most white people would rightfully (hopefully?!) be repulsed by what the “black man/large pizza” joke connotes. In other words, racism has so significantly shaped American culture that its shadows, in the form of racialism, can appear everywhere, even when the elusive original source of the shadow is unseen or outright rejected.

If, like me, you’ve never been black, then there’s no way for you to experience the unique feeling of being black in America as filtered through the lens of non-black others. We can’t feel racialism because, thanks to the birth lottery and the trajectory of modern American history, we’ve never been judged on our skin alone. We can’t know what’s it’s like to be assessed, ridiculed, reviled, feared, and defined solely based on something as mundane as pigmentation. But if you’re black in America, you know racialism exists even when hardcore racism is waning — and you know, as does Jonathan Chait, which political party has racialism as an unspoken part of its platform.

Conservatives have long scored political points by assuming, correctly, that a good many white Americans who would never join the KKK or lynch someone nonetheless know what’s implied by the “black man/large pizza” joke. In criticizing liberals who label those who practice, and respond to, dog-whistle politics as racists, Jonathan Chait is trying to grapple with how the legacy of racism could still be so influential in the era of the first black American president. In one sense, he’s correct that not all conservatives are racists, but by downplaying the importance race plays in shaping the politics of the modern American Right, he’s missing out on how the long shadow of racialism still casts over the American body politic.

* See George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 1, 6, 9.

Rush Limbaugh, the Marxist Pope, and American Anti-Catholicism

This 1870 cartoon by Thomas Nast depicts the Pope and his minions eyeing America from Rome.

This 1870 cartoon by Thomas Nast depicts the Pope and his minions eyeing America from Rome.

The United States is, in theory, a secular nation. Despite the occasional verbal hat tips to a supernatural watchmaker by some of the more deistic leaning founders, all of America’s founding documents are secular: they embrace no official state religion of any kind and maintain a strict separation between church and state. This political structure has, in turn, made the U.S. one of the most religiously pluralistic societies in the world. After all, having  freedom of religion ensures that all religions can be practiced openly.

In practical terms, however, for much of its history the U.S. has been a majority Christian Protestant nation. The first European settlers (with the exception of some pesky Spanish Catholics in Florida and out west) to America were Protestants, and a Protestant religious tradition has shaped much of American history. And, of course, the violent, sectarian brouhaha that is Christian history ensured that a predominantly Protestant United States would also have its fair share of Anti-Catholic sentiment.

Modern anti-Catholicism in the U.S. has nowhere near the strength and popularity that it enjoyed in its 19th and early 20th century heyday, as Catholics have long since been accepted as full-fledged members of American society. Nonetheless, there remains a certain ambiguity about Catholicism in America; particularly among the country’s WASPY political and economic elites, who have embraced and accepted some aspects of Catholicism while remaining leery of some of its more left-wing traditions.

A case in point: conservative radio pustule Rush Limbaugh — a guy known for spewing more toxic gas into the atmosphere than your average Anaerobic lagoon — recently accused Pope Francis of espousing “pure Marxism.” And what did the Pope do to incur El Rushbo’s wrath? Well, in an 84-page apostalic exhortation that defined the platform of his papacy, the current vicar of St. Peter had the gold-gilded gonads to critique the excesses of globalized, unfettered, laissez-faire capitalism as a “new tyranny” that has created vast inequality and human suffering throughout the world. “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded,” the Pope noted, critiquing a market culture that “deadens” humanity via the promise of shallow material acquisition and leads to a “globalization of indifference” towards the poor.

As he is want to do, Limbaugh blew a major gasket in the wake of the Pope’s remarks. Rushbo not only accused Pope Francis of being an unrelenting Marxist, but then went on a standard tirade about capitalism’s amoral “invisible hand.” Rush did make a salient point, however, by pointing out the Catholic Church’s immense wealth, and how that wealth has, for centuries, been accrued through market means.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh. He actively tries to be a tool.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh. He actively tries to be a tool.

But Rush also made a telling observation, suggesting that Catholicism, for all of its “mainstream” success in the U.S., still remains a potential threat to American society by virtue of its collectivist tradition. “There has been a long-standing tension between the Catholic Church and communism.  It’s been around for quite a while. That’s what makes this, to me, really remarkable,” Limbaugh said. Rushbo was echoing an age-old fear of Catholic collectivism that has emanated at various times from both the Right and the Left in U.S. history; a fear that the Catholic Church, as a hierarchical organization, was at best indifferent to, and at worst hostile to, America’s individualist, small “r” republican virtues.

The fear of the Catholic Church’s allegedly totalitarian collectivist designs has been a powerful strain in American culture, which has long been dominated by a Protestant, individualist ideal that can be traced all the way back to Martin Luther’s idea of “sola scriptura.” Luther espoused the idea of a “priesthood of all believers” who need not consult a professional clergy for spiritual advice. The Protestant notion of a personal, individual relationship with God proved eminently compatible with republican ideals of individual liberty free from a meddling, theocratic state — of which the Catholic Church has historically embodied in the eyes of its critics.

Age-old Protestant fears of a multi-tentacled papist hierarchy wriggling its way into American life manifested most prominently in the rise of the Know Nothing movement in the 19th century. The Know Nothings, whom I discussed in an earlier post, were a political party that coalesced around the Protestant American cultural backlash against a new wave of Irish and German Catholic immigrants who came to the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. The Know Nothings, or Nativists, originated as secretive, fraternal societies before organizing into a political party in 1854.

The Know Nothings believed that Catholic traditions were antithetical to American liberal democracy. They decried Catholic immigrants as nefarious moles sent by Rome to infiltrate American society and reshape it in the papist image. A theocratic organization with a central figurehead in Rome that was controlled by a vast clerical hierarchy could never acclimate to a republican society in which free individuals exercised their individual right to self-government — or so the Nativists thought. As historian Elizabeth Fenton observes, “in the emergent United States…the concept of individual freedom…hinged on an anti-Catholic discourse that presented Protestantism as the guarantor of religious liberty…in a plural nation.”* The importance Americans placed on “private individualism” rendered the seeming collectivist hierarchy of the Catholic Church an inherent threat to American culture. Indeed, unlike the president, the Pope’s only term limit was death.

A Know Nothing flag. The oddly spelled "foreign influence" referred to those wily Papists.

A Know Nothing flag. The oddly spelled “foreign influence” referred to those wily Papists.

Of course, contrary to popular depictions, the Catholic Church has never been an entirely monolithic institution. Both politically and theologically, it’s been historically wracked by internal factions that have embraced the hard right and the hard left of the political and economic spectrums. The multitude of official documents advocating the importance of social justice attest to the Church’s leftist strain, while the support given to right-wing dictatorships in Latin America and elsewhere by the church’s more conservative elements reminds us that Catholics are as divided over politics as the rest of society. It’s the Catholic Church’s more leftist elements, however, underpinned by its inherently collectivist structure, that have more often than not been a source of worry for American Protestants.

The case of Father Charles Coughlin is among the best examples of how anti-Catholic fears have manifested via the fear of socialist infiltration — a tradition Rush Limbaugh is keeping alive by accusing Pope Francis of Marxism. Charles Coughlin was a Roman Catholic priest who rose to prominence during the Great Depression by championing social justice in a thoroughly demagogic fashion. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 1891, Coughlin became the pastor of the small Royal Oak parish in suburban Detroit in 1926. Inflamed by persistent anti-Catholicism in America (the Ku Klux Klan once burned a cross on his church lawn) and the economic turmoil of the Depression, Coughlin took to preaching his sermons via a nationally syndicated Sunday radio show. In his radio sermons Coughlin demanded silver-based inflation, railed against the gold standard and international bankers, and called for the nationalization of the American banking system.*

Coughlin was a charismatic Catholic left-wing agitator-turned-right-wing fascist who was not above using demagoguery to achieve his vision of social justice.  An early supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Coughlin soon turned on the president when FDR failed to nationalize the banks and pursued anti-inflationary monetary policies. Feeling burned by Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, in November 1934, Coughlin formed a new party, the National Union for Social Justice, which campaigned for the rights of labor and the nationalization of key industries. Coughlin’s proclivity towards embracing nutty conspiracy theories, however, proved his undoing. He seemingly railed against everything; denouncing ‘communists,’ ‘plutocrats,’ and FDR’s alleged collusion with international bankers. Coughlin also peppered his broadcasts with vile anti-semitic rhetoric, accusing an international Jewish cabal of controlling the world banking system.*

During the late 1930s, amidst the outbreak of World War II, Coughlin took an ideological turn to embrace the right-wing fascist dogma then en vogue in Europe. He embraced Mussolini-style authoritarianism as the only way to cure the world of the ills that capitalism and democracy had wrought. By 1940, his radio program was off the air, but he continued to publish his magazine, Social Justice. After Pearl Harbor, however, Coughlin outright blamed the Jews for starting the war, leading the FBI to raid his church and U.S. authorities to forbid the postal service from disseminating his magazine. When the archbishop of Detroit ordered Coughlin to cease and desist all non-pastoral activities in 1942, the agitator-priest relented and retired from public life.*

Father Charles Coughlin railing against stuff in Cleveland, Ohio, 1936.

Father Charles Coughlin railing against stuff in Cleveland, Ohio, 1936.

Whether he was spouting left-wing or right-wing demagoguery, Coughlin always framed his ideas through the prism of a collectivist hierarchy; whether in the form of a central government-instigated redistribution of wealth or via an authoritarian system that squelched individual rights in the name of a greater, fascist whole. In this respect, Coughlin was an extreme example of the type of papist proclivity towards hierarchy that had long worried American non-Catholics. The ignominious Canadian-born priest never spoke for most of St. Peter’s flock, of course, but his demagoguery fed into already established concerns about the threat Catholicism supposedly posed to American republicanism. Heck, Rush Limbaugh might as well have invoked Coughlin when he accused Pope Francis of Marxism.

While American Catholics have come a long way since the days of being publicly reviled by Know Nothings and having an insane Detroit priest act as their national spokesman, the Catholic Church’s hierarchical structure is still a source of unease when that structure is invoked to critique the worst excesses of free-market capitalism. Whether those critique’s come in the form of Coughlin-style demagogic rants or Pope Francis’ elegant exhortation, the reaction has historically been one of hesitation — if not outright disgust — by non-Catholics who invoke, however unconsciously, a history of Anti-Catholic prejudice rooted in fears of the Church’s theocratic hierarchy. In America, old habits die hard.

* See Elizabeth Fenton, Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 6.

* See David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 227-37.

* See Charles E. Coughlin Biography, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia.