Bill Donohue vs. the world (especially women)

Frances Kissling, head of Catholics for a Free Choice, talks about the right-wing activist who forced the John Edwards campaign to part with one of its bloggers.

Published February 13, 2007 9:30PM (EST)

Frances Kissling is two weeks from stepping down as president of Catholics for a Free Choice, where for 25 years she has presided as a brash, articulate proponent of women's health, reproductive choice, and reform of Catholic Church policy.

But on the eve of her resignation, Kissling has had to watch the two warring forces she has spent her career trying to reconcile -- feminism and Catholicism -- clash once more on a public, presidential stage.

The fracas began last week when former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards hired two outspoken, potty-mouthed feminist bloggers, Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, to be his campaign bloggers. It took no time at all for Kissling's longtime adversary, the conservative Catholic bellyacher William Donohue, to crank up the whine machine to full throttle in protest of the bloggers' role in Edwards' campaign.

Donohue, head of the Catholic League since 1993, has made it his business to protest every bit of pop culture and politics that doesn't mesh perfectly with his strict views on Catholic doctrine. He went to town on the Edwards bloggers, stirring up sympathy from conservative commentators like Michelle Malkin and Kathryn Jean Lopez, offended by Marcotte and McEwan's off-color criticisms of the church's conservative views on birth control and abortion. Donohue's protest landed him a good chunk of real estate in the New York Times, which reported his outsize ire about the bloggers but did not put it in the context of his history of outsize ire about "Dogma," "South Park," pop singer Joan Osborne, and a 2005 episode of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigations."

After firing and then rehiring the bloggers last week, the flare-up looked to be temporarily soothed, until Marcotte posted a review of "Children of Men" on Sunday on her personal blog. Her review included the sentence, "The Christian version of the virgin birth is generally interpreted as super-patriarchal, where god is viewed as so powerful he can impregnate without befouling himself by touching a woman, and women are nothing but vessels," prompting Donohue to issue a press release called "Edwards Blogger Strikes Again: They Must Be Fired Now!" in which he argued that "anyone who actually believes that the birth of Jesus by the Virgin Mary is 'generally interpreted' as being a sexist exercise obviously lives in an anti-Christian ghetto."

Marcotte resigned the Edwards campaign on Monday night, leaving Donohue with a progressive pelt on his wall, and leaving Frances Kissling steamed: at her old foe, at the New York Times, and at the whiff of victory for forces she has devoted her career to battling.

What happened here, in your mind?

What happened is [the Swiftboating of John] Kerry repeated, in a way. I think that's the goal. What you have are these right-wing Catholic groups, the Catholic League and Priests for Life and Fidelis, which came out after Donohue went after [Marcotte] calling for Obama and Hillary to repudiate Edwards for hiring them. What it is is part of the 2008 attack by conservative Catholics against Democrats, whether they're Catholic or not: Anything they can do to discredit the candidates is what they're going to do.

My reaction is, "OK, here we go." This is what it [has been like] since 2000 when George Bush added Catholic conservatives to his list of base groups for the Republican Party. What we can trace is activism on their part against Democrats, particularly against Catholics, and support for George Bush. Period. They're going to take any opportunity they can. Then you have the consistency of playing that anti-Catholic card. Where the Catholic shtick comes in on this one is that the bloggers had a lot to say about religion and a lot to say that's critical of the Catholic Church. Well-deserved criticism, in my opinion. But it feeds very nicely into the Donohue agenda, which is to cast everything that is critical of positions taken by the Catholic Church as anti-Catholicism.

And in this case, the Donohue agenda got itself a lot of airtime.

The guy, as has been noted by many, is a total media hound. I was particularly horrified by the first New York Times article on this, in which you would have thought William Donohue represented some mainstream organization. Why was this story getting covered by the New York Times and why was his position being given merit?

Which is funny because he's been protesting anything and everything for years and doesn't usually get this much traction.

Any comment, any statement, and he's right there to claim that it's anti-Catholic. And one is used to this kind of thing getting attention from Fox [News]. But it's surprising that it's now being treated seriously by the mainstream press.

Now, were those bloggers pushing the envelope? Yes they were. Is it surprising that Edwards would hire them? Yes! From my perspective was that a good thing? Yes! From a mainstream perspective? Maybe not.

Were you offended, as a Catholic, by the passages from Marcotte's pre-campaign blogging that Donohue and fellow conservatives like Michelle Malkin and Kathryn Jean Lopez were initially offended by? Passages like Marcotte's humorous hypothetical question about "What if Mary had taken Plan B after the Lord filled her with his hot, white, sticky Holy Spirit?" (Answer: "You'd have to justify your misogyny with another ancient mythology.")

No! I personally was not offended. I mean, it's not what I would say; they're not terms in which I think. But they are not terms which are offensive to me. We live in a world in which the separation between the sacred and sex is pretty wide and you're not supposed to link these things; the sacred is sacred. Generally speaking, my approach -- though not my language -- my approach is that I think that needs to be broken down. The way in which religious leaders, not just Catholic but certainly Catholic, try to represent God and Jesus and Mary and themselves as asexual is one way of looking at religion. But another way of looking at religion is in a highly sexualized sort of way, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that; in fact there's something to be said for it.

So I'm always pleased when people are provocative. I like it. I might go, "Wow. Did they really say that?" But then I think, "Yes!" Yes, we have to be able to say anything and there's no reason to get offended by this. But it's also true that to offend is not necessarily a bad thing. You know, if you looked at it in a religious context, Jesus Christ was one of the most offensive people imaginable. He didn't offend around sexuality, but he certainly didn't pull his punches in talking about things he considered to be evil or bad. And God himself, if we want to use male language, was a pretty offensive character. The flood! He didn't like how humans were behaving, so he destroyed everything except for two of each animals and humans with a flood. So I think the ability to be provocative is valuable. It's hard to make people think in the 21st century. Everything is so bland and so de-emotionalized. There's no outrage about the war in Iraq, no outrage about anything. So some of this sharp, provocative, and insulting criticism is fair game.

So am I to take it that you applaud the Edwards campaign for hiring the bloggers in the first place?

I thought it was really quite gutsy of them, but in retrospect I think they didn't know what they were doing. My guess is if they had really paid attention [to what Marcotte and McEwan had written before being hired] they probably wouldn't have hired these women, and so somehow they slipped through the cracks. Another way to look at how that happened is from the perspective of a certain charming naiveté: [the Edwards' campaign's] generalized acceptance of the nature of the blogosphere and understanding the importance of being out there and provocative, even though Edwards or his people may not have understood the extent to which they were provocative in some areas. But still, the openness to that was ... delightful.

The other thing is that hiring two feminists demonstrates the perspective of the campaign that it is important to be there and their intentions in that area -- not just with women but with feminists. And Edwards is to be congratulated for that; it's one thing to be associated with women, it's another to be associated with feminists. There's some ballsiness there. And that's good.

The most recent stir -- after last week's dust-up, firing-rehiring debacle -- was over the sentence, "The Christian version of the virgin birth is generally interpreted as super-patriarchal, where god is viewed as so powerful he can impregnate without befouling himself by touching a woman, and women are nothing but vessels." What is your reaction to that passage?

I don't find anything provocative about it. There's no gross language in there. And you could read a hundred scholarly articles on virginity, sexuality, women, from Christian theologians that would say similar things.

And I didn't think there was anything more radical in there than the ideas that were the basis for "The Da Vinci Code."

Well, Donohue didn't like "The Da Vinci Code," either.

But what Amanda wrote is certainly no different from what prominent Ph.D.s, tenured professors of theology, are saying when they're talking about sex and Christianity. But this is it, Donohue doesn't like serious scholarly examination of Christian principles, or stories, or myths any more than he likes satire of it. He is an equal-opportunity bully when it comes to those things. It's a basic belief, whether it's about this or the Danish cartoons, put forward by some in the religious community, which says that what we believe is off-limits; it cannot be criticized because we have said it is sacred. And then there are the rest of us in democratic societies who say nothing is above criticism and that democracy even includes the right to ridicule.

Do you think that this blogger controversy will have a net negative impact?

Well, the unfortunate thing is the resignation. That's the most unfortunate aspect because it only emboldens him. Because Donohue won. And that makes me furious.

It's also like Mara Vanderslice; she worked for the Kerry campaign as his religious outreach person and Donohue discovered that she had once been in a demonstration with [AIDS activist group] Act Up, and he then went after her, with exactly the same kind of language: "I'm going to get her fired," etc. She didn't lose her job and didn't get fired, but she was totally isolated within the campaign; she couldn't make public statements or be used well anymore. And he writes about how "I got her."

There is something about this man and his attacks on women that is frightening. There was a while when I refused to go on air with him [for television appearances] because -- you know I am a very strong person -- but I felt physically threatened by this man. He never physically threatened me, but I felt like I was in the presence of an abuser. So for a long time I just refused because it was too degrading to be in his presence. I got over it eventually and have done a few things with him since. I understand that he is so offensive that he does himself damage; as long as I can maintain my equilibrium with him attacking me in the most vicious ways possible -- that only does me credit and makes him look like the abuser that he is. But the glee with which he went after Vanderslice and the glee with which he has gone after these women marks him as an abuser.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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2008 Elections Catholicism John Edwards John F. Kerry D-mass.