The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. once said that anti-Catholicism was “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.”
We were reminded of his comment when Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, fired the Rev. Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest who’s been serving as House chaplain since 2011.
As an interfaith couple — Cokie is Catholic; Steve, Jewish — we have always been reluctant to see religious bias as a motive for political actions. Ryan himself is a practicing Catholic and we don’t know all the reasons behind his decision. But we do know this: Terminating Father Conroy unveiled an ugly strain of anti-Catholicism infecting some House Republicans.
“The controversy,” reported the New York Times, “exposed long-simmering tensions between Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians over who should be the lawmakers’ religious counselor.”
If there’s any doubt on this point, listen to Rep. Mark Walker, a North Carolina Republican and Southern Baptist minister who was heading the search for a new chaplain until he withdrew under fire.
“I’m looking for somebody who has a little age, that has adult children,” he told The Hill newspaper, thus ruling out any celibate pastors.
In the mid-19th century, “help wanted” ads routinely specified, “no Irish need apply.” Now the House of Representatives is saying, “no Catholics need apply.”
“We, on its face, would consider such a remark to be anti-Catholic — on its face,” fumed Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat. “So you’re eliminating anyone who’s a Catholic priest — a Catholic nun — from being the chaplain of the House. … Now I don’t know if Walker knows that’s what he really said. But to any Catholic ears, that’s what we heard.”
They heard right. By Walker’s yardstick, “Jesus wouldn’t qualify, either” for the House post, cracked the Rev. James Martin, editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America.
But Conroy’s sin went beyond his lack of a family. He also believes in Christian teachings about helping the poor, and offered a prayer last fall that infuriated conservatives because he urged Congress to pass a tax bill that provided “benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”
Conservatives are delighted with Catholic precepts that oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, but are appalled at the church’s calls for wider immigration and social justice. (Liberals are equally inconsistent, embracing Catholic concerns for the needy but denouncing their pro-life and anti-gay positions.)
There’s a much larger issue here than one man’s job. “This is about religion in America,” says Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, and he is correct. It’s about the climate of intolerance fostered by a president who expertly exploits the fears and prejudices of his followers.
Trump first entered politics as a prime exponent of the “birther” movement, which espoused the thoroughly fictitious theory that Barack Obama was neither a Christian nor an American, but rather a Muslim born in Kenya. In December of 2015, Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
His demagoguery targets foreigners of all kinds, not just religious minorities. In announcing for president, he said of Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” And last summer, he said that neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville included some “very fine people,” a comment that caused former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke to hail Trump’s “honesty and courage.”
A president should be a moral leader who unifies the country around its core values, but Trump is exactly the opposite. No wonder 67 percent of all voters, and 72 percent of women, say he’s not a good role model for their children, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll.
An old friend of ours, a nun who runs Catholic schools in a northeastern city, has observed a sharp increase in schoolyard bullying in the age of Trump, and she blames the president for creating a culture that encourages bad behavior.
The Anti-Defamation League reported a 57 percent upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents last year. Jonathan A. Greenblatt, executive director of the ADL, agrees with our nun friend that Trump’s fear-mongering is part of the problem.
“Kids repeat what they hear,” he told the Times. “And so in an environment in which prejudice isn’t called out by public figures, figures of authority, we shouldn’t be surprised when we see young people repeat these same kind of tropes.”
This president sets a tone that justifies and even encourages intolerance and incivility. So no, we shouldn’t be surprised when young people, and congressmen, follow his example.
Cokie Roberts is a political commentator for ABC News and a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. Steven V. Roberts is a politicial analyst for ABC Radio and a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. They are married, and together they write a weekly syndicated column.
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