Trump tears apart the churches of America


Within two days, June 1 and 2, 2020, Trump and his administration managed to expose the obscene intertwining of politics and religion in contemporary America. First infuriating the Episcopal church (Anglican, liberal-progressive orientation) for organizing a photo opportunity with the Bible in hand in front of one of the historical churches of the capital, St. John’s Church, after having cleared the military demonstration in front of the White House. The next day it was the turn of the Catholics, with another photo op, this time at the shrine in Washington dedicated to John Paul II: built and financed by Catholic circles that have always been politically close to the Republican party, namely the Knights of Columbus (whose founder , Michael McGinvey, will be proclaimed blessed by Pope Francis in the coming months).

The outraged reaction against Trump by Washington’s Episcopal bishop, Mariann Budde, was predictable, given the political orientation of the church he represents. Less predictable was the clear statement from the Catholic archbishop of the capital, Wilton Gregory – one of the few high Catholic prelates of African American descent in the United States, named in Washington by Pope Francis in 2019. Monsignor Gregory defined the use of sanctuary of John Paul II by a president like Trump who has shown no restraint in dispersing peaceful demonstrations by force only to be able to pose for the camera, in an attempt to build or recover any credentials from the religious electorate in sight of the November elections.

Gregory’s intervention was less predictable because he does not remember such a strong stance by the Catholic archbishop of the capital against a president in office. In the choice of the archbishop of Washington (and of the capital of a nation in general) the Holy See and the nuncios always take into account the ability of the prelate to prudently manage the relationship with the institutional and political world that acts and orbits around the buildings of the power. Although this is an election year, with Trump these considerations have jumped, given the precipitate of the general situation. (My family and I live near Philadelphia, a city where a curfew has been declared for the past four nights.)

But Gregory’s intervention was less predictable also in light of internal relations within the Catholic Church, with different souls having different relationships with Trump and the Republican party. Wilton Gregory is certainly not an activist or an extremist, but represents the wing of the Catholic Church in the United States which is now opposed (together with the Cardinal of Chicago, Blase Cupich, and the Bishop of San Diego, McElroy) to that part of the episcopate that in recent months he has made – despite everything – an alliance with Trump, for the purpose of defending the interests of the Catholic Church in America: religious freedom (in the sense not only of the reopening of the churches after the measures against the pandemic, but also as an exemption from the asked by laws on respect for gay rights in the workplace), funding for Catholic schools, and finally abortion – which remains the key issue for the political alignment of Catholics in the US. The champion of this condescending attitude has been, in recent weeks, the Cardinal of New York, Timothy Dolan, who now perhaps regrets having praised only a few weeks ago, from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, “the leadership” of President Trump .

There is an internal rift within American Catholicism: not only among the voters, but also – which is essential to understand the dynamics of this church and its intertwining with the world of big business – between some bishops such as Gregory, Cupich and McElroy on the one hand and Catholic lobbies expressing vast financial, political, and media interests (in this specific case, the Knights of Columbus) on the other. By now it is not just a matter of some intellectual or progressive magazine chasing a Christian socialism. The Catholic establishment itself is facing a crossroads, split in two by Trump even at the highest levels, which does not need Pope Francis to be horrified at the cynical and cruel use of religion by not only the President, but also Catholic members of his administration (in which, for example, the attorney general, William Barr, an organic Catholic at Opus Dei, plays an important role).

It is not just a Catholic question. Even within the white Protestant world Trump threatens to drag with him, among the flames of a presidency dedicated to a more racist than nationalist agenda, more subversive than conservative, even those sectors of evangelical white Protestantism that have nothing in common with secularism of the Democratic Party, but who are afraid of becoming pariahs – almost like the Protestant churches of South Africa during apartheid. Yesterday, mixed with the crowd of peaceful protesters in Houston, Joel Osteen, the major (white) evangelist of the “prosperity gospel”, was kind of seeing yesterday.

The president most loved by the neo-conservatives, George W. Bush, yesterday issued a message that is a distance from Trump, but also a call to collect for the survival of a political tradition at risk of implosion. The republican party, from Nixon to Bush II, had certainly benefited but at the same time also kept under control the racist fluids that are an integral part of a certain political-religious conservatism of the United States. Trump opened the bilge and triggered a crisis not only political and constitutional, but also moral and religious that brings the country back to the times of the civil war, when all the churches in the US were split internally and transversally on the issue of slavery. Today the issue is white supremacy, intertwined with a question of social and economic justice inseparable from the geopolitical decline of the America project.

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