Father Altman, the Catholic Church and Christian Socialism

La Crosse priest Fr. James Altman gained notoriety recently through a video that went viral in which he declared that Catholics cannot be Democrats, praised President Trump and called climate change a hoax. Hundreds subsequently turned out for a rally in support of Altman in downtown La Crosse after he faced a backlash for his comments. Altman promotes a conspiracy-laden, right-wing vision for the Catholic Church that echoes the Evangelical Protestant right. To offer a perspective from the left on Altman and the Catholic Church more broadly, we spoke to Daniel Walden, a Catholic socialist, writer, and graduate student at the University of Michigan, whose work has appeared in the magazines Current Affairs and The Bias. He shared his thoughts on the Altman video, how his Catholic faith led him to become a socialist, and why American conservatism is intrinsically hostile to Christian love.

What was your reaction to Fr. Altman’s video?

DW: I thought it was overproduced right-wing propaganda transparently aiming at viral circulation among the worst elements of the American right. It happily indulges in conspiracy theory and right-wing fantasy, and I was ashamed that a priest of Christ’s Church was involved with such a thing.

Hundreds came out to support Altman in La Crosse after backlash to the video. Why does Altman’s message resonate so forcefully with many Catholics right now? 

DW: I think that the American Catholic hierarchy was close for many years with the power- brokers of the Republican Party, and this relationship is only beginning to unravel in the way that it should. This relationship was based on a number of shared ideological priorities, including a focus on anti-abortion and anti-communist policy agendas, but it also was and continues to be deeply rooted in white Catholic racism. Make no mistake: the Republican Party is an overtly racist and white supremacist party, and has been for many, many years. Catholics of Irish, German, Polish, and Italian descent were for many decades on the margins of American whiteness, but in the early 20th century gained full inclusion in it so long as we continued to uphold America’s racial hierarchy. Even to this day, despite Latin American Catholics making up over a third of the U.S. Catholic population, they make up only about 10% of bishops. We have barely begun to repent and make reparations for our Church’s complicity with American white supremacy. I think Fr. Altman’s video resonated with many people because white Americans, including white Catholics, are afraid of what it would mean to shake up America’s racial hierarchy, and his video gives them religious license to throw in their lot with an overtly white supremacist party.

The role of religious faith on the left/liberal side of American politics is less prominent and influential than among conservatives. Why is this so? 

DW: Religious faith has many different expressions, and it will always have tensions with both the political right and the political left. But I think we should be careful: the “religious right” is not a heterogeneous coalition of interests. It remains a bloc controlled by Evangelical Protestant Christians, and all the other partners in that coalition, including Catholics, Jews, and other Protestants, ultimately bow to the political interests of Evangelicals, who make up about a quarter of the population of the U.S. and reliably vote strongly Republican. By contrast, liberals and leftists are demographically less religious in general, and of those who are, no group has the numbers to dominate the conversation. And because religious people on the left are usually members either of small religious groups with very little institutional power and infrastructure or members of established but politically divided religions, they are not capable of commanding the kind of influence that the Christian right is able to.

You write and advocate from a leftist perspective that is very much driven by your religious principles. How has your Christian faith influenced your politics?

DW: Well, I should say that my perspective is very specifically a Catholic one; other Christians on the left will articulate their principles in their own way, but I think mine have a very distinctly Catholic basis and flavor. The Church has taught since its founding that the world belongs to humanity as a whole: it is God’s gift to us, and in a deeper way, we are God’s gift to one another. We are created to live with one another in love. Capitalism makes this impossible, because intrinsic to capitalism is class war, in which the continued prosperity of capitalists rests on the immiseration of workers. The great Irish theologian Fr. Herbert McCabe, O.P. puts it best when he writes that “What is wrong with capitalism is simply that it is based on human antagonism, and it is precisely here that it comes into conflict with Christianity. Capitalism is a state of war, but not just a state of war between equivalent forces; it involves a war between those who believe in and prosecute war as a way of life, and those who do not.” The vast majority of the people in this world do have political enemies; Jesus’s command to love our enemies does not deny this reality, but demands that even those who are our enemies, whose interest is structurally and violently opposed to our own, be included in our love. I think that the way to love our class enemies is to work toward the overthrow of the system that makes them our enemies and build in its place a society in which they, too, will have everything they need.

Can you talk about what Christian socialism stands for and about its rich historical tradition in the struggle for justice?

DW: There are a lot of Christian socialisms; the socialist tradition itself has many expressions, and there are over 10,000 groups that identify themselves as Christian churches. This leads us to articulate our goals differently and gives rise to sometimes sharp differences in our preferred tactics. But if I had to identify what’s most fundamental to all of them, I would say that it’s the recognition that each person bears the image of God, and that our duty to love and care for them is absolutely unconditional. This does not mean only private acts of charity, but also advocacy for systemic change so that no one is left without their basic needs met.

How can religious individuals reconcile their Christian faith without the right-wing toxicity of Altman’s views on abortion, climate change, and immigration? And, conversely, can a radical interpretation of the Gospel be crucial for leftists who are not religious?

DW: Oh, I think that in theory, it’s relatively easy to be a Christian without being a toxic mouthpiece for the right, because American conservatism is intrinsically hostile to Christian love, premised as it is on maintaining hierarchies of human worth with rich white men at the top. What is far more difficult is being opposed to this evil in practice, because serious opposition to the evils of racism and class oppression tends to lead to job loss, police harassment, and imprisonment or death. Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J. and Fred Hampton both put their opposition to the racist American war machine into practice; Berrigan was hounded and arrested by the FBI and Hampton was assassinated. The fact is that there will always be strong incentives to identify service to God with service to the nation-state or to the most powerful; this is a form of temptation, and must be resisted like any other, by committing ourselves to prayer and to works of love. As for whether the Gospel is crucial for leftists who are not religious: I obviously think it is, or I wouldn’t be a Christian. But it’s hard to see that immediately, because the Gospel is not an immediate blueprint for action, but the news that God loves us and wants to help us return that love. I think that with time, it will become apparent that this is the most crucial news of all, but making that apparent demands real evangelism, which is to say that it demands Christians willing to learn what people’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs are and to meet those needs as fully as we can.

Lastly, you recently wrote about “the need for love as the basis for all our action.” How can love guide us as we collectively navigate through the pandemic, economic collapse, and social unrest of this moment?

DW: Love makes a poor blueprint for action, not because it shouldn’t guide us—it’s the only thing that can—but because we’re very bad at even knowing what love is. We can start, however, by reminding ourselves that our political enemies are people like ourselves: limited, deeply flawed, and prone to doing evil. We don’t get to renounce them and exclude them from our sphere of concern: ultimately, the fight against injustice is a fight for their good as well. This is not a question of cultivating happy thoughts about them: rather, it is an austere and demanding discipline to keep the image of God in our enemy always before our eyes. But it is the only way to avoid the great lie of partisanship, which is that you will protect yourself from temptation and sin by throwing in with one faction rather than another. We can’t hide from sin in human institutions: protecting us from sin is the work of the Holy Spirit, far beyond our own meager powers. Fortunately, Christ gave us a set of much easier disciplines that prepare us for the most difficult one. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, ransoming the captive: these are the ways we train for the much more difficult task of loving. To do the works of mercy is to prepare ourselves to receive the Love that holds the stars in their courses, and the day when we can fully receive Love Himself in our hearts will be the day in which division and sin and death are cast away, and we can finally begin to live fully in the Love for which we were made.

Interview by Adam Schendel. Email questions or story ideas to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com. Top photo credit: Statue of St. Francis of Assisi in the courtyard of the Old North Church in Boston by MK Feeney/CC BY 2.0

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