The Political Religions That Brought Down Roe

By Frederick Clarkson | 19 May 2022
Ms Magazine

Opus Dei’s Washington headquarters is the Catholic Information Center, or CIC. In October at its John Paul II New Evangelization Award Dinner, the organization will formally honor Leonard Leo—longtime president of the Federalist Society who led campaigns in support of Supreme Court nominees John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. (CIC)

This article was originally published in Ms. Magazine. Ms. is wholly owned and published by the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Since it has become clear that Roe v. Wade will be overturned, most of the commentary focused on the history of the law and the politics of the Supreme Court.

But there is much more to the story. The Catholic Church has been the principal religious opponent to advances in birth control and abortion rights and access. But to achieve its goals, it needed allies in its long-term campaign of resistance. It took some time, but they found them.

How conservative Christianity waged a half-century war on Roe will be the stuff of books and graduate theses. Here are some of the major themes that they will contain.

Co-Belligerents

In the years before Roe, a tectonic cultural shift was well underway in the the bellwether institutions of mainline Protestantism, which had been at the center of American culture for centuries. Increasingly, they were joining most of Judaism to take pro-choice positions. For example, the United Church of Christ, the 20th century legacy of the Pilgrims (1971), The Episcopal Church (1967) and the Presbyterian Church (USA) (1970). At the time of the 1973 Roe decision, even the conservative Southern Baptist Convention was moderately pro-choice.

In the 1980s, it was not uncommon to see a lone Catholic prelate, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, sitting uncomfortably on a stage with evangelical anti-abortion leaders. But things began to change thanks to the work of conservative evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer, whose books, films and public campaigns helped galvanize much of evangelicalism into confrontation with the secular state on abortion.

Schaeffer said that the situations that justified revolution against tyranny in the past are “exactly what we are facing today.” The whole structure of our society, he concluded, “is being attacked and destroyed.”

But Schaeffer knew it would take an alliance with the Catholics to prevail, and so he crafted the idea of “co-belligerency,” which presumed it was necessary to set aside institutional imperatives and theological differences in order to cooperate on a shared political agenda.

Schaeffer’s books set many evangelicals on a theological journey from anti-abortion protests to emphasizing a politics of theocratic dominion.

Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, who traveled the country organizing blockades of abortion clinics, said, “You have to read Schaeffer’s Christian Manifesto if you want to understand Operation Rescue.” After reading the contemporary theocratic thinkers known as Christian Reconstructionists, he wrote in his 1995 book, The Sword: The Blessing of Righteous Government and the Overthrow of Tyrants: “I gladly confess that I want to see civic law in America (and every nation) restored to and based on the Law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai.”

Terry’s theological evolution epitomizes the sea change in evangelical theology and politics that has guided the maturation of the Christian right political movement in moving beyond protest to contesting for political and governmental power.

The Enemy of My Enemy Is my Friend

This alliance would require overcoming many religious differences, ideological divides and centuries-old mutual distrust and animosity. For example, Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told CNN’s Larry King in 2000. “As an evangelical, I believe the Roman Church is a false church and it teaches a false gospel. I believe the pope himself holds a false and unbiblical office.” The same year, the Vatican issued a proclamation titled Dominus Iesus, which stated that other Christian churches “are not ‘churches’ in the proper sense” and that this a “definitive and irrevocable” doctrine of the church.

But a series of dialogues between evangelical and Catholic thought leaders was already quietly underway. They sought to reduce tensions and find sufficient common ground to be able to mobilize Christian conservatives in an historic war on democracy as we have known it. Perhaps the most significant of these conversations was led by neoconservative Catholic priest John Neuhaus and the late evangelical Christian right leader, Charles Colson, which led to a manifesto titled Evangelicals and Catholics Together in 1994.

“Where evangelicals and Catholics are in severe and sometimes violent conflict, such as parts of Latin America,” they wrote, “we urge Christians to embrace and act upon the imperative of religious freedom. Religious freedom will not be respected by the state if it is not respected by Christians or, even worse, if Christians attempt to recruit the state in repressing religious freedom.”

These efforts culminated in the 2009 publication of the Manhattan DeclarationA Call of Christian Conscience. Organized primarily by Roman Catholic neoconservative leader, Robert P. George, the publication was unprecedented in the history of Christianity. The original list of 150 signatories included evangelical leaders and activists as well as 50 sitting bishops, archbishops and cardinals—not merely a token Catholic prelate or two.

That Albert Mohler was one of the signatories demonstrated how far they had come in their quest for an effective co-belligerency.

The historic and galvanizing success of their three-point platform of “life,” “marriage” and “religious freedom” soon framed the agenda of the Christian right, the Catholic bishops and the Republican party. Even Mitt Romney invoked these three points in his acceptance speech at the GOP presidential nominating convention in 2012. This growing alliance of wary co-belligerents continues to grow in political strength and maturity, defining the politics of our time.

Wielding Power

Donald Trump promised the Christian right that lifted him to power that he would appoint justices who would overturn Roe. He kept his word. But he was quietly guided to the right choices in his judicial nominations by a troika of the kinds of people who quietly make things happen in Washington.

What was unusual about Trump’s troika was their relationships with each other and with the secretive, conservative Catholic organization, Opus Dei, where all three served on the board of its Washington headquarters, the Catholic Information Center (CIC)—just two blocks from The White House.

Opus Dei, which means “the work of God” in Latin, is a conservative, arguably “fascistic” (according to author Craig Unger) international Catholic organization that was founded during the reign of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and became a global “personal prelature” by John Paul II.

Opus Dei encourages Catholic laypeople and priests to embody Catholic doctrine through their chosen professions. What this means to people whose professions are Washington power brokers, is part of the story of how Roe came to be overturned.

Opus Dei is best-known for its depiction in the book and film, The Da Vinci Code, but there is nothing fictional about their role in changing the course of history. The group targeted American political and business leaders for conversion, including former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich; former U.S. Senator Sam Brownback; Larry Kudlow, National Economic Council director under Trump; Judge Robert Bork, Reagan’s failed Supreme Court nominee; and Fox News Host Laura Ingraham.

Pat Cipollone, who served as White House counsel to Trump from December 2018 to January 2021, was listed as a member of the Opus Dei CIC board, at least until CIC stopped publishing their board list in October 2018. Today, his daughter-in-law is a clerk for Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

Longtime CIC director Leonard Leo was a key outside advisor to the White House on judicial nominations. He was and remains a honcho of the Federalist Society, the right’s answer to the American Bar Association.

William Barr chaired the small CIC board in 2014 and served until 2017 when he joined the Trump administration as attorney general. Following his departure as AG in January 2021, Barr eventually came home to the Catholic Information Center as a senior fellow, and in October 2021, he was installed as “the inaugural holder” of the new “St. Thomas More Chair.” He is not the only member of the troika to be recognized for his contributions—CIC is presenting Leonard Leo with an award this fall.

Craig Unger notes that Opus Dei is a secret society that does its best to cloak its membership and when confronted, to downplay its significance. That these three power brokers were (and may still be) leaders in a key Opus Dei agency is a matter of record. Their role in installing Trump’s anti-Roe justices on the Supreme Court is also a matter of record.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Frederick Clarkson is an American journalist and public speaker in the fields of politics and religion. He is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy; editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America; and co-author of Challenging the Christian Right: The Activist’s Handbook for which he and his co-author were named among the “Media Heroes of 1992” by the Institute for Alternative Journalism.

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