There has been much talk of a “Post-Christian” America lately. All these wonderful Pew studies keep the theme of Christian decline ever before us. One thing these studies often raise is the problem of “religious switching,” which always builds in some instability and a certain cloud of uncertainty about how long the trends they are seeing will hold. And what if they are missing something important? For all Pew’s interest in Evangelicals and Catholics, what if the studies are missing the most powerful religious voice in politics today? What if some of the most important tectonic shifts have been towards Progressivism, as chief contender to be America’s new civil religion?
That’s the question that occurred to me immediately upon reading the leaked e-mails from 2011–12 between Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta, and three other senior operatives — Clinton’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri; Barack Obama’s friend and former boss, Sandy Newman, of Voices for Progress; and John Halpin, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
But the e-mail soon turned darker, speculating on why some of their more influential peers had become Catholic. Podesta speculates that they “must be attracted to the systematic thought and severely backwards gender relations.” The immediate reply from Palmieri is that they must want “a form of religion” that’s socially acceptable to their rich friends, so they become Catholic rather than Evangelical. To be clear, our progressive “betters” are quite happy to embrace any “form of religion” just as long as it is acceptable to them. They seek to understand the “backwards Catholics” not through a consultation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nor through an appreciation of the Church’s “common teacher,” Saint Thomas Aquinas, nor through the prayers they say, but through that very simple lens of class and elite consensus. It is the sort of dismissal that characterizes middle-school Marxism.
The amazing thing is that it never once occurs to Podesta, Palmieri, Newman, or Halpin that people would become Catholic out of sincere belief. It never occurs to them that people become Catholic because they discover that the faith is true. Most important, it never occurs to them that they live in a country founded on religious freedom. It never occurs to them that they should respect the integrity of the Catholic faith, rather than try to manipulate and transform it, as Napoleon, Bismarck, and countless other tyrants have tried to do before them. That’s breathtaking. But it makes sense if we understand that they really aren’t interested in respecting the Catholic faith, but in reforming it. John Halpin writes, “it’s an amazing bastardization of the faith.” And suddenly we know that these progressives believe theirs is the one true faith to which all others must conform.
Voices for Progress activist Sandy Newman wrote to Podesta about the then-raging HHS-mandate fight with the Catholic Church: “This whole controversy with the bishops opposing contraceptive coverage even though 98% of Catholic women (and their conjugal spouses) has me thinking. . . . There needs to be a Catholic Spring, in which Catholics themselves demand the end of a middle ages dictatorship and the beginning of a little democracy and respect for gender equality in the Catholic church.”
John Podesta immediately replied: “We created Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to organize for a moment like this.” These were activist organizations that Podesta had a hand in establishing as far back as 2005 to influence the Catholic vote in the run-up to Obama’s 2008 presidential bid. He complains that “leadership” has been lacking in these groups, and that the change they want is going to have to be worked “from the bottom up.”
If “medieval dictatorship” sums up their ignorance about medieval history, dictatorship, and Catholicism, then the analogy to an Arab Spring sums up their fundamental intentions. Catholics and Muslims alike need to be liberated from their “Middle Ages dictatorship.” Our progressive pastors teach an enlightened faith, intended to politically transform Catholicism from within, just as they hope to transform Islam. They want a liberalized, secularized, compatible-with-progressivism Catholicism. And they are willing to spend massive amounts of political capital to achieve this. Witness their costly war with the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Podesta and Newman’s exchanges pose an interesting question. They ask, how could Catholics be so ignorant of “Christian Democracy”? As if the Catholic Church hasn’t had a much longer and more thoughtful engagement with a greater variety of political regimes than they have had. But their question gave me pause. They think that progressivism itself is the true standard bearer for Christian democracy — which brings me back to those Pew studies, and all the post-Christian declensions. They don’t see their progressive project as “post-Christian.” They see it as a kind of secular form of Christian religion, a form that is the one true champion of progress, equality, democracy, and yes, liberation, salvation.
The e-mails give us a special window onto this esoteric “form of religion,” which is rarely spoken about. Progressivism — a secularized, and in these writers’ view purified, form of progressive Protestant Christianity — is the one true faith. This kind of liberalism is parasitic upon true Christianity, but it holds it in utter disdain. And it follows that the most ancient form of Christianity, Catholicism, should become its very special target.
Keep in mind that everything Obama has done, and the messianism that has gone with it, has been done from this understanding of progressive Christianity, which is in their view synonymous with Christianity, democracy, and freedom itself. This is why the president lit up the White House in the rainbow — an act of religious observance, a triumph for progress, and yes, in his view a triumph for Christian democracy, equality, and liberty. This is why Obama used full executive powers to coerce the Little Sisters of the Poor to submit to the HHS mandate against their conscience.
The progressive Christian democrat sees none of these acts as vicious. They see these as socially and religiously liberating acts. They see themselves as paternally breaking the chains of inequality: “When they go low, we go high.” Their well-suited liberalism hides their deeply pietistic and puritanical roots, which are both disciplinarian and anti-Catholic at their core.
Progressive Christianity is, in their view, synonymous with Christianity, democracy, and freedom.
The objection will be raised that while Obama reads Reinhold Niebuhr, and Hillary Clinton is a progressive Methodist, John Podesta and Tim Kaine are baptized Catholics. But the fact that a Catholic is baptized doesn’t mean that his beliefs have been substantively formed by the Catholic Church. Going to Georgetown, or taking a trip to Honduras, does not guarantee that a Catholic will be formed with an adequate understanding of his faith, nor that he will live in accord with it. And if they have been badly catechized in the faith, they will be very vulnerable to substitutions for the content of the faith. Progressivism provides a powerful substitute.
In some ways, the Investiture Controversies of the 12th and 13th centuries never ended. Kings continue to want to bring the Church under their control. In the 16th century, kings such as Henry VIII introduced something new into the Western political dynamic: The state takes an interest in advancing a religion that competes with the Catholic Church. Modern progressivism inherited this “seed of revolution.” It became more or less detached from Christianity in the 19th century, especially through G. W. F. Hegel, who saw God revealing Himself to us through our ever-evolving experiences through history. Democracy is the dialectical unfolding of God’s own voice, which is why the progressives have the idea that they should transform Catholicism “from the ground up.” Vox populi, vox Dei.
No wonder, then, that they want a grassroots Catholic Spring. This view isn’t the special purview of the Podestas of this world. It is widespread. ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd tweeted after the leaks: “My fellow Catholics, you are aware that a majority of Catholics are pro-choice and pro gay marriage, right?” Mr. Dowd perfectly illustrates how the progressive faith is a kind of “ideological colonization” that seeks to transform the one, true, Catholic faith. The tragedy is that what Catholics like Dowd, Podesta, and Kaine do not seem to understand is that the Holy Catholic Church has survived 2,000 years not by receiving truth from below, but by receiving it from above.
— C. C. Pecknold is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.