The other day I was scrolling through Facebook when I saw an image of a family. The caption added by my Catholic Facebook friend was the beautiful quote by Pope St John Paul II “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.” This particular quote communicates a beautiful Catholic view of family, but the image accompanying it immediately made me hesitate.
It was a drawing featuring a dad, pregnant mom, and young children with a banner stating: “This Is How We Save the West” I felt that something was off immediately.
“This Is How We Save the West….This isn’t usually the way a Catholic describes the blessing of large families and openness to life,” I thought to myself. “Where have I heard that rhetoric before?” Something in the wording made me uneasy. What is meant by “the west?” Are we talking about Christian Culture as preserved in the Catholic Church? I knew in the pit of my stomach that this was not the case. This isn’t an image in support of big Catholic families, I realized, this is about white supremacy.
I followed my gut and searched for the artist’s name. He wasn’t hard to find and his Twitter feed confirmed my guess.
It was steeped in the most vile alt-right rhetoric and the thread with the image I saw was a string of his followers applauding the “white baby challenge,” bemoaning the existence of minorities, and speaking fearfully of the rate at which Africans are procreating and what should be done about it.
I felt physically sick.
The problem with the image is not that it’s a depiction of a white family. Images that don’t include people of color are not somehow automatically racist. My family is white. Do I have to be suspicious of the photographs on our home’s walls of my family? Obviously not. A drawing of a white family featuring Pope St. John Paul II’s quote supporting passing our faith on to the next generation isn’t problematic. But THIS image was because of what the artist intended to communicate.
Church teaching on sexuality sometimes leads Catholic families to be bigger than contemporary cultural norms, but that’s not the same message at the heart of white nationalism that promotes large families in an effort to preserve the white race as a form of conquest. There’s a gigantic difference between the Catholic view of family and vocation and this image advertising for large white families to “save the West.”
Here’s an example of another image of a happy family with the text “Healthy Parents, Healthy Children.”
Certainly no one is against smiling families or wellness! But a closer look at the fine print reveals an exhortation to comply with sterilization laws to prevent non-ideal offspring. This is an image created with the intention to promote eugenics: large, healthy Aryan families are the goal. You probably knew right away that this is WWII Nazi propaganda and could discern its REAL message without even knowing what the text says. We have the cultural context to recognize it for what it is. But the language used by the modern alt-right may not be as familiar–hence why the image of the white family saving the west may not immediately be a red flag.
My Facebook friend certainly didn’t know that the image he posted was created to communicate a white supremacist message and took it down immediately when I explained the artists ideology–something he wanted nothing to do with. But I was perplexed. Do intelligent, faithful Catholics not know about the alt-right? I sent the image to a few Catholic friends and asked, “would you have known right away that there was something wrong with this image?” Some said yes, but many said no. It wouldn’t have even crossed their minds that the image was anything more than support for openness to life.
What’s tricky is that the terms get crossed. My friends probably interpreted “the west” as “western Christianity.” They weren’t aware that the people who created the image were selling an ideology about the superiority of white people–what the alt-right means by “the West.”
But aren’t those white supremacists people just a few crazies shooting their mouths off in the cesspool of Twitter? No. I think it’s very easy for your average white person to be unaware of the prevalence of white nationalism today in the insidious subculture of the alt-right. But, my friends, I’m telling you about it right now. If you’re not aware, it’s time to become aware. I’m begging you to hear me out with an open heart.
The alt-right is often dismissed out of hand as a small group of fringe extremists rather than a growing and terrifying ideology. The neo-Nazis marching with torchs are dismissed as just a few nutcases rather than representatives of a real movement. And it’s not just the neo-nazis, the alt-right has many defenders and is creeping into more mainstream demographics.
Being aware of the warped and disgusting ideology of contemporary white supremacy would help you know that this image wasn’t advocating for intact families, or even large families, it was advocating for white families which for white nationalism are the only families worth having around. It’s the context of the ideologies currently gaining traction that should make us skeptical of the twisted alt-right rhetoric.
A lot of this is hard to see and the rhetoric is so subtle that it’s easy to miss, hence the confused response many of my friends had to this image and how easily it was accepted as promoting something good. Isn’t that the way evil works? Taking something that’s good and warping and perverting it? It’s nuanced. No one’s coming out and saying, “Look we hate the Jews and people of color.” Even the Nazi propaganda image I shared is speaking in positives: “healthy families!” Who can argue with that? The alt-right is far more subtle and dependent on predominantly true statements and good things slowly twisted into something incredibly dangerous and damaging. I find the idea that this could seep into Catholic culture positively terrifying.
One reason some people are perhaps susceptible to this imagery is that it wears the veneer of “tradition.” A fetishization of 1950s white culture espoused by the alt-right overlaps somewhat with perfectly innocuous or positive things: prioritizing family life, cooking at home, and other things that my rather traditional Catholic family also practices. A perfect example might be some of the social media celebrities of the “tradlife” movement. If you take a look at @apurposefulwife on Twitter, for example, you’ll see a woman’s feed lauding 50s fashion, carving pumpkins with your kids, enjoying being a stay-at-home mom and…..white supremacy.
Her feed seems mostly harmless and silly until you see the posts that reference “our people” and conclude with bizarre racial claims promoting white nationalism. You’d think she’s just some crazy woman on the internet, but she had over 30,000 rabid fans following her bizarre tweets.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with appreciating a 50s aesthetic. However, we must recognize that this time period was chosen as the ideal age for white nationalists for a reason. It was a period of strong economic growth in this country but also a time when minorities were not yet appearing in advertisements. White supremacists want to sell you their movement and what better way than the ready-made, whites-only advertisements of the 50s? We have to be careful not to idolize a 50s aesthetic if it’s warping into a toxic ideology. (As well as acknowledge that the 50s was no golden age for many Americans.)
So if you love eating meatloaf as a family (hand raised), or covet Betty Draper’s wardrobe (hand raised again), be loud and proud about it! But be aware of how the alt-right is co-opting the rhetoric of traditionalism and worshipping the negative facets of 50s cultural mores (such as rampant racial inequality) that have no place in Catholic culture.
Be skeptical of language that calls for the salvation of “western civilization.” Recognize that when these people are talking about saving “the West,” what they mean is preserving white power. We need to understand that when these people idolize large intact families, it’s not because they have really taken Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching to heart, it’s merely because big white families produce lots of white babies. And we must be aware in order to keep Catholic culture from becoming muddied with this toxic and dangerous anti-Gospel ideology in any way.
Equip yourself to know it right away and to reject any ideology that diminishes the dignity of each human being. When you hear someone talking about immigrants ask yourself is this is the same message the bishops are offering. When you hear someone talk about “the west” ask yourself if they want to preserve the Book of Kells or if they want to perpetuate oppression toward people of color and the perverse gospel of eugenics. The same people urging white women not to abort their babies may be the same people pushing for sterilization of minorities, because it’s not the right to life that concerns them but the power of whites in the global sphere. Be aware and be wary.
After that very disheartening day that the white supremacist image crossed my path, I saw another image on Facebook. It was a beautiful image. A large family was gathered together praying the Rosary with that same quote from Pope Saint John Paul II. It was created by artist Rebecca Fuentes to represent her own interracial family. The juxtaposition was powerful.
May God grant that our brothers and sisters of every race and culture are cherished and given the dignity that God has endowed them with by making them in his own image. And let us not be taken in by lies that twist and pervert what is beautiful and true. The alt-right has no place in Catholic culture.