President Donald Trump’s chief strategist and the driving ideological force behind his “America First” agenda is a Catholic whose Islamophobia and reactionary nationalism have found an audience among a band of aggrieved church leaders openly hostile to Pope Francis. In a deep-dive report from Rome, the New York Times chronicles how Steve Bannon has skillfully networked with Cardinal Raymond Burke and other Vatican operators to push his dark vision of right-wing populism:
When Stephen K. Bannon was still heading Breitbart News, he went to the Vatican to cover the canonization of John Paul II and make some friends. High on his list of people to meet was an archconservative American cardinal, Raymond Burke, who had openly clashed with Pope Francis. In one of the cardinal’s antechambers, amid religious statues and book-lined walls, Cardinal Burke and Mr. Bannon—who is now President Trump’s anti-establishment eminence—bonded over their shared worldview. They saw Islam as threatening to overrun a prostrate West weakened by the erosion of traditional Christian values, and viewed themselves as unjustly ostracized by out-of-touch political elites.
"When you recognize someone who has sacrificed in order to remain true to his principles and who is fighting the same kind of battles in the cultural arena, in a different section of the battlefield, I’m not surprised there is a meeting of hearts,” said Benjamin Harnwell, a confidant of Cardinal Burke who arranged the 2014 meeting.
This “meeting of hearts” is nothing to celebrate. Burke and Bannon share an ominous clash-of-civilizations ideology. Both view progressive movements in the church and in politics as dangerous cancers eating away at the moral fiber of “the West.” They warily peer out at the world from behind high walls.
Burke is a restorationist who pines for the days before the Second Vatican Council, with the myriad evils of modernism remaining safely outside the fortress barricades of the church. In his nostalgic vision of a triumphalist Christianity, the hard truths of orthodoxy are unchallenged and uncontaminated by the broader culture or competing visions within the church. The privileges of clericalism are the birthright of princely clerics, which find expression in the elaborate vestments he prefers. Burke’s frequent public criticism of Pope Francis’s pastoral vision—the pontiff’s insistence on building a “culture of encounter” rather than feeding the culture war—has made Burke the de-facto leader in an increasingly vocal anti-Francis camp. The cardinal’s thinly veiled Islamophobia is an embarrassment to the church and an insult to millions of peaceful Muslims. Burke claims the so-called “Islamic agenda” is unchanged from “prior times in which our ancestors in the faith had to fight to save Christianity.” His distorted view of Islam as primarily a political ideology rather than a complex and multifaceted religion is, of course, shared by Bannon. It’s not surprising that Burke recently raised eyebrows by meeting with Matteo Salvini, a right-wing Italian nationalist who supports Trump and praises Mussolini.
Bannon approvingly outlined the rise of a “global tea party movement” in a 2014 speech at a Vatican conference sponsored by the conservative Human Dignity Institute—a group whose advisory board is chaired by none other than Cardinal Burke. Bannon, who once claimed his aim was to “bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment,” also used the speech to praise the far-right nationalist parties in Great Britain and France that stoke racist and anti-immigrant sentiments. His Vatican talk was a primer on his blend of economic nationalism and nativist, anti-Muslim fervor:
We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years…
And I know we’ve talked about secularization for a long time, but if you look at younger people, especially millennials under 30, the overwhelming drive of popular culture is to absolutely secularize this rising iteration. Now that call converges with something we have to face, and it’s a very unpleasant topic, but we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it.
This salivating for war, whether cultural or on real battlefields, is joined to protectionist economic arguments that played well during the election in post-industrial states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Bannon and his blustery boss in the Oval Office style themselves as populist, anti-establishment crusaders standing up for working-class people—the worst enemies of the “cosmopolitan elites” and technocrats who mingle at Davos. The truth is that Bannon, a Catholic, knows far less about those struggling on the peripheries than his own church. While Bannon made millions at Goldman Sachs and later pocketed massive royalties from Seinfeld episodes, Pope Francis was walking with the poor in the villas miserias of Buenos Aires. Bannon and Trump are rolling back regulations on the financial industry to help those struggling hedge-fund managers on Wall Street. Meanwhile, Catholic clergy, nuns, and faith-based organizers spend their days with families devastated by the financial crisis, fighting for affordable housing and living wages.
Trump’s faux-populism finds its counterpoint in the man leading the Catholic Church from the grassroots. Pope Francis said it powerfully during a World Meeting of Popular Movements in Bolivia in 2015. “The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites,” he told land reform activists, farmers, union leaders, and clergy. “It is fundamentally in the hands of people and their ability to organize.” The church has moral authority Bannon and Trump never will because they have spent their careers in a bubble of privilege enriching themselves, cultivating “brands,” and belittling anyone who questions their decisions.
Bannon can network all he wants with Cardinal Burke and other Catholic operatives who share his dark populism and Islamophobia. But he stands against a determined pope and centuries of church teaching that will match him at every turn.