Update: DFL Ads Not Anti-Catholic....Just Confusing.

The Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party has just responded to the ad that, at first blush, seemed anti-Catholic, to say the least, and which was picked up on several blogs--including this one.  It seems that it was not a hoax, as some suspected, but the first part of a two-page ad, that well...here's Dotcommonweal on the case:

DFL spokesman Donald McFarland has issued the following statement:

The ad is part of a two-piece mailing that highlights and criticizes the policy views of Dan Hall, a preacher who is the Republican candidate for the Minnesota Senate. I enclose both sides of both pieces. I understand that some Republican bloggers have taken one image from the first piece, and claimed that the mail is somehow anti-Catholic. But the text explicitly criticizes Preacher Hall for distancing himself from policy views that have been taken by the Catholic Archdiocese, by the Lutheran Synod, and other leaders in Minnesota’s faith community. Dan Hall is willing to enlist God and religion in his campaign when it helps him — but in fact, his views hurt the poorest and sickest among us, and this mailing holds him accountable for those views.

You can see the second mailing here. It also refers to Hall as “Preacher Hall” (I can’t find any evidence that Hall refers to himself that way). Why the DFL would use the image of a man in a Roman collar to depict a lay chaplain who is a member of a nondenominational church remains mysterious. At least we can dispense with the claims that the mailing is anti-Catholic, although it may be anti-wise. My apologies for jumping to conclusions.

My apologies too, for the "anti-Catholic" label.  Still, the use of Catholic imagery (how many nondemoninational lay chaplains look like that?) was bound to be confusing.  "Anti-wise," as Grant Gallicho says, is more on the mark.  Anti-clear, too.  And most likely not likely to win over many Catholics in the end.  

Finally, another update, also courtesy of Dotcommonweal: 

Preacher Politician“I’ve never worn a Roman collar,” Dan Hall told me. “No one in my church does.” Asked why he thought the DFL would use such an image, he said, “I have no idea. You’re offending all kinds of church people, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish.” Hall explained that, probably as a result of this dustup, he’s received a great deal of media requests, concluding, “In the end, it’s probably going to help me.”That isn’t the only Catholic-looking image the DFL is using in its campaign mailers. Check this one out. What is that, a side chapel? And St. Anthony? Might be a good time for the DFL to say a little prayer to him. Maybe he can help them find their common sense. 

Oh brother.  What gives?  A free copy of my latest book to anyone who can sort this thing out, and explain why this odd Catholic imagery is being used.  Perhaps the DFL doesn't know the difference between the interior of a Catholic church and a nondenominational church.  For my part, I think of the words of General Allenby to T.E. Lawrence in the movie "Lawrence of Arabia," when Allenby was asked to explain a complex political matter. "I'm not a politician...thank God."

James Martin, SJ


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William Lindsey
10 years 1 month ago
In my view, the reaction to this ad shows how very reactionary we've become as a church in recent years.  I don't think it was particularly wise to use the clerical collar in the ad.

But the reaction seems to me far out of proportion to the "offense" of the imagery. 

We're succeeding, it seems to me, in becoming a very inward-turned, defensive religious body, quick to take offense and to equate some of our historically conditioned symbols with eternal truth.  And this is hardly unrelated to the problem of significant attrition we're experiencing now.

There's also a context to the discussion that we forget in our defensive reaction: this was the deliberate politicization of the church in Minnesota in this election cycle by Archbishop Nienstedt and the other bishops of the state.  And there are real and important questions to be asked about the price of that politicization - the actual monetary price.  How much money was spent on the dvds attacking gay marriage and on their mailing?  Isn't it appropriate to ask if that money might be better spent doing charitable work?  Why won't the bishops of Minnesota disclose the name of the donor or donors who are funding what amounts to a political campaign being waged through the Catholic church in that state?

Another point that seems worth attention: the reactionary and arch-conservative Catholic blogs are definitely controlling the conversation in the U.S. Catholic church right now, even on the centrist blogs, which pay disproportionate attention to the views of Catholics on the right and tend systematically to ignore or condescend to those on the left.

It's hard to imagine how we have become such a church following the promise of Vatican II.
Jason Welle
10 years 1 month ago
The imagery is used because it's instantly recognizable.  It tells a story without having to use a lot of words (or any).  Everyone who sees those images-regardless of religious affiliation-knows what it means, even if the nuance isn't caught or they're used imprecisely.  You find the same thing in other media, esp. movies and tv, all the time.  It isn't always a stab at Catholicism (although it can be), it's just using the most attention-grabbing images.  Catholic imagery is iconic and is used, whether we like it or not, in all sorts of situations.
Jack O'Brien
10 years 1 month ago
Point of movie trivia, Father:  I think that General Allenby quote was spoken not to Lawrence but to the diplomat, Mr Dryden, whose reply was if I remember:  "Yes sir, so you keep saying."
Franz K.
10 years 1 month ago
Fr. Martin, the disturbing use of overtly Catholic imagery in these negative ads is inexcusable, particularly since the targeted candidate isn't even Catholic, but some very outspoken Catholics have largely brought this upon all of us.

Many in liberal circles, including lapsed and disgruntled Catholics, now completely dismiss Catholics as stubbornly conservative reactionaries obsessed with abortion and gays, and completely opposed to science. It's absurd, but not wide of the mark when you hear some of the folks claiming a space in the media and claiming to speak on behalf of Catholics in this country.  There are many eroding years of work in ecumenism and prophetic activism.  A candidate here in DC uses very shocking and disturbing images of aborted fetuses for her campaign ads and website, and as the focus of her campaign.  Some of your brother priests (of the diocesan sort) were also guilty of preaching to parishioners from the pulpit against voting for President Obama a few years ago.  Who wouldn't be turned off by all of that?

We shouldn't be suprised that an increasingly skeptical, secularized society is finding the Catholic Church more and more irrelevant when it is not seen as serving the poor and working against injustice, but more often acting regressively and arrogantly.  God help us!
james belna
10 years 1 month ago
If you want to believe that the people responsible for creating this ad were innocently unaware that they were using anti-Catholic imagery, so be it. My assumption is that the professional political consultant who put this together was very familiar with the symbolic meaning of the images that he chose to put in the ad - and probably ran it by a focus group to be sure. If all he really wanted to do was portray Dan Hall as a hypocrite, he would have used a photo of Mr Hall. Everyone knows that a roman collar and an altar are classic symbols of the Catholic Church, and have nothing at all to do with a nondenominational minister. The only rational explanation is that the DFL believed that there would be some advantage to falsely suggest an association between Hall and the Catholic Church, probably based on the notion that a certain percentage of fundamentalist Christians who would ordinarily support Hall might be lead to believe that he is really a crypto-catholic heretic. 

Wholly apart from this cynical and manipulative ploy, the DFL's justification for the ad is just as despicable. I had never heard of Dan Hall before, but after reviewing his campaign website I can see that he has devoted his entire life to caring for people. 
Rick Stump
10 years 1 month ago
Just because they are attacking a protestant does not mean that the isn't anti-Catholic! If the cover were, say, an atrocious caricature of a racial stereotype would the response "we were attacking a White guy" make it suddenly OK? No! When people saw the image on the front of this flyer, what did they think? "Hmmm. This is probably a critique of a lay protestant preacher who dresses in street clothes"? No, it was 'Wow! That is anti-Catholic!"

When you add in the fact that the DFL had previously used imagery that points to Catholics in a negative light (see this very article). As Jim Belna already said, this is an obviously-purposeful use of anti-Catholic imagery in an attempt to smear a protestant and tar the Church at once. 
David Cruz-Uribe
10 years 1 month ago
Dear Fr. Martin,

I want to disagree with your interpretation of the DFL ad.  I have pondered anti-Catholicism in the U.S. for many years and spent much of it trying to sort out what is and what is not anti-Catholic.  As several of the post above note, the American media often uses the overt symbols of Catholicism (priests in collar, nuns in habit, baroque Catholic churches) as short-hand for religion in general.  If a plot line requires a character who is otherwise not religious to have some sort of spiritual crisis or awakening, this is the symbol set that the writers and directors will use.  It is incredibly rare, for example, to see, say, a baptist minister or baptist church figure in a story line (except perhaps in a drama involving black characters, itself fairly rare). 

Most of the time, the use of these symbols is benign and does not constitute anti-Catholicism.  However, there is a darker, uglier usage which needs to be considered.  Drawing on the remnents of 19th century nativist sentiment, Catholics are portrayed as "the Other":  exotic, foreign, not really American.   Thus the 1992 anti-Casey button (distributed by democratic pro-abortion activists) attempted to link Casey to the pope in a way which drew directly on the trope that "Catholics are unAmerican and take orders from the pope".   This usage crops up regularly, though not frequently, in the media. 

In recent years this uglier side of Catholic imagrey has been reinforced by the child-abuse scandal and the disastrous cover-up and aftermath.  All of the anger and hostility this (in most cases rightfully) generated has adhered to these Catholic images.  Thus, someone can invoke these symbols and draw upon this animus.

Looking at this ad, I think that this is what is going on:  the people who created it are not attacking the Church directly, but are deliberately using the symbols to attack someone for his religious affiliations.  This works because it draws upon both aspects of the Catholic symbol set:  Catholicism as the easily recognized stand-in for any (Christian) religious group, and the uglier, anti-Catholic sentiments which they hope will be transferred to their target (even though he is not Catholic).  I don't know the details of the DVD mailing and its backlash, but if the bishop is being criticized for doing this then this is another (localized) bit of animus that adheres to the anti-Catholic weight of these symbols that they are trying to exploit. 

Does this make the mailing anti-Catholic?  Well, it depends:  there are shades of grey.  It is not anti-Catholic in the sense that, say, Maria Monk or Jack Chick comic books are anti-Catholic:  they are not a direct attack on the Church and distortion of what we believe or do.   It may even be that the authors of this ad do not have an conscious anti-Catholic bias. (Since I don't know them, I cannot speculate.  I do know people in similar positions who are blatantly anti-Catholic.)   Nevertheless, they were willing to trade upon anti-Catholic sentiments to make their point, and a few moments reflection should have made clear to them what they were doing.  Even if they were clueless, they are not completely innocent.  

This ad is very comparable to the perennial "Bros and Hos" parties that pop up at fraternities (most recently at Sigma Chi at Harvard).  These parties trade on blatant racist and misogynist stereotypes, yet the organizers always claim that it was all in good fun and no harm was intended.  That may be true, but that makes the theme no less reprehensible. 

I hope this clarifies things:  do I get a free copy of your book?  :-)
Vince Killoran
10 years 1 month ago
I appreciate David's careful analysis of this issue.

A lot of this discussion reminds me of the use of race and racial images-and how the charge of racism can be stretched to a point where it becomes useless as a way of understanding real and chronic racism. And it becomes counter-productive in fighting real injustice.

How do we sort through the ubiquous use of generic "Catholic" religious imagery with anti-Catholicism? Halloween costumes? THE SISTER ACT? Television stock characters? etc. This is not the 1920s-Catholics and the Church hierarcht hold susbstantial influence in the public arena. Different context calls for different analysis.

I would urge people to avoid a rush to judgement. After the internet blowup yesterday the issue must seem different today on sober second thought.
William Lindsey
10 years 1 month ago
I apologize that I apparently set the discussion off on the wrong tack, and that my comments were apparently snarky and conveyed invective.

I confess I'm not entirely certain what constitutes snark and what doesn't - as I don't really understand what constitutes "bloviating," another vague term used by some blog monitors to define some comments off-limits.

I hope the thread will accept my apologies.  In intra-Catholic discussions nowadays, it seems there are lines re: what may or may not be discussed, and how one may or may not discuss matters, that are not apparent to me.  And so, even though I had no intent of transgresing any lines, if I've done so, I am sorry to have set the wrong tone for the conversation.
Gabriel McAuliffe
10 years 1 month ago
Mr. Lindsay -

I am not really sure if Fr. Martin's comments were directed to you. I don't think you were being snarky myself, and I think that he may have directed them to others.

That being said, I do not think that this DFL ad has very little to do with the Bishops' campaign against calling a same sex pairing a marriage .  It focuses on a very specific candidate who is not a Catholic.  Fr. Martin is correct in saying that something fishy is going on here.   I don't know if they are anti-Christian or anti-religious (they may very well be) but they are definitely disrespectful of religion and religious imagery.  As stated above, why use Catholic imagery for a non-denominational minister?  I guess the attitude of "they're all the same" seems to resonate for this particular advertising campaign.

I think that we, as Christians and religious people, have a right to still be offended. 
Andrew Strada
10 years 1 month ago
If you regard all religions as superstitious nonsense, then there is little point in taking the time or energy to explore what you would consider to be meaningless distinctions among them.  Much simpler to pick the largest, most prominent denomination with the most interesting visual imagery and blast away.

Why would any Catholic feel any moral obligation in any way, shape or form to apologize to people such as these?
William Lindsey
10 years 1 month ago
Thank you, Gabriel (and I hope you don't mind my using your given name; please do the same in my case).

I can see the point that the DFL response to questions about these ads is not clear, even misleading.  And I can also see the point that the imagery of the ad depicting a clerical collar is perhaps offensive - though I don't find myself particularly exercised about that imagery for two reasons.

First, I'm not particularly touchy about the use of clerical collars as cultural symbols - and sometimes negative ones.  If I were a cleric, I might feel differently.

But I think that the need of our church to respond in a creative dialogic way to our culture vastly outweighs the need to respond defensively, in situations like this.  And another way to put that point is that I suspect we've created the conditions for some of our central symbols, including clerical collars, to be used in this dismissive way.

So I'd prefer it if we look at the ways in which we ourselves are creating the groundwork, as a community of faith, for others to appropriate symbols like these and twist them in ad campaigns like this. 

And that leads to my second point, one I already made (in part) in my first comment here.  As far as I understand, the issue of same-sex marriage had hardly emerged in the current Minnesota political campaigns, when the bishops of that state decided to accept a donation from a donor or donors whose name they will not disclose, to produce a video about same-sex marriage and mail it to every Catholic household in the state.

In the current gubernatorial race in Minnesota, as I understand it, only the Republican candidate opposes same-sex marriage.  It is hard not to see this video campaign as overt lobbying by the Catholic bishops of Minnesota for that candidate, as they accept funds from an unnamed donor or donors to engage in this lobbying.

Daniel Schultz writes at Religion Dispatches today that a recent book by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,  finds that the high attrition rate in mainstream churches (and surely our church fits into this pattern) is primarily due to younger church members walking away from the virulently anti-gay messages of their churches at this point in history. 

A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute finds that two-thirds of Americans see anti-gay messages by religious groups as one of the major factors causing suicide of gay teens.  This poll also suggests that Catholics report that they are significantly unhappy with how our church is approaching these questions and may be contributing to the problem of prejudice against gay and lesbian people in our society.

I ''read'' the controversy about this use of a clerical collar in the context of these broader discussions, and wonder if we'd serve the church better by focusing less on our negative reaction to the ad's use of a clerical collar and more on how we can address the needs (and human lives and relationships) of gay and lesbian people in our society with pastoral fidelity.  Making an issue of same-sex marriage in a political campaign in which it had not emerged as an issue, in which only one candidate for office opposes gay marriage, seems to me to be gross partisan politicking behind the shield of the church.

Politicking that uses some human beings and their lives and relationships as tools in a political game which harms those being used . . . . I hope that there will be a day when churches stop doing this to vulnerable minority groups.  And as long as they continue to do this, while accepting large donations from hidden donors to do it (and closing churches and schools at the same time for lack of funds), they create the conditions for people to use some of their symbols in negative political campaigns that react to the churches' politicking.
David Cruz-Uribe
10 years 1 month ago
Thank you Fr. Martin, for the offer of a book.  But let me turn to your two questions, which I think are interesting and important.

First, since this ad is directed at a local race, I am less sure that it would be tested thoroughly in the same way that it would be in a statewide or national election.    If you follow the political blogs, you will see all manner of stupidity and absurdity in local races.  My favorite was a recent TV ad in which a candidate wanted to attack his opponent, but somehow managed to attack, by name, the wrong person.  (Search Huffington Post for more details.)  So I could actually imagine some staffer getting an idea and having it go forward with relatively little oversight. 

Regarding your question about religious illiteracy:  It is hard to over-estimate the degree of religious illiteracy in America, particularly in certain secular, liberal/progessive circles.  Based on my own personal experience (doing anti-death penalty work) the degree of ignorance about religion is remarkable.  It is made more painful because it is coupled with a disdain not just for Catholicism but all things religious, and this disdain allows all manner of nonsense to be accepted as "fact."   Unfortunately, I have found that in these circles, Catholics often just keep their heads down and their mouths shut, ignoring this nonsense in an effort to concentrate on points of agreement.  I don't condone or condemn this attitude, I just note it. 

Finally, your question about the "ignorant" use of bigoted stereotypes is a good one, but it requires some careful distinctions.  Last year a group of colleagues and I decided to criticize publicly a fraternity that had a "pimps and hos" party.   We explained the reason we objected so strongly to the party theme, pointing out the many racist and sexist stereotypes they were trading in.  But we explicitly did not call them racists or misogynists.   In racial terms, we felt that they were not overtly racist, but rather were trading in white privilege:  because of their position in the racial hierarchy, they were using racist images and ideas without understanding them or having to deal with the consequences (until we called them out).  In the language of liberation theology, you could say that they were participating in a structure of sin, willfully but without a full understanding of the context which gave their actions meaning. 

In the same way, unless I had personal knowledge of the people who wrote or approved the ad, I would not accuse them of overt anti-Catholic bigotry.  But I would say that the position they occupy in a secular/liberal world order exposes them to the "machinery" of anti-Catholcism which they then used without understanding it or having to deal with any personal ramifications of it, precisely because Catholics are the "Other" and have no real existence to them as people. 

The correct response, in my opinion, is to remonstrate, pointing out the anti-Catholic elements and subtexts of the ad, and asking them to stop using it.   I don't think we need a breast beating apology (or its weaker political cousin "I am sorry you were offended"):  we just need to make sure they understand how offensive what they are trading in is.  Will this work with everyone?  No, of course not.  But some might become more self-reflective, which is surely a good thing.
Stephen SCHEWE
10 years 1 month ago
Like David, I can easily imagine a postcard for a state senate candidate not getting vetted or researched.  We're talking about guys running for a part-time job in the state legislature.  They have day jobs as small businessmen, lawyers, teachers, etc.  They get coaching and support from the party organizations, but they don't employ professionals like you'd see at higher levels.  Here in Minnesota, we are a caucus state, which means both DFL and IR(as Republicans here are called) candidates are chosen in state conventions instead of in primaries, That tradition is unraveling as more and more candidates decline party endorsement and then win a primary, but there's a long-standing tension between Catholic pro-life activists and the rest of the DFL that increasingly has made Catholics less welcome in the political organization.  In the 1980s, for example, the DFL was one of the few Democratic state parties that still had a substantial pro-life caucus.  By 1992, many of those activists lost the opportunity to become convention delegates because the pro-choice wing was concerned they would vote against their interests.  Even today, it's incredibly hard for DFL candidates to win in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, because the state committee won't endorse candidates who are pro-life.  Naturally, a lot of these folks have ended up with the Republicans, who lead with their pro-life credentials.  Michelle Bachmann, for example, comes out of a strong Evangelical religious tradition; she and her husband have raised something like 23 foster kids in addition to their own family of eight.

As a result, it's also easy to imagine that few people in the DFL hierarchy are steeped in Catholicism.  I'm sure they reflect the same knowledge reflected in the recent Pew survey.  But you'd be wrong to call them anti-Catholic.  Catholic voters are still a major part of the Democratic constituency here, and all the work they do in Minnesota in education, healthcare, Catholic Charities, is widely respected.  Even the DFL activists often come from Catholic roots, a lot of their families come from the Iron Range in Northeastern Minnesota, which was and is heavily Catholic and pro-union.  That's why it was evident to me from the beginning that the ad couldn't be intentionally anti-Catholic.

In all the kerfuffle about whether the DFL is anti-Catholic, no one has brought up the role of Stella Borealis, the conservative web site that "broke the story" and to date has not apologized or clarified their reporting.  They seem quite proud of having stirred things up.  If hoax means "to trick into believing or accepting as genuine something false and often preposterous," don't they deserve some time in the woodshed, too?
Stephen SCHEWE
10 years 1 month ago
Regarding the video, William, Archbishop Nienstedt never crosses the line of actually endorsing the Republican, who as you point out is the only gubernatorial candidate opposed to marriage equality.  He does call for a public referendum to introduce a state constitutional definition of marriage that would exclude same-sex couples, which is the approach that's worked in 31 other states.  Since the sky hasn't fallen in Iowa since they legalized gay marriage, a lot of Minnesotans, including me, think our legislature will act next spring if Mark Dayton, the DFL candidate, becomes governor.  According to local reporting, the DVD was sent to 400,000 households, cost about $1 mm, and was funded by the Knights of Columbus (although I don't think the chancery has confirmed this).  While there's been some reporting on criticism of the Archbishop, I think the actual impact of the DVD has been slight.  Everyone knows where the bishops stand.  For most Minnesotans, including many Catholics, the tipping point towards favoring marriage equality has already happened.  There's no scientific proof (yet), but if you view sexual orientation as something given by God, like the color of your eyes, as opposed to an "objective disorder," it becomes really easy to accept marriage equality, particularly when it affects the life of a friend or a family member.  I'm sure it will take the legislature awhile to catch up.  As for the Church, it's too big of a leap theologically; maybe 400 years from now there will be a Gaileo-like moment.
William Lindsey
10 years 1 month ago
Steve, thanks for your information from the ground.

What I've read in the media states that Bishop Nienstedt has never revealed the source of the donation for the dvds, but that the Knights of Columbus assisted with the production of the dvds and the mailing.  I wonder why there would not be a clear and unambiguous statement about who is funding this venture, given 1) the national discussion right now of the dangers posed to our democratic structures by the inflow of huge sums of money from hidden sources in this election cycle, and 2) the announcement of church closings and parish mergings in the Minneapolis-St. Paul archdiocese following the video campaign.

Given that same-sex marriage had hardly been raised as an issue in your state during this election cycle, the choice to spend what is evidently a large sum of money to send out dvds to all Catholic households, when churches and parishes are being closed due to financial exigency, seems odd, doesn't it?  And when a single gubernatorial candidate in a fairly close race is opposed to same-sex marriage, it seems impossible to ignore the political implications of this choice.

My concern above and beyond the particulars of the video and this election cycle: it seems clear to me that the leaders of our church are shooting themselves in the foot by focusing obsessively on this issue of same-sex marriage in a way that often appears heartless, when gay and lesbian people seem to be used as cannon fodder in partisan political battles.

If young folks are walking away from churches, including ours, in large numbers due to how the churches choose to deal with gay and lesbian human beings, surely we need to address that issue, when we look at a political advertisement like this.  I'm not encouraged when our conversations about these topics seem so parochial, so intramural, that they seem unaware of the serious apologetic problems created by the behavior of some of our church leaders nowadays, vis-a-vis gay and lesbian people.
William Lindsey
10 years 1 month ago
P.S. Steve, for what it's worth, I'm just now reading at Obie Holmen's Spirit of a Liberal blog that on Monday, he received in the mail a flyer entitled "Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics," which endorses Republican Tom Emmer in the governor's race in Minnesota.  The pamphlet is courtesy of the National Organization for Marriage and Minnesota Family Council. 

Obie is a Minnesotan.  The posting is here: http://www.theliberalspirit.com/?p=2959.

I take your point that many Minnesota Catholics have their minds made up about these issues.  On the other hand, since my partner is a native Minnesotan and I have many in-laws in the state - all Catholic - I know that in many cases these more or less explicit endorsements of a candidate by Catholic organizations and Catholic pastoral leaders carry weight as people cast their votes.

I find the decision of the Minnesota bishops to turn their church into a Republican political machine in this election deeply disturbing, as I do the choice of these pastoral leaders and Catholic-affiliated groups like NOM to use gay and lesbian people as tokens in political games.

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