Washington D.C., Oct 2, 2014 / 23:04 pm
Internet activism sites like Faithful America, which has targeted Catholic bishops and other institutions in social media campaigns, show the need for Catholics to become media savvy and courageous in speaking out, one observer has said.
"Faithful America is an organization that uses the pretext of faith in an attempt to silence Christian witness that contradicts the political and cultural agenda of Faithful America," charged Stephen White, a fellow in the Catholic Studies program of the D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center.
"It is hypocritical for a group like Faithful America to use the Christian faith as a pretext for public action designed specifically to intimidate and silence Christian witness in the public square," he told CNA Sept. 16.
The Faithful America website says it is "dedicated to reclaiming Christianity from the religious right."
It is a project under the sponsorship of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Citizen Engagement Laboratory and the CEL Education Fund since January 2013, when it was spun off from the media strategy group Faith in Public Life.
Faithful America executive director, Michael Sherrard, told CNA Sept. 18 that the organization is "a grassroots organization of Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, who are motivated by their faith to work for social justice."
Sherrard declined to answer questions about whether the organization's leadership was Catholic and whether its leaders were qualified to apply Catholic teaching to public life.
Faithful America has run numerous petitions targeting Catholic bishops, dioceses, and other institutions the organization depicts as "right-wing."
Some petitions protested standards of behavior for employment in Catholic schools and churches, attempting to rally opposition to church policies that fire employees for contracting same-sex "marriages" or Catholic school teachers who become pregnant through in-vitro fertilization.
Those who sign Faithful America petitions can share the petitions on social media. When shared on Twitter, a tweet directs others to the Faithful America twitter account and often to the church figure or institution the petition is targeting.
White was critical of the organization's efforts.
"It seems clear that Faithful America hopes to accelerate the very cultural and political currents against which the Catholic Church stands as a bulwark," he said, adding, "If Christian discipleship meant simply conforming to the spirit of the age, then we wouldn't need Christianity."
Targets of Faithful America petitions have included the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Faithful America tried to rally opposition to morals clauses in contracts for Catholic school teachers. The site later launched another petition against the Cincinnati archdiocese's statement that Catholic schools should not take part in the ALS Association's Ice Bucket Challenge because the foundation supports embryonic stem cell research. The archdiocese instead suggested that money from the challenge be sent to a medical center that does not perform morally objectionable research.
The Faithful America petition claimed Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis Schnurr "wants to turn the ice bucket challenge into yet another opportunity to wage divisive culture war." That petition, launched Aug. 25, had only 700 signatures as of Sept. 22.
Other petitions have combined with other protest efforts.
Faithful America gathered over 20,000 signatures in support of Catholic students at Washington state's Eastside Catholic School who protested the departure of a teacher who contracted a same-sex "marriage."
The organization also posted a petition against actor Bob Newhart's scheduled December 2013 appearance at an event of Legatus, a Catholic businessmen's organization. Faithful America claimed Legatus was "an anti-gay extremist group." The website said over 17,000 people signed the petition.
Newhart cancelled his appearance at Legatus, amid pressure from other more prominent organizations.
Some Faithful America donors have explicitly specified grants for areas where LGBT advocacy and religious freedom are at odds.
The group was the recipient of a $75,000 grant in 2014 from the Arcus Foundation, which has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to dissenting Catholic groups that engage in LGBT advocacy. According to the foundation's website, the grant to Faithful America was intended to "promote greater media visibility for Christians who denounce the abuse of religious-freedom arguments to oppose full equality for LGBT persons."
Earlier this year, Faithful America launched a petition against a proposed Arizona state bill that would have strengthened religious freedom protections, which the organization claimed would protect "anti-gay hate."
While many Faithful America petitions draw fewer than 1,000 signatures, some gain media prominence. A September 2012 New York Times editorial cited a Faithful America petition against a New York priest who publicized an endorsement of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney by six former U.S. Ambassadors to the Holy See.
The Faithful America project originally began in 2004 as a ministry of the National Council of Churches, USA, a leadership organization composed predominantly of mainline Protestant denominations. Tom Perriello, a co-founder of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good who would become a one-term U.S. Democratic congressman from Virginia, also played a founding role in the Faithful America project and was among its first co-directors.
Faithful America partnered with the media strategy group Faith in Public Life, which acquired it in 2007. Faith in Public Life in 2012 spread talking points to journalists to counter the U.S. bishops' religious freedom advocacy. The media organization was also involved in publicizing the Nuns on the Bus campaign, run by the self-described progressive social justice advocacy group NETWORK.
Faithful America became a project of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Citizen Engagement Lab in 2013.
Other LGBT activist funders of Faithful America include the Gill Foundation, which gave $25,000 to support the project in 2012. That foundation, launched by the influential Colorado multi-millionaire Tim Gill, has also backed the political advocacy group Catholics United, which has since begun public attacks on Catholic teaching and Catholic political action.
Ted Trimpa, a political advisor to Gill, sat on the board of directors of the Citizen Engagement Lab as of 2013.
In 2013, the San Francisco-based Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund gave $30,000 to the Citizen Engagement Lab specifically to support the Faithful America project "to mobilize Christians to support gay equality."
However, the organization's grants and political advocacy are facing increasing exposure and scrutiny.
In June 2014, Faithful America launched a petition against San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone's participation in the March for Marriage, an event intended to defend marriage as a union of one man and one woman. Faithful America's Sherrard joined over 70 California politicians and other individuals in signing a letter protesting the archbishop's participation.
In response, Archbishop Cordileone wrote a June 16 letter saying the march was not intended to be "anti-anyone or anti-anything." He stressed Pope Francis' reaffirmation of "the right of children to grow up in a family with a father and a mother."
The protests against the archbishop inspired a three-part investigative series from the San Francisco archdiocese's newspaper Catholic San Francisco, which ran a critical examination of Faithful America and its actions.
Faithful America then used the news report in a Sept. 12 fundraising e-mail that claimed Archbishop Cordileone was among "religious-right leaders" who "know their political influence will collapse if reporters and politicians find out that everyday Christians don't share their hateful agenda."
Faithful America said it intended to hire another organizer to its team.
White said that Faithful America was distorting Catholic teaching for other ends.
"Any attempt to judge the teachings and witness of the Church according to some external standard-political, cultural, economic, etc.-should always raise a forest of red flags for the faithful," he said.
Sherrod contended that Faithful America's members are "inspired by Pope Francis' prophetic call for a church that seeks to serve and heal the most marginalized in our society." He said its members are "appalled by right-wing church leaders who seek only to divide and exclude."
He also accused Archbishop Cordileone of launching a "McCarthyist attack on his critics."
According to Sherrod, the organization has received "about as much" funding in individual donations as from large foundations, receiving $120,000 over the past year with an average donation of $28.
White said Faithful America's internet advocacy shows that media savviness is "an increasingly important part of Catholic leadership.
"Catholic leaders, bishops included, often need to recruit help, especially from among the laity, in navigating the turbulent waters of today's media environment," he said. "That said, no amount of media savvy can make up for courageous, confident, and compassionate leadership-again, love rooted in truth."
White praised Archbishop Cordileone for responding to efforts to "intimidate" by acting "firmly, but with patience and love."