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The Vatican, Occupy Wall Street, and Jerry Falwell’s Legacy

Interview with Michael Sean Winters

In his interview with Sally Steenland, Michael Sean Winters discusses his views on Occupy Wall Street and how religious groups can help, the scope of religion in politics, and some lesser-known facts about Jerry Falwell. 

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Michael Sean Winters is a reporter and blogger at the National Catholic Reporter. He is also the U.S. correspondent for the Tablet, the international Catholic weekly published in the United Kingdom. His first book, Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats, was published in 2008. His biography of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right, will be published in January 2012 by Harper One. He is a visiting fellow at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America.

Sally Steenland: I’d like to start with the Occupy Wall Street protests, which are now “Occupy Everything,” it seems. They started several months ago with several college students occupying a park near Wall Street and have spread to more than 900 cities in the United States and around the world. What’s going on?

Michael Sean Winters: I’m not entirely sure. It seems that as with any social movement there are some outliers who may believe some crazy things. But the essential argument is that the vast majority of the American people—the “99 percent”—feel they’re not getting a fair deal. I think people feel about Wall Street the way they feel about K Street and government—just as K Street is monopolized and has undue influence in Washington, Wall Street has undue influence in the economy in a way that doesn’t help the economy. Mom-and-pop shops and small businesses don’t get the benefits, and when these huge financial firms mess up, they get bailouts and bipartisan concern. There seems to be dawning recognition that, even though Americans are traditionally averse to class thinking, a class warfare has been going on all along. The Wall Street financiers and Tim Geithners of the world are being put on notice that people are tired of it and want a change. The other aspect is an antiglobalization fervor and sense that even our governments no longer have the power to control their own destinies in the face of huge multinational corporations. That’s a concern you see in the Vatican document that recently came out on the economy. When you have a powerful moneyed interest that has such control, you can be sure that the poor are going to lose. That is obviously a great moral concern for the church.

SS: Let’s get to the Vatican document in a minute, but first I want to talk about one of your blog posts on the protests. One of the things you say is, “A rant is a dull weapon in the arsenal of democracy.” It sounds like you think the protestors need sharper tools.

MSW: Yes. There’s a $64,000 question here that the Tea Party did answer, which was that they mobilized politically in order to achieve certain political objectives. It was not just a rant. And they were very effective. It’s not clear to me that there’s a politics that emerges from Occupy Wall Street. I personally have no interest in people being anxiety-ridden about the world unless they’re willing to translate that into political decision-making and organizing and doing the things necessary to change the situations they are upset about. There is, on the left, a sort of romanticism about protests. When you speak to people younger than yourself and myself, they have this romantic view of the 60s and its protest movements. I’m not a fan of romanticism in political life.

In the same blog post I say, “It’s one thing to listen to Wagner for five minutes, but if you listen for five hours you’re going to want to invade Poland.” Romanticism does not have the built-in tools to direct people, nor to focus on the necessary self-limitation that democratic participation requires—the sense of give and take, the value of dialogue, the value of intellectual contribution rather than a kind of mass-movement “we’re going to take over the world” sensibility. I wouldn’t say I’m suspicious of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but it needs to cohere. And I haven’t seen evidence of that yet.

SS: Faith groups have become more involved in Occupy protests across the country. Is there something distinctive they offer regarding sharper political goals or more coherence? Are they relevant to that or is there something else they bring?

MSW: There are deeply seated religious values at work here. I loved the fact that some faith groups paraded a golden calf down to Wall Street. At the same time you see Catholic neocons like Michael Novak and George Weigel who’ve made a career trying to wiggle greed into a virtue by saying capitalism is this great creative enterprise, and it’s not. A cardinal from Honduras named Oscar Rodriguez has said the problem with capitalism is that the evil is in its DNA. I don’t entirely subscribe to that, but certainly when you read the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, you see a concern for the common good, for the poor, for the immigrant in our midst. On Sunday this was the reading in Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches. It’s from Exodus: “You too were an alien in the land of Egypt,” and you cannot oppress the alien. I think some of these religious values go very deep, and the more that the Occupy Wall Street movement can tap into that, it will resonate beyond the young demographic who can take the time to tent up on a downtown park.

It’s a stunning fact to me that the president, when he was charged with class warfare, did not respond with the 25th Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, “Whatever you do for these, the least of my brethren.” It is not possible to ignore the biblical concern for the poor and concern for how the economy affects those who are least fortunate. It is the very measure by which people will gain or lose their salvation—this is pretty clear cut in the scriptures. So the involvement of Faith in Public Life and other progressive religious groups in the Occupy Wall Street movement will be very helpful in touching these deep chords in the American religious consciousness.

SS: What’s your prediction of Occupy Wall Street’s potential to affect the 2012 elections the way the Tea Party did the 2010 midterms?

MSW: I think it’ll be hard because the Tea Party had a clear message. It was anti-Obama, and it’s always easier to organize politically when you know what you’re against. I don’t think a particular political agenda has yet emerged from OWS. But the significance is the messaging aspect, and you see Republicans in the corner of having to defend the 1 percent. In the last debate Mitt Romney said to do basically nothing about foreclosures and let the market run its course. Well, we didn’t have that attitude with banks that held those mortgages. I think people feel the double standard is profoundly unjust.

The Vatican and the economy

SS: Let’s shift to the Vatican document that came out Monday and has raised a kerfuffle among conservatives. It calls for greater regulation of the global economy and has some strong moral language. What’s your take on the document? Is it relevant to Occupy Wall Street and the 99 percent?

MSW: Yes and no. The church is not an expert in economics and this was not written by a team of economists—I think that’s important. It’s wrong to hijack the Vatican document to any partisan objective, although the dismissiveness that certain conservatives have displayed towards it in saying, “Oh this doesn’t really matter, it’s not really from the Vatican, it’s just from this one Council” is quite shocking. These are the people who seem to cite line and verse of other Vatican documents to try to justify their positions.

But what the Vatican document does is quite explicitly confront what it calls “economic liberalism”—it’s what we call “laissez-faire” and associate with conservatives—the idea that the market somehow self-regulates and is immune to rational and moral evaluation. The Vatican is clearly saying “Nothing is immune to moral evaluation,” and the economy must be judged and organized in such a way that ethical concerns and spiritual concerns to serve the poor are not an add-on. They have to be basic to how an economy is organized. One of the themes of Benedict’s pontificate, and to a certain degree, John Paul, is that we have a secular-crimped notion of reason. They’re saying that rationalism has its limits and human reason in its broadest sense, including a moral sense, can be brought to bear to tell economists, “No that’s wrong.”

There was a great line Leon Weiseltier had in a different context: “There’s not a chart in the world that can explain the role of charts in the world.” We cede to economists the authority to tell us, “It has to be this way.” Well, where is that written? I think the Vatican is saying “No—it has to be humane.” Is our economic structure humane? What does the concentration of financial authority in the hands of very few people mean for issues of sovereignty, for issues of global development? It’s somewhat amazing to me. When you watch these Republican debates and they all invoke the market—which you would think would have rather low prestige given what we’ve all been through the last four years—instead, it’s their only answer.

I think the Vatican is saying, in words that almost echo Arthur Schlesinger Jr., that in a free society, the moneyed interest is always going to be the most powerful; only government has the power to step in and regulate the moneyed interest. That’s a very important thing that Democrats have too often lost sight of—this core value of the New Deal. I think the Vatican clearly recognizes that government authority is needed. Pope Benedict may not be ready to join an Occupy Wall Street protest anytime soon, and the Occupy Rome demonstration got a little out of hand and crashed a statue of the Blessed Mother. But it’s also the case that this Vatican document was not drafted by Paul Ryan and John Boehner and those re-reading The Fountainhead.

Religion and politics

SS: Let’s shift to religion and politics. There’s been a fair amount of discussion of religion in the 2012 campaign. An evangelical minister who was an associate of Gov. Rick Perry called the Mormon religion a “cult.” David Gregory asked Michele Bachmann on “Meet the Press” whether she was submissive to her husband as part of her religious belief. Candidates have been asked in debates whether it’s appropriate to have a religious test for office. And if we remember back almost four years, then-presidential candidate Obama was caught in a controversy over the views of his pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. What’s fair game and what’s off-limits when it comes to religion and politics, both in the questions a journalist asks and the criteria voters use in terms of who they’ll vote for?

MSW: It’s a very complicated question. The fault lines of religion and politics in America go right back to the founding. But I do think there is a growing consensus, at least in Catholic intellectual circles, that there’s no way you can any longer say, “Well, my religion’s private” and then turn around and talk about your values, because for most people their religious beliefs are the source of their values in some sense. There’s also a frustration with candidates who talk about their religiosity and like to wrap themselves in their bibles but then can’t explain how their public-policy positions do or do not reflect those values. You find that on both the left and the right.

There’s a famous quote of Dwight Eisenhower, and I’m paraphrasing, “Our form of government makes no sense without an idea of religion at its base, and I don’t care what it is.” But he went on to say “…provided the religion recognizes the equality of man.” I do think there are circumstances where the religious beliefs are so outrageous that they become legitimate fodder. I think some of the people Gov. Perry asked to organize his prayer rally down in Houston are pretty close to what I would consider views that are generally unacceptable and that would, if implemented, have very antidemocratic consequences.

Dr. King talks about the “creative power of suffering.” That is not an ethical claim, it’s a specific doctrinal claim rooted in his understanding of who the person of Jesus was. So I don’t want to say that doctrine is never allowed, but we have to evaluate what the consequences of doctrines are. Are the candidate’s positions consistent with the values he’s espousing? What is the relationship of those values with extremist doctrinal views?

To take another issue that comes up all the time: our relationship to Israel. I’m a Zionist. I take second to no one in my concern for our relationship with Israel, but it is more than a little funny to see politicians say negative things about Europe, demean the president because he’s a “socialist” and “Obamacare” as “socialism,” and then talk in glowing terms about Israel, which last time I checked was established in 1948 by European socialists. So it’s complicated. I support Israel because she’s a sister democracy. I don’t support Israel because it says in the book of Exodus that God will bless those who bless Israel and curse those who don’t.

In all these issues, I don’t know that there’s a clear line and if you cross it you’ve gone too far. I do think, especially in selecting a president, if you’re going to give somebody that much power you’re pretty much allowed to ask anything you want, as a voter and as a journalist. I think we’re allowed to know an awful lot about people that we’re going to give power to as president.

SS: That could be a slippery slope. Presidents promise to protect the Constitution—let’s say we elect someone who belongs to a religion that opposes abortion. Is it legitimate to ask what he or she would do about Roe v. Wade? Does that step over the line?

MSW: The question is totally legitimate, and I think you certainly need a better answer than John Kerry gave in the third debate against George W. Bush in 2004. It’s not an easy question, and this is an issue I’ve wrestled with as a pro-life Democrat. I am convinced that first of all, the Republicans really haven’t done squat for the pro-life cause over these many years—occupying the White House for I believe 24 of the 36 years since Roe was passed. But it’s also clear that on the issue of abortion, as a good Catholic you have to believe it’s morally wrong. If you don’t believe that, then you really don’t understand Catholic ideas about anthropology and the moral life. The question is: “Is legislation the proper tool with which to combat this moral evil?” There are a variety of things which the Catholic Church would deem intrinsically evil that are not subject for legislative concern, which is a pretty blunt instrument. My sense is that in American culture today, the Catholic Church—by aligning itself with politicians who say, “We want to just change the law”—has actually hurt itself because I think the church would be much more credible if it said, “What you want to do is change the culture in such a way that it would be inconceivable that a woman, when told she was pregnant, would think this was a bad thing.” That we have a culture and familial structure, a neighborhood and church structure in place so that everybody says, “Wow, she’s pregnant. All of our lives are going to change, but they should change because this is a wonderful thing.”

As long as certain conservative Catholics focus only on the law, they lose their credibility with the women who are actually making those decisions. And if they were to win that fight in the culture, the law would take care of itself. But I have to say, I’m always ambivalent when I vote for a pro-choice politician. The classic position, that I’m personally opposed but can’t tell other people what to do is ridiculous on its face. So it’s evolving. I’m glad I’m not a Catholic candidate for office—it is a very difficult issue.

Many pro-life activists call President Obama the most pro-abortion president in American history, and that is demonstrably not the case. I don’t see how the last four years would have been hugely different under a McCain Presidency in terms of abortion policy than what we’ve had from President Obama.

SS: One of the things you’ve complained about is the press corps and how many are theologically illiterate. With any other issue—whether national security or science—you don’t hire reporters who know nothing about the issue. But often that’s the case with religion. Why is it important that journalists be informed when it comes to religion? And what questions should they be asking?

MSW: Religion has been an important factor in American culture and society since our founding. So you would think it’d be on the radar screen. But there is a sense that the press corps looks at the Catholic Church, at least, as the Easter Bunny with real estate. That it’s a world of make-believe. There’s no sense that this is a 2,000 year-old artistic, intellectual, and cultural institution, parts of which only make sense from the inside, in the same way churches’ stained glass windows are beautiful only from the inside. The idea that there’s this coherent worldview seems beyond the canon of many reporters who cover religion.

There are some fine ones, but I’ll give you a classic example. The New York Times ran an article that basically suggested they had a smoking gun regarding Pope Benedict on the sex-abuse crisis, but when you actually looked at the documents they were citing, it was very clear that something else was at work. When you studied the documents that the Bishop of Oakland sent to then-Cardinal Ratzinger, he said, “This has been all over the press and it’s creating this scandal,” so that wasn’t the issue. Reporters often don’t understand the different layers of authority within the church, the documents, the decisions. In the church, common-sense arguments aren’t what cut it. You have theology. So there are things that don’t make sense, like the fact that you are ordained forever. Even a priest who was laicized and is free to marry is still a priest. Although he can’t perform the sacraments in public, he can hear your confession in a pinch. I’m still learning about the church, and I’ve been reading about it professionally for 32 years. There’s a lot to learn. But it is pretty stunning, the lack of intellectual capability when it comes to religion.

Jerry Falwell and economic conservatives

SS: I want to talk about your new book, The Right Hand of God . It’s coming out in January and is a biography of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, who created the Moral Majority. When you were researching his life, did you bump into any surprises?

MSW: I did. One was his capacity for friendship with political opponents. There’s a very funny episode in the early 80s where one of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s staffers signs up to get the Moral Majority report in order to see what was being written about Kennedy. They issue a membership card to Ted Kennedy. This got to the press, and what comes of it is that Kennedy goes to Lynchburg and speaks at Liberty College. But first he goes to dinner at the Falwell’s and they become friends. A year later, Sen. Kennedy reads in the newspaper that Reverend Falwell is in Fort Lauderdale. Sen. Kennedy is in Palm Beach and his mother is ill. So he asks Reverend Falwell to come pray with his mother, and he does. They spend the afternoon together at the Kennedy compound. Ted Kennedy ends up writing the letter of recommendation for Jerry Jr. to go to the University of Virginia Law School.

And perhaps most famously, Jerry Falwell sues Larry Flint over an ad parody, and it goes all the way to the Supreme Court. Afterwards, they do this dog and pony show where they go to college campuses to speak about it, each on their private plane. They realize, “Oh, we’re going to the same place—why don’t we ride together?” They start sharing rides and end up becoming friends. Every time Jerry Falwell would go to Los Angeles, he’d visit Larry Flint—and when Falwell died in 2007, Flint wrote a very moving tribute to his friend. I had no idea Falwell had that capacity for friendship with his political enemies.

The other thing that really interested me was that he, like many Southern preachers, was a segregationist, and then he flipped. Unlike some, he was very explicit and said, “I was wrong, I apologize.” What he never did was say, “Here’s what I used to say and here are the biblical verses I used to justify my position. Here’s where I now stand in opposing segregation and here are the biblical verses to justify that.” It never dawned on him that this switch raised questions about his ability to interpret the scriptures in other areas. Again, this is part of fundamentalism, which is not particularly intellectually agile or curious. You find your position and then you find the proof text, not the other way around.

That is one of the reasons there is a built-in limit on fundamentalist influence in American politics, because when you engage with people outside, you have to find some common medium for discourse, and they’re quite incapable of doing that.

There was not a lot of intellectual curiosity in Dr. Falwell, although he was certainly an extraordinarily intelligent man. I’m glad I never had to debate him. But there was a lack of curiosity. In contrast, go back in the Catholic intellectual tradition, pick a century and there’s a fight between the Franciscans and the Dominicans or the Jesuits and the Franciscans. There have always been competing schools which leads to a dialogue that improves the intellectual life of the entire church.

SS: During the 80s a strong alliance developed between conservative business and the Christian right. It was a powerful match, and many would say it began in the 80s. But you say that Jerry Falwell had been preaching a gospel of conservative economics for decades, so this was not a new thing for conservative Christians.

MSW: Before Falwell got politically involved in the 60s, he would frequently give his Wednesday-night sermons on anti-Communist themes. That’s where “American exceptionalism” with a very Christian inflection comes about, and part of that was not only that Communists were godless, but that they were Communists. Falwell contrasts them with the God-fearing, free-enterprise system of Americans. This predates by over a decade his decision to encourage Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists to get involved politically. It was not a leap for him. But it was a leap for pro-business elements to accept evangelicals into the fold.

On issues like abortion, when Ronald Reagan signed a very lenient abortion law as governor of California he did it with the support of Republicans in the state legislature. Democrats, who were largely Catholic, were opposed. All those issues were changing in the late 60s, 70s, and 80s. Falwell himself did not respond immediately to Roe. It took many, many years before he got politically engaged on that.

The role of government

SS: One last question—back to the headlines of Occupy Wall Street. I’ve recently seen some comparisons between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street—not involving the corporate money funding the Tea Party or the more leftist elements of Wall Street—but the underlying grievances. Do you think there is any potential for a populist coming-together? Or is that romanticism?

MSW: I don’t suspect there will be any coming together because the political inertia pulling the groups apart is too strong. Republicans have always been shameless in adopting populist rhetoric for their political ends and somehow Democrats thought they had to hold their nose and not do that, which was dumb. I mean you need populism to win an election, and you need liberalism to make sure it’s right. But there is a liberal populist tradition, and when you go back and read Arthur Schlesinger’s “The Age of Jackson,” he sets forth the case for that. When you read the speeches of Franklin Roosevelt, he sets forth the case as well. It is the idea that government has to stand up against the moneyed interests. That is the historic vocation of liberalism in America—that in their pursuit of profit, the moneyed interests, God bless ‘em, bring many benefits to our civilization and culture, but they leave other important social goods unaddressed and unacknowledged. It is government’s job to step in and address these other needs. I don’t know why Democrats have seemed allergic to some of the populist Wall Street bashing. I don’t know why our Justice Department did not prosecute some of these people.

I’m all for some of these 17th century punishments. Put stocks on Wall Street. Public shaming. They don’t have to go to jail but they should have to stand for a week with their arms and their heads sticking through the stocks and people should be able to go by and mock them. I think it would be a very good thing for the culture.

The president, bless his heart—and I’m a huge fan of President Obama—is a man of extraordinary gifts who clearly found a path in life that opened before him on account of those gifts. But he does not have the common touch. And it costs him. He speaks about the economic ills facing the country like a wonk, and not like he’s fighting for the little guy. But that’s why most Democrats are Democrats—because we believe our party fights for the little guy. It shines through in moments, but it doesn’t seem to stay on the radar screen. I hope that the Wall Street protests will galvanize within the administration an awareness that there are arguments they have not been using that are available—and that these arguments are both morally useful and correct.

SS: Thank you so much Michael for joining us.

MSW: My pleasure, great to be here.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress.

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