When Steve Bannon gave a speech to the Institute for Human Dignity, a Catholic think tank advised by numerous cardinals, he spoke of the need for the West to “take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam.” There is a “long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam,” he said in the 2014 appearance, calling Catholics to “form an aspect of the church militant” in response to “barbarity.”
Though Bannon’s comments were welcomed by the Rome-based group, his views aren’t tolerated by many in the Pope Francis wing of the Catholic Church. The pope — who recently returned from a trip to Egypt to meet with Muslim leaders and others — is more hopeful in his take on Muslim-Christian relations. Pope Francis frequently highlights examples of Muslim-Christian coexistence, embraces Muslim refugees, and speaks of similarities across the faith traditions.
But, among many Catholics in the United States, Bannon’s view of a Muslim-Christian clash is more popular than the pope’s positive message. Despite the pope’s insistence on a positive outlook on Muslims and their faith, Islamophobia often finds a home in American Catholic institutions and media outlets.
As discussed in a report published by the Bridge Initiative,* there are some anti-Muslim voices whose negative views have dominated significant portions of American Catholic media, including a number of mainstream Catholic outlets that have elevated the voices of those with affiliations to anti-Muslim groups, touting them as experts on Islam. In addition, prominent Catholic institutions and public figures, including priests, have promoted materials on Islam that depict a Muslim-Christian clash.
One of Steve Bannon’s favorite “experts” on Islam is Robert Spencer, whose anti-Muslim activism alongside Pamela Geller has been well documented. Despite this, Spencer has become a respected voice in some Catholic circles. A Catholic himself, Spencer has written two books for a Catholic audience, including Inside Islam, which is distributed by multiple Catholic publishing houses and is sold by the bookstore at the Basilica of the National Shrine, the major Catholic church in Washington, D.C. that welcomes more than a million pilgrims each year. In that book, which he co-authored with a convert from Islam, Daniel Ali, Spencer writes: “Islam constitutes a threat to the world at large. Despite having agreement with Christianity on some fundamental beliefs, Islam’s theology and its aggressive growth are not benign realities. Indeed, Christians ignore them at their own risk.” It should be noted that, while the book was originally published in 2003, it continues to be promoted as “an essential resource” as its publisher, Ascension Press, noted in an email today.
As documented in the Bridge Initiative report, Spencer has written for numerous Catholic news outlets, and he has been cited as an expert in others. While some of these are fringe websites, like Church Militant, others are more mainstream, like Our Sunday Visitor, one of the most widely read U.S. Catholic magazines. Prominent figures like Catholic-convert Scott Hahn and Fr. Mitch Pacwa, a popular Catholic T.V. personality, have also endorsed and promoted Spencer’s work. Even the Catholic television network, EWTN, — whose CEO was recently appointed by Pope Francis to advise the Vatican on communications — has advertised and aired Spencer’s talks at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, a conservative Catholic college well-known for its youth conferences.
In his writing for Catholics, Spencer echoes the claims about Islam and violence that appear on his anti-Muslim site, Jihad Watch, and he also argues that there is a “great chasm” between Christianity and Islam; that interreligious cooperation is futile; that the average devout Muslim may be hostile to Christians; and that, despite these “dangers,” Catholics should still proclaim their Christian faith to Muslims in the hopes that they convert.
Spencer isn’t the only Catholic voice who insists on the “threat” of Islam. William Kilpatrick is funded to take that message to a Catholic audience specifically. His Turning Point Project is “dedicated to educating Catholics…about the threat from Islam by arming them with the information…necessary to meet the challenge.” This project is supported, in part, by the Shillman Foundation, which has also funded anti-Muslim groups.
Kilpatrick, who has written for popular conservative Catholic outlets like National Catholic Register, believes in a “civilizational struggle with Islam” and that “Islam has been an enemy of the Church.” In the Catholic magazine Crisis, where he writes regularly, he has called Muslims in Europe a “fifth column” and has chastised “Catholic enablers of Islam,” who, he writes, “seem to have embraced” an “Islamic cultural invasion.” His book, Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West, is published by the prominent Catholic publishing company, Ignatius Press. Like Spencer, Kilpatrick has often criticized the Catholic Church’s outreach to Muslims.
Other Catholics paint a similar picture of Islam for a Catholic audience. Radio host Al Kresta, former Georgetown professor Fr. James Schall, and Robert Reilly advance a threatening view of Islam in their writings. Additionally, those who have been identified as part of the “Islamophobia network,” like Maronite Catholic advisor to President Trump, Walid Phares, and Zuhdi Jasser, a Muslim who works with anti-Muslim groups and advances the Islamophobic rhetoric of his non-Muslim colleagues, have appeared as experts on EWTN’s primetime news program to talk about Islam.
The role of these voices in shaping the discourse on Islam in prominent segments of U.S. Catholic media might explain why Catholics who frequently consume Catholic media have more unfavorable views of Muslims than those who don’t. It might also explain why Donald Trump was supported by a majority of white Catholic voters in the 2016 election. For Catholics who have long been exposed to the Steve Bannon-approved portrayal of Islam that appears in some Catholic media, Trump’s campaign rhetoric and policy proposals (which were in part shaped by Bannon) would have felt quite familiar.
Though Islamophobic narratives are welcome in some Catholic contexts, they aren’t popular everywhere. Robert Spencer’s prejudicial and untrue claims about Islam and Muslims have been the source of controversy among Catholics in the past, and some of his planned talks at Catholic institutions have been canceled.
But, even in Catholic circles where explicit Islamophobia is rejected, subtle insinuations about Muslims’ supposed violence, misogyny, and intolerance can still be found. For example, the Bridge Initiative study found that half the time the word “Islamic” was used in eight major Catholic news sites, it was in reference to the ISIS terrorist group. This less-obvious negativity can have a significant influence on Catholics, most of whom have no personal relationships with Muslims, and little knowledge of Islam or the Catholic Church’s teachings on interfaith dialogue. Only a small fraction of Catholics is familiar with Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II declaration that says the Church holds Muslims in “high regard.”
Today, in a climate of increased anti-Muslim hate crimes and with an administration that has scapegoated Muslims for political gain, it’s critical for American Catholics to be cognizant of the Islamophobia in their own communities and institutions.
In a recent tweet, Pope Francis encouraged “everyone to engage in constructive forms of communication that reject prejudice towards others and foster hope and trust today.” Catholic clergy, journalists, and other leaders should be aware of the impact that anti-Muslim commentators have on Catholic discourse about Islam and reconsider the message they’re sending.
*Although she has written this piece as an individual the author is a research fellow for the Bridge Initiative.