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Brownback: Theocon Inquisitor

The prospect of Congress passing and President Obama signing the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) has inspired the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to sponsor a parish-based campaign to get Catholics to send postcards to members of Congress stating their opposition to the act. There's nothing wrong with that. And neither is there anything inappropriate about Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) -- a Catholic convert from evangelical Protestantism who passionately opposes legalized abortion -- lending his name to the effort. But Brownback has done far more than that.

According to a story in the National Catholic Reporter, Brownback has contributed a fundraising letter to Catholic Advocate, a project of the Washington-based Morley Institute for Church and Culture, which runs Inside Catholic, a conservative Catholic Web site. The Morley Institute is headed by Deal Hudson, a right-wing Republican who "surrendered" his tenure in the philosophy department at Fordham University in the mid-90s after he was discovered to have engaged in sexual relations with an 18-year-old student. Then, while serving as an advisor on Catholic outreach to George W. Bush and Karl Rove in 2004, Hudson was forced to resign as the publisher of the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis when more recent accusations of sexual misconduct came to light. (Apparently no sin goes unforgiven on the religious right -- provided that you're a good team player and an effective fundraiser.)

Speaking of fundraising, in his letter for Hudson's organization (which can be viewed here), Brownback goes beyond denouncing FOCA and affirming the evil of abortion. He singles out several pro-choice Catholic Democrats, using scare quotes when identifying them as Catholic, thereby implying that their public professions of faith are a sham. According to Brownback, these politicians -- he mentions Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -- "openly and unabashedly claim to be Catholic — every year at election time," but once in office they "willfully cast life-destroying votes at every turn." "Real Catholics" therefore "need a new voice — not the likes of Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi who have campaigned as Catholics while voting to undermine the values that we hold most dear."

As Joe Feuerherd, author of the NCR article, notes, "It is unusual, and perhaps unprecedented in modern times, for one senator to question the religious practices of another." No wonder, then, that Brownback's office has disowned the letter, claiming both that "our chief of staff ... had never seen, heard of, or approved it" and that they "are not pleased with the content of the letter."

And yet the letter and its contents should surprise no one who's kept up with the theoconservative project of intensifying the trend toward ideological polarization in the nation's churches, and using that polarization for right-wing political gain. Theocon intellectuals now regularly denounce Catholic politicians (or rather, Catholic Democrats) for falling short of orthodoxy. (Of course it's an orthodoxy defined entirely in terms of opposition to legalized abortion and homosexual rights.) And they do so not in the pages of parish bulletins or Catholic newspapers but on political websites that specialize in serving up read meat to the foot soldiers of the conservative movement.  

The Brownback fundraising letter has merely taken things a step further. Now it isn't just theocon writers (and the occasional bishop) who will act as inquisitors of Catholic Democrats but also their colleagues on Capitol Hill. That's what happens when political ideology and theological orthodoxy are brought into perfect alignment, which is what the theocons have been after for years.

I can certainly understand why as a practical matter Brownback would want to distance himself from the letter that bears his name, since it may create personal and professional problems for him in the halls of Congress. But the fact is that given Brownback's longstanding support for the theocon approach to waging the culture war, there is no way for him to reject the contents of the letter on principle. He simply wants the inquisition to be conducted on someone else's letterhead.