Steve Bannon’s radical faith

The rise of the “Rad Trads.”

CREDIT: Diana Ofosu/ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Diana Ofosu/ThinkProgress

A researcher scouring for a definitive explanation of senior adviser to the president Stephen K. Bannon’s political ideology would be forgiven for looking in the traditional places: his graduate school papers, excerpts from the conservative radio programs he has hosted, or something published in the often turbulent pages of his former website, Breitbart.

But most political analysts familiar with Bannon will point you to a different, more surprising source for insight into his beliefs. To understand Bannon, they say, you need to comb through a lengthy, rambling speech he delivered via Skype to a 2014 conference convened at — of all places — the Vatican.

The address is dense, and reads like a hyperspeed romp though Bannon’s complex and borderline apocalyptic view of history, western society, and religion. It’s revealing on its own — but the broader context behind the speech, delivered to a deeply religious audience, also provides crucial insight into the man many believe is behind some of the Trump administration’s most volatile concoctions.

Bannon, after all, is rumored to be the architect of the twice-stalled Muslim ban, the rapid uptick in deportations, and the president’s frequent use of rhetoric steeped in Christian nationalism — aspects of which are echoed in the 2014 speech.

To understand Bannon, they say, you need to comb through a lengthy, rambling speech he delivered via Skype to a 2014 conference convened at — of all places — the Vatican.

To be sure, Bannon isn’t a religious crusader in the traditional sense, and operates very differently from so-called “theocrats” like Vice President Mike Pence. Other examinations of his worldview have rightly centered on more secular concerns, such as his love affairs with “economic nationalism,” unorthodox versions of populism, and cyclical readings of history. Meanwhile, Bannon’s current status within the administration is somewhat tenuous at the moment, with some predicting that he may be pushed out of the White House sometime in the coming weeks.

But his meteoric rise to power is a testament to the surprising popularity of his beliefs, which will likely continue to shape the policies of the White House even if he leaves. As such, it’s worth exploring the connection between Bannon’s conservative politics and his unusual — but increasingly vocal— friends in the Catholic faith.

A cradle (liberal) Catholic turned (conservative) iconoclast

CREDIT: Win McNamee/Pool Photo via AP
CREDIT: Win McNamee/Pool Photo via AP

It’s impossible to talk about Bannon’s faith without discussing his politics, and vice-versa. When describing the genesis of his political beliefs to Bloomberg in 2015, the former conservative strategist immediately invoked his Roman Catholic roots.

“I come from a blue-collar, Irish Catholic, pro-Kennedy, pro-union family of Democrats,” he said. His middle-class parents (his father was a telephone lineman) sent him to Catholic schools, where Bannon reportedly took 12 years of Latin, and he attended Catholic-affiliated Georgetown University for graduate school.

Bannon still retains his Catholicism, but he eventually abandoned the left-leaning views of his upbringing after he became disenchanted with the presidency of Democrat Jimmy Carter. He went on to form a decidedly right-wing worldview, which he bolstered with an active intellect and broadened with a resume right at home among the GOP elite: years of Navy service, a degree from Harvard Business School, and a stint at Goldman Sachs.

“I come from a blue-collar, Irish Catholic, pro-Kennedy, pro-union family of Democrats.”

But Bannon’s respectable pedigree did not guarantee that he would ultimately align himself with establishment Republicans, nor did it necessarily grant him a stable existence. After diving into political strategy, activism, reporting, and filmmaking following his time in the financial industry, Bannon’s whirlwind life — which included periods where he had no fixed address — was rife with tumultuous moments, such as ugly divorces during which he was accused of anti-Semitism.

Yet his background did not predetermine his political outlook. Unlike politicians who often use experiences from their personal life to frame their political (and spiritual) development, his beliefs appear to be rooted in external events — namely, the the September 11 terrorist attacks and the 2008 financial crisis.

These historical flashpoints proved transformative for Bannon, and appear to have molded his criticism of “crony capitalism” and his antagonistic views on Islam. He referred to the faith of 1.6 billion people as “most radical religion in the world” in a May 2016 interview on his radio show, for instance, and bemoaned what he called the “Muslim invasion” of Europe.

Bannon spouted a similar message when he spoke at the 2014 conference, when he had already fused what he saw as the defining crises of our time — economic exploitation and a clash with militants claiming Islam — into one collective threat against what he often calls the “Judeo-Christian West.” It was a decidedly pessimistic and dualistic view of the world, framing the current historical moment as a collapse of the west coupled with epic global conflicts between good and evil.

“[ISIS talks about] turning the United States into a ‘river of blood’ if it comes in and tries to defend the city of Baghdad,” he told the conference. “That is going to come to Central Europe, it’s going to come to Western Europe, it’s going to come to the United Kingdom. And so I think we are in a crisis of the underpinnings of capitalism, and on top of that we’re now, I believe, at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.”

A connection to ‘radical Catholic traditionalism’

CREDIT: AP/Andrew Harnik
CREDIT: AP/Andrew Harnik

But even acknowledging the history behind Bannon’s extreme views regarding religion and politics, the question remains: why was Bannon speaking at the conference hosted at the Vatican to begin with?

The answer lies in the natural alliances — both political and theological — between Bannon and far-right elements in Europe, including religious ones.

Much has been made of the supposed overlap between Bannon’s ideology and that of conservatives at the Vatican, especially his connection to right-wing Catholics who oppose the (relatively) progressive theology of Pope Francis. The wildly popular pontiff’s left-wing stance on climate change, immigration, and economics has made him a media darling among western liberals, but has sparked the consternation of conservative Catholics.

James Martin, a Jesuit Priest and the editor-at-large of the influential Catholic magazine America, explained that so-called “radical traditionalists” — or “Rad Trads,” to the hipper crowd — are a (somewhat) ideologically diverse group that share a common criticism of Francis, citing longstanding frustrations that date back to changes invoked during the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Some, such as prominent American Cardinal Raymond Burke, have openly clashed with Francis, only to be demoted. Others have taken to plastering Rome with posters critical of the pope, accusing him of hypocrisy for not showing “mercy” to conservatives.

“[Radical traditionalists] tend to see the reforms of the Second Vatican Council as counter-productive,” Martin told ThinkProgress. “They tend to be more focused on rules — tend to be more black and white.”

“[Radical traditionalists] tend to see the reforms of the Second Vatican Council as counter-productive,” Martin told ThinkProgress. “They tend to be more focused on rules — tend to be more black and white.”

Radical traditionalist views also extend to debates over Islam. Cardinal Burke has argued that it is reasonable for non-Muslims to be “afraid” of Islam’s potential to take over nations, as he believes they have a “religious obligation to govern” using Shariah law once they become a majority population. He also pushed back on the idea that Islam is “like the Catholic faith or the Jewish faith,” saying, “that simply is not objectively the case.”

While he’s never claimed to be a “Rad Trad” himself, Bannon shares aspects of the radical traditionalist worldview, including their collective resistance to the so-called “secularization” of society and their frustration with Pope Francis. When interviewing Breitbart contributor Austin Ruse on his radio show in 2014, Bannon invoked the pontiff’s left-leaning economic ideals, and then proceeded to ask if the pope was a Communist. What’s more, Bannon’s anti-immigrant ideology is directly opposed to that of Francis, who has called on every parish in Europe to take in a Syrian refugee (including the Vatican itself).

(It’s also worth noting that Pope Francis openly sparred with Donald Trump in 2016 over his proposal to build a wall between Mexico and the United States, implying then-candidate Trump was not a good Christian.)

Bannon, for his part, name-checked like-minded Catholics during his 2014 speech, listing them as his brothers in spiritual arms.

“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,” he said.

The term “Church Militant” — a theological phrase originally that generally refers to all Christians here on earth — is also the name of a budding right-wing news station here in the United States, where a distinctly American brand of radical Catholic traditionalism is slowly making a name for itself. The media outlet, which has been repeatedly criticized by the local Archdiocese and whose stories frequently reference Breitbart articles, voices hardline views on Islam that resemble their counterparts in Europe. Its leader has also compared Donald Trump to Constantine, arguing that both are immoral leaders who can ultimately prove beneficial for Christians.

“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…[it] will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”

Despite their swelling profile, however, the exact role of the radical traditionalists on both sides of the pond remains a matter of dispute. Martin noted the “irony” of self-professed traditionalists rejecting formal church teaching established during the Second Vatican Council, and noted that their actual size and influence is “very overstated.” He also dismissed the tendency to frame Islam and Christianity as locked in an epic struggle.

“It’s not a battle, it’s not a crusade…The Church does not see it as a war,” he said. “To frame it as an us vs. them model is really unhelpful — and not particularly Catholic.”

A ‘Rad Trad’ ally in the White House?

CREDIT: AP/Kevin Hagen
CREDIT: AP/Kevin Hagen

Influential or not, radical traditionalists and their sympathizers were well represented at the 2014 Vatican conference where Bannon spoke, which was hosted by the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, or Institute for Human Dignity (DHI).

Headed up by Benjamin Harnwell, the DHI is officially geared towards protecting the rights of Christian and Jewish politicians in Europe who want speak to their faith in the public sphere — but Harnwell is often listed as ideologically aligned with the Rad Trads.

In an interview with ThinkProgress, Harnwell was quick to downplay any explicit connection between Bannon and like-minded Catholics in Rome, but acknowledged that his personal relationship with the White House adviser is a one of deep mutual appreciation. Harnwell helped orchestrate an interview between Cardinal Burke and Bannon for Breitbart in 2014 — the same year as the conference — and the front page of DHI’s website includes an image of Bannon positioned above a glowing quote that champions Harnwell as “the smartest man in Rome.”

“For him, I would say that the great virtues of the West come from its Judeo-Christian cultural heritage, and that heritage has to be defended.”

Harnwell is equally effusive of Bannon, telling ThinkProgress in a phone interview that he considers him “a walking myth.” But while he sees Bannon as a “man of faith,” he also drew a careful distinction between the former Breitbart editor and the faith-fueled politics of someone like Mike Pence.

“I think Bannon’s primary motivation is political, rather than religious,” Harnwell said. “Though that said, one of his major motivations is to protect and defend the Judeo-Christian foundation of Western civilization. I would say he sees, looking around at the different cultures in the world, that cultural differences arise in great part due to the different religions at the base of respective cultures. What religion is at the base of the West? Christianity.”

“For him, I would say that the great virtues of the West come from its Judeo-Christian cultural heritage, and that heritage has to be defended,” he added. “So it’s a religious motivation in a second order sense rather than a first order sense — I don’t think he gets up in the morning and says, ‘I’m going to do X today because God has called me to do it.’”

Harnwell, like other Catholic commentators, refuted conspiracy theories that Bannon and supporters in the Vatican are somehow coordinating efforts to undermine Pope Francis. Martin also noted that outside groups often host conferences at the Vatican, and in no way indicate an official endorsement of the papacy or the curia.

“I don’t think [Bannon] gets up in the morning and says, ‘I’m going to do X today because God has called me to do it.’”

Still, the shared worldview between Bannon and radical traditionalists, even if it amounts to little more than vocal approval, inevitably raises the profile of their various right-wing political projects here and abroad. Bannon’s talk resonated with many (albeit not all) in the crowd during his Vatican speech, and Harnwell himself echoed Bannon’s oft-quoted desire to “bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment” two years later during a 2016 radio interview with Bannon.

When asked about a theory purporting the collapse of western society due to population control (Bannon himself was dubious), Harnwell said such a calamity “might not be such a bad thing.”

“If we’re talking about the wholesale collapse of society, one of the things that’s going to collapse with that is liberal secular government,” he said.

Thus Bannon, who once declared Breitbart the “platform of the [largely white nationalist movement known as the] alt-right,” may also be making the oval office a de facto platform for Rad Trads here and abroad.

Harnwell certainly seems to think so: when asked by ThinkProgress if he sees Bannon as an ally in the White House, his answer was instant.

“Absolutely — why wouldn’t I?” he said.

This article is part of an ongoing series on the faith of presidential candidates and, now, the members of the new Trump administration such as Vice President Mike Pence. You can find the other articles in the series here.