Stephen Bannon’s Uber-Right Religion Parked in the Bosom of the White House

He has been called the “real president,” and “the person really pulling the strings,” the “mind of Donald Trump,” “his ideological guru,” “the power behind the throne,” “Trump’s Karl Rove,” “the second most powerful man in the world,” “the world’s most dangerous man,” a “white supremacist Svengali,” a “stone cold racist and a white supremacist sympathizer” and much more. 

His name is Stephen Bannon and he is Trump’s number one man and, by his own chicanery, now a member of the National Security Council.  Having overseen the far right and race-baiting, women-hating, anti-semitic, white-supremacist-attracting Breitbart News for years, he brings a special bite to American politics and to the White House itself.  Among the headlines in Bannon’s tenure as Breitbart captain were the following:

  • “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew”
  • “Sympathy for the Devil: The Plot Against Roger Ailes--and America”
  • “There’s no Bias against Women in Tech, they just suck at interviews”
  • “Planned Parenthood’s Body Count under Cecile Richards Is up to Half a Holocaust”
  • “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy”
  • “The Solution to Online ‘Harassment’ is Simple: Women Should Log Off”
  • “Trump 100% Vindicated: CBS Reports ‘Swarm’ on Rooftops Celebrating 9/11”
  • “Racist, Pro-Nazi Roots of Planned Parenthood Revealed”

This reads like a National Inquirer litany of headlines and that is what Breitbart is—a National Inquirer devoted to politics and so-called news (anyone looking for “fake news” would be wise to begin here.  It is discomforting of course to see a president hiring a captain of false news to place in the White House but why is anyone or any news agency surprised by the rise of fake news under this administration?).  The loud noises about “fake news” emanating from the White House appear to be 98% projection, which comes of course from a soul that has not examined itself.

By anyone’s definition of the term, Bannon is also a religious zealot.  He has a special relationship with the single most unrepentant uber-right cardinal in the Catholic Church: the former archbishop of St. Louis, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was demoted by Pope Francis in 2014 from his job as head of the Vatican Judiciary (like the Vatican Supreme Court).

To put Burke out to pasture for his wildly backwards ideas, the Pope made him a chaplain to the Knights of Malta.  But even there the erstwhile archbishop poisoned the well so completely that the Pope had to intervene two months ago, firing Matthew Festing, the grandmaster of the 1,000-year-old Order, who had summarily dismissed a member for daring to propose condoms to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS for Muslim women in Myanmer who were often subject to rape by the military.

Festing was pushed relentlessly by Burke to fight back against the Pope for this dismissal.  This did not go over too well in the Vatican and the result was that the grandmaster was fired and the Pope appointed a new interim grandmaster to oversee things until the Order elected a new leader.  The Pope also reinstated the Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, who had been dismissed byFesting in cahoots with Cardinal Burke.  One influential knight said that Burke’s influence on the former grandmaster was buttressed by his increased power linked to his friend in the White House.[1]

It seems that Trump’s right-hand man Bannon met with Raymond Burke at a Vatican meetings in 2014 and they hit it off and “bonded over their shared world view,” which includes an apocalyptic vision of Islam “threatening to overrun a prostrate West weakened by the erosion of traditional Christian values.’”[2] This parallels a screenplay Bannon produced a few years ago about a United States that has been turned into the “Islamic States of America.” 

In 2006, Damon Linker wrote a book titled The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, which exposed the right wing religious pillars of George W. Bush’s administration, promoted the highly conservative teachings of Pope John Paul II, and sought to unify traditional Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and far-right Jews. According to Linker, Bannon “enjoys much greater proximity to power than the original theocons ever attained” and his “ideology is far more radically illiberal than [radical right wing Catholic] Neuhaus and his allies espoused.”[3] Bannon treats religious affiliation “wholly as a function of ethno-national identity” and in so doing he mirrors Putin’s support of the Russian Orthodox, thereby sanctioning an official ethno-national church. Here is one more connection between the Trump administration and Putin’s Russia—a shared religious ideology.

Indeed, when Bannon was invited to speak at a recent Vatican Congress by Benjamin Harnwell, a mutual friend of Bannon and his co-conspirator Cardinal Burke, he used the term “church militant” in his first sentence to name his vision.

Bannon is seeking to overthrow the post-World War II world.  While proposing that Bannon’s philosophy might be called “theoconservatism 2.0,” Linker opts instead for the following: “Theofascism might be more accurate.”[4]

Bannon is nothing if not apocalyptic.  He seems to envision that the United States is headed for a battle with either Islam or China that will culminate in a third world war.  His ideology is full of gloom and doom resembling the dark vision outlined in Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican Convention as well as in his inaugural speech – the demise of America and the West, the “American carnage.” 

How excited are Cardinal Burke and the anti-Pope-Francis elements in the Vatican about the Bannon/Trump team in the White House?  Jason Horowitz, writing for the New York Times, puts it this way: “While Mr. Trump, a twice-divorced president who has boasted of groping women, may seem an unlikely ally of traditionalists in the Vatican, many of them regard his election and the ascendance of Mr. Bannon as potentially game-changing breakthroughs.”[5] 

One should remember in this context that Cardinal Burke is the one who declared that a divorced Catholic who remarries and takes communion or a gay couple who make love are the same as a murderer who commits murder.  It seems, in the twisted patriarchal mind of Cardinal Burke, that a man who gropes women and brags about it is okay to support if his view of the world is anti-Muslim enough. 

So we have Trump’s right hand man (whom some call the acting president since Donald is too busy watching TV and throwing late-night Twitter tantrums to study or read anything philosophical) playing footsie with far-right parties throughout Europe, Putin included, as well as connecting to far-right elements of the Roman Catholic Church who oppose Pope Francis with vengeance.  One bishop writing from South America called such Catholics “neurotics for orthodoxy,” and Burke is currently their leader and savior and hero. One wonders what Bannon’s relationship is to Opus Dei, the supremely patriarchal and sexist fascist order that was mightily supported by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict. They love to go where the power lies and have eagerly infiltrated Fox News and other media as well as the CIA, FBI and Supreme Court, as I have documented in my book The Pope’s War.[6]

The radical traditionalists in the Roman Catholic Church see the Trump/Bannon team as saviors who will stand up for traditional Catholic values and against Islam, and fight tooth and nail to resist the social justice conscience that Pope Francis is advocating. 

It is interesting that the issue that got the Knights of Malta blow-up launched was that of birth control and condoms.  Pope Francis has complained that some Catholics put all their theology “into a condom.” Clearly, he is calling out the traditionalists, with Burke (who is not a theologian by any stretch of imagination but is trained in canon law) as their leader. 

The latest news on Bannon’s buddy Cardinal Burke is that Pope Francis sent him off to Guam to perform some canon law exercise there. Sounds like a demotion from being a chaplain to the Knights of Malta.  For an ambitious cleric like Burke, this must sting a bit.  Let us pray for the people of Guam.

When Obama was in the White House Pope Francis had an ally there, but now with Trump/Bannon, a much colder relationship will exist and it is clear that very few Roman Catholic prelates in the United States will stand up on behalf of Pope Francis.  Exceptions are his recent appointees, including the new Cardinals of Chicago and Newark.  But the old guard, installed by John Paul II and Benedict, are waiting in the wings biding their time to return to power: Cardinal Dolan of New York and the two young Opus Dei archbishops of California: Jose Gomez Valasco of Los Angeles (who was pointedly refused a cardinal hat by Pope Francis, though elected to be number two man in the bishops’ conference just recently) and Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco; there are a number of others.  As one Canadian Archbishop told a friend of mine several years ago, before Pope Francis came to power, “There is not one bishop appointment of the last 30 years that I can admire or respect.”

Daniel Fluette, the head of production for Breitbart, described Bannon’s meeting with Cardinal Burke as “incredibly powerful” for Bannon: following their initial encounter, Bannon directed the documentary Torchbearer, in which the Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson mulls over “the apocalyptic consequences of an eroding Christendom.”[7] The two continue their connection by email on a range of topics, including who should be Trump’s ambassador to the Vatican.[8]

Bannon has been known to call Pope Francis a “socialist/communist.” Meanwhile, back in Italy, Cardinal Burke has proposed that Pope Francis should offer a “formal act of correction” for his encyclical on the family, Amoris Laetitia, because it does not condemn divorced Catholics or gay Catholics.

Burke thus is a lightning rod and champion for the rightist movement in the Catholic Church at this time.  And he has friends in very high places—such as the White House.  “Under Bannon, Breitbart News urged its Rome correspondent to write sympathetically about” Cardinal Burke, reports the New York Times.[9]  

Meanwhile, Pope Francis continues to support an inclusive church which is polar opposite to the Bannon/Trump/Burke vision.  He castigates “Savage Capitalism” and trickle-down economics.  His spokesperson has called Trump’s ban on immigrants from Muslim countries the “opposite” of the pope’s vision for fostering unity and peace and the Pope is eager to avoid a clash of Muslim and Christian civilizations which the fundamentalists are heralding.

In his speech at the Vatican (arranged by Cardinal Burke), Bannon talked passionately about a “new barbarity that’s started, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2500 years.”[10]  He is preaching this call to arms and urging of a new “church militant” in the bowels of the Catholic Church.   Yes, this is the right-hand man and to many the puppeteer of the president of the United States. 

I agree with Bannon when he talks about the “underpinning of this populist revolt [being] the financial crisis of 2008” which fueled the anger in the Tea Party and I would add in many who voted for Trump.  But the solutions he strives for, so readily apparent now after a month into the Trump/Bannon presidency, are far from those promised: Wall Street, billionaires, climate change deniers and earth-destroyers, all populate the highest places in their cabinet.  It takes an impossible act of faith to see any crumbs coming down from those tables to feed the hunger of a wounded populist population and it would take a miracle to save the Earth from the destruction that is the sure goal of the cabinet climate deniers, such as the now head of EPA who has wanted for decades to dismantle the agency he now directs and has sued it on 14 occasions.

Bannon has been given credit for the waterfall of executive orders signed by Trump in his first weeks in office, including but not limited to the disastrous action to ban immigrants from seven Muslim countries, a fulfillment of Trump’s promise in the campaign to ban Muslims.  Some see nothing but chaos in Trump’s first weeks in the White House but others, myself included, see a strategy devised by Bannon & Co. to so flood the media with words and actions and chaos that very little truly gets digested or criticized before a new barrage begins.  In other words, chaos is a strategy.  Much of it is distraction so that the real stories of what is happening will be sidelined by media’s penchant for entertainment over news.  Trump, a reality show star, knows how to entertain.  The media, slow as it is, cannot altogether grasp how it is being used. 

The rousing of the populace in defiance, as for example in the Women’s Marches, offers some hope, but runs the risk of falling prey to the wiles of Bannon & Co., as happened when a protest march was called at the University of California in Berkeley in response to a rabble-rousing writer at Breitbart news who prides himself on insulting women, gays, and progressives of any stripe.  While the school bent over backwards to allow this man his ‘free speech’ rights on campus, thousands of people expressed their rights to disagree.  But the protests were infiltrated by a small number of so-called “arsonists” who broke windows and threatened police and others.  One wonders if these extremists were hired by some outside forces to destroy the non-violent protest?

Trump’s response the next day was to threaten to stop money from coming to the University. Might the small group of so-called “anarchists” be serving the purposes of the Trump/Bannon strategy?  Might they be hired provocateurs?  If so, it would not be the first time in recent history when such things occurred.

John Feffer has authored an article with an incisive title entitled “Steven Bannon’s real vision isn’t America first.  It’s America alone.”[11] He backs it up with mounting evidence that under Trump/Bannon, in only three weeks, America has become a pariah nation to friend and foe alike.  He cites Germany’s Der Spiegel that claims Trump is “the world’s most dangerous man,” quoting the president of the European council as saying that Trump “put into question the last 70 years of America foreign policy” and comparing the threat of the United States to Europe to be on the scale of that of Russia and the Islamic State:  “Because Brussels can no longer depend on Washington, Tusk’s letter amounts to an EU declaration of independence.”[12]

Says Feffer: “Some presidents pride themselves on visiting as many nations in the world as possible.  Donald Trump, the Don Rickles of American presidents, prides himself on insulting as many nations as he can—late at night and with fewer than 140 characters.”  He poses the following question: “What does it mean for international relations when the most powerful country in the world becomes a pariah state?  Trump’s got it wrong.  It’s not America First.  It’s America Alone.  So sad!”[13] 

It could well be that Bannon & Co. are pleased with the kind of negative press that Trump is getting—isn’t this one way to get a reactionary revolution going?  And to gin favor with other crackpot regimes, Putin’s Russia included?  And to whip up all the fervent right wing factions to boiling point, including more white separatists (a favorite readership for Bannon’s Breitbart news) and others seeking to become the “church militant” with guns and all?  Might making enemies of the “establishment” everywhere, the Vatican included, be exactly what Bannon has in mind?  

Here is how Feffer sees it:

Bannon is comfortable having the United States raked over the coals by international leaders, the Trump administration ‘crucified’ in the press, and his own name vilified by protestors in the street.  To effect a thorough, bottom-to-top revolution in domestic and international affairs the United States must risk pariah status.  Such is the way new orders are born.  Nor is Bannon alone in his efforts.  He is joined by both religious zealots (like Mike Pence) and geopolitical zealots (like Mike Flynn). [14]

All of whom Trump has enthusiastically invited on his team.  Meanwhile, the Grand Old Party says nothing.  “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” seems to be the slogan of the Republicans in Congress. “What, me worry?” is apparently the new brand for the once-proud Republican Party.

Feffer concludes his essay with a very sobering but it seems to me accurate assessment, that the role of Donald Trump in all these apocalyptic goings on – a  self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one –is quite modest:

“He is not particularly religious, not particularly ideological, or particularly interested in the world beyond what his stubby fingers can grasp…. He’s old and greedy, interested only in the short con.  He wants to be admired, not reviled as a pariah. But he’s also capable of monumental self-deception, which extends to his mistaken belief that the ‘real people’ have all rallied behind him.”

…Bannon and his fellow extremists, by contrast, are in it for the long haul. As zealots, they’re willing to put up with pariah status for as long as it takes.  Make no mistake: It will get ugly.  The liberal internationalists that they excoriate as ‘globalists’ are putting up a fight.  So is the not-so-silent majority.[15] 

Meanwhile a great cleavage looms within the Republican Party when large corporations resist the anti-Muslim orders being issued by the President and Bannon.  And consumers and newly found political activists are rebelling also.  As other countries are filling the void of America’s “new pariah status,”  says Feffer, “Germany finds itself the default ‘leader of the free world.’”  Russia, China, even the Islamic State can rise over the dead ashes of an isolated America: “The Trump administration is not interested in drawing other nations to itself.  It seems reconciled to inspiring hatred.  The new crew is comfortable with the solitude of its power—and the zealotry of its vision.”[16]  

In a sobering and scary article entitled “Steve Bannon Wants to Start World War III,” Micah L. Sifry, author of The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet),” cites historian David Kaiser who met with Bannon when he was filming Generation Zero.  Bannon had asked to interview Kaiser for the film and Kaiser refused—but he did sit down with him and has since offered the following assessment of Bannon’s worldview which he gleaned from that exchange.  Bannon’s philosophy is based on the writings of “pop historians” Strauss and Howe, who posit that about every 80 years a big crisis changes things in America, says Kaiser:

More than once during our interview, he [Bannon] pointed out that each of the three preceding crises had involved a great war, and those conflicts had increased in scope from the American Revolution through the Civil war to the Second World War.  He expected a new and even bigger war as part of the current crisis, and he did not seem at all fazed by the prospect.  I did not agree, and said so.  But, knowing that the history of international conflicts was my own specialty, he repeatedly pressed me to say we could expect a conflict at least as big as the Second World War in the near or medium term.  I refused.[17]

Sifry concludes his article this way:

Bannon doesn’t just believe that we are in an existential conflict with Islam or with China.  It seems he wants to exacerbate those conflicts into a new world war.  As a believer in Strauss and Howe’s theory of history, Bannon fantasizes that he can use that cataclysm to forge a completely new order.  He is now in a position to make that a reality.[18]

In attempting to evaluate Bannon, the person behind the throne of Donald Trump, perhaps the best perspective comes from psychiatrist Erich Fromm, who wrote in response to the tragedies and perfidies of the Second World War and the holocaust. In his classic book on evil, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, he distinguishes between the love of life (biophilia) and the love of death (necrophilia).  Evil for Fromm is the choice of necrophilia over biophilia.  He offers the following observation:

Severely necrophilous persons are very dangerous.  They are the haters, the racists, those in favor of war, bloodshed, and destruction.  They are dangerous not only if they are political leaders, but also as the potential cohorts for a dictatorial leader.  They become the executioners, terrorists, torturers; without them no terror system could be set up.[19] 

It is not a compliment to American evangelicals that 80% of them voted for Trump. Did they also know they were voting for Bannon and the religious dross he carries with him?  Now they do.  How will they respond?

When I was writing about Cardinal Ratzinger I examined the psychological studies of bullies.  One can see similar characteristics in Trump.  One thing that characterizes bullies is their being cowards on the inside in spite of the bluster and threat they project to the outside world.  Thus, they also yearn and indeed need a “wolf pack” to support them especially as they march against more popular forces.  From everything I have seen Mr. Bannon is head of that wolf pack for Mr. Trump, the power behind the throne, the one to be reckoned with.  He is there because Trump very much wants and needs him there.  Bannon does not depend on democratic institutions to support him, but only on the wishes of his boss.  In fact, he is on record as wanting to destroy such institutions beginning with the press.  But Bannon is depending on people like Cardinal Burke to bless his ideologies of over-the-top apocalyptic visions. 

One hopes that the evil of which Fromm warns us is checkmated faster and earlier this time around than it was when the Germans last traveled this path in the 1930s.  One hopes the resistance—of the citizens, of the media and of politics in general (when will Republicans come on board to say No?) –will be louder and broader and deeper this time around. 

Theofascism marches on—from within the very bowels of the White House, the National Security Council, and the American government.  Will prophetic and democratic resistance stand up?  Time will tell.


[1] Jason Horowitz, “Steve Bannon Carries Battles to another Influential Hub: The Vatican,” New York Times, The New York Times Company. 7 February 2017 <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/07/world/europe/vatican-steve-bannon-pope-francis.html>

[2] Damon Linker, “Trump’s theofascist,” The Week, The Week Publications. 10 February 2017 <http://theweek.com/articles/679058/trumps-theofascist>

[3] Ibid., p. 2

[4] Ibid., p. 4.

[5] Jason Horowitz, loc., cit, p. 1.

[6] Matthew Fox, The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved (NY: Sterling Ethos, 2011), 106-124.

[7]. Horowitz, loc cit., p. 3.

[8] Ibid., p. 4.

[9] Ibid., p. 5.

[10] Ben Norton, “President Trump’s right-hand man Steve Bannon called for Christian holy war: Now he’s on the National Security Council,” Alternet.org. 29 January 2017 <http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/steve-bannon-christian-holy-war-islam-donald-trump-capitalism-secularism-atheism >

[11] John Feffer, “Steven Bannon’s Real Vision Isn’t America First. It’s America Alone,” Foreign Policy in Focus, The Institute for Policy Studies. 8 February 2017 <http://fpif.org/steven-bannons-real-vision-isnt-america-first-america-alone/>

[12] Ibid., p. 2.

[13] Ibid., p. 3.

[14] Ibid., p. 6.

[15] Ibid., p. 6.

[16] Ibid., pp. 4f.

[17] Micah L. Sifry, “Steve Bannon Wants to Start World War III”, The Nation. 8 February 2017 <https://www.thenation.com/article/steve-bannon-wants-to-start-world-war-iii>

[18] Ibid.

[19] Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1973) 368