Recently The Atlantic ran what we shall charitably call a poorly sourced and written op-ed that was eventually entitled "How Extremist Gun Culture is Trying to Co-op the Rosary.” I say "eventually" because the op-ed was initially entitled "How the Rosary Became an Extremist Symbol” (which if you look closely at the feature image, you will see that the decade beads are bullet holes) but due to them feeling the burning ire of the faithful they changed it to "How Gun Culture Co-Opted the Rosary." Apparently though, even that title did not offer them any online relief as even befuddled lukewarm Catholics were left refreshing their screens to make sure they had read the title correctly, so the title was changed again to the one it has now.
The author, a youthful Toronto-based writer named Daniel Panneton who is a professional “anti-hate researcher” (didn’t know such a position existed) who studies “hateful meme culture”, opens with this premise,
“Just as the AR-15 rifle has become a sacred object for Christian nationalists in general, the rosary has acquired a militaristic meaning for radical-traditional (or “rad trad”) Catholics. On this extremist fringe, rosary beads have been woven into a conspiratorial politics and absolutist gun culture. These armed radical traditionalists have taken up a spiritual notion that the rosary can be a weapon in the fight against evil and turned it into something dangerously literal.”
Most Catholic readers were understandably put off by this overwrought intro, but since most people don’t bother to check an author’s sources via the hyperlinks in an article, Panneton’s sloppiness (or malice) was easy to miss. For those who did their due diligence and followed up on his outlandish claims, a picture emerged of a profoundly clueless or maliciously clever writer, who is attempting to contrive an ideological rosary of his own by connecting a bunch of disparate groups and ideas. There have been many excellent analyses of this op-ed by both secular and Catholic sites. So rather than reiterate what has already been said, I want to concentrate on three broader points as to why Panneton's op-ed falls flat.
A Problem of Conflation
The main problem with Panneton’s premise is that he is framing it using a tried and true tactic of woke-minded intellectuals, which is to redefine or characterize groups or ideas to fit a specific ideological narrative. This is usually done by using the broadest definition possible when it is applied to those people or ideas that are being impugned, and as narrowly as possible whenever that definition is used against them (which is why accusations of hypocrisy or double-standards go nowhere).
In Panneton’s case he presents a spectrum of conservative Christian beliefs with everything from far-right “Christian” white supremacists (the real kind, not the ones defined by the overly broad woke definition), to Christian Nationalists (which he never defines in the article), and to “Rad-Trad” Catholics. As an expert on meme culture, he compares the imagery, catchphrases and even the clothing trends these various groups wear. Then he cobbles them together into a unified "extreme fringe" or "radical traditionalist" culture that is worthy of his disdain.
This of course creates a huge problem of conflation that allows Panneton to broadly assign guilt by the most facile of associations. So if some white supremacist sect and Catholic Rad-Trads uses the same image of a Crusader on their websites, then in Panneton's mind they must be in league with each other or share the same worldview. This is why a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. First off, racist Christian nationalists use the image of a "Deus Vult" Templar Knight (not a Crusader) to harken back to some imaginary history of a militant white European Christendom (one that ignores all the other Catholics in the rest of the medieval world). Traditional Catholics, by contrast, use the image of a Crusader or a Paladin (not the same thing--do your research!) to symbolize the reality of spiritual warfare in the church militant in this world. Of course, all of this is lost on the author, which leads to the second failing of Panneton’s op-ed.
2. A Problem of Research and Familiarity
Panneton reminds me of one of those people who write screeds on guns and gun control, but who has never owned or fired one. Or more appropriately he reminds me of Karl Marx who condemned capitalism in his logorrheic clunker Das Kapital without ever setting foot in a factory or workshop, but from the comforts of a library. Panneton may be a capable online researcher, but my guess is that he has never actually sat down and spoken in any meaningful way with any of the people he is paid to research and disparage.
This in part explains how someone like Panneton could seriously compare the militant imagery used by gun-toting far right Christian sects like the Rod of Iron Ministry (which is a part of the Unification Church--i.e. the Moonies), and what he cites as prominent “Catholic-cyber Militia" figures such as Fr. Z, Michael Matt at The Remnant, Taylor Marshall, and Fr. Robert Heilman at Roman Catholic Man. I have followed these individuals for some time, and I attend mass at the same parish as Matt, but I have yet to see anyone there wear the kind of “warcore fashions” Panneton ascribes to these groups or packing heat (save the rosary, I guess) at Mass, let alone posting memes mixing rosaries and AR-15's.
Furthermore, the main reason Panneton conflates all of these groups by such superficial criteria, is offhandedly mentioned in the middle of the op-ed when he asserts that the militant images used by these groups are meant to,
"integrate ultraconservative Catholicism with other aspects of online far-right culture," and although the "phenomenon might be tempting to dismiss as mere trolling or merchandising...the far right's constellations of violent, racist, and homophobic online milieus are well documented for providing a pathway to radicalization and real-world terrorist attacks."
So is it the theology, doctrines or cultural beliefs that Panneton uses to string these antithetical groups of “ultraconservative” Christians together? No, of course not. He's basing it on the doctrinal “-isms” of his woke ideology which he believes leads to “radicalization and real-world terrorist attacks.” I'm guessing this kid spent a lot of money on an eduction that led him to write that conclusion.
3. An Utter Lack of Imagination or Insight
Finally, the last issue that jumped out at me was how Panneton’s words conveyed the kind of banal intellectualism and utter lack of imagination found in so many contemporary progressively-minded influencers. He reminds me of someone like Richard Dawkins who thinks that the expertise he earned in one field, can carry over into others. However, because they (people like Panneton and Dawkins) lack experiential knowledge of a subject outside their wheelhouse, their pronouncements are expressed in the abstract while at the same time coming across as pedantic or overly-rational or literal.
In regards to Panneton, all of the differences in theology, praxis, culture, and even the individual thoughts and beliefs of the members of all of the Christian groups he’s comparing are truncated and filtered through a rainbow-tinted lens through which he views the world. However, the paucity of categorizing the world in such a way is readily apparent to anyone who, once again, bothers to check his sources.
When one does, instead of coming across as someone who is as intelligent and dignified as Spock from Star Trek, he ends up looking like “Drax the Destroyer” from Guardians of the Galaxy, who says that nothing (even a metaphor) would go over his head because his fast reflexes would enable him to catch it. In short, Panneton's screed is dreck, of course it is. It is the predictable product of your average ivory tower elite woke-scold. Someone who is smart enough to know that a tomato is actually a fruit, but not wise enough to know that you don’t put one in a fruit salad.
Photo Credit: onepeterfive. com