My Soul MAGAfies the Lord: On the Right Wing Perversion of the Rosary

So earlier this week, there was an outburst of Bravely Defiant Traditional Catholicism on the interwebs. In posting the image below, EWTN gave us all the general tenor of the tale of Courage in the Face of Vicious Liberal Persecution as they heroically mocked evil Lib Media Fiends who are, they assured one another, “coming for our Rosaries”:

A ton of Leading Right Wing Catholic Social Media influencers followed suit, teaching the Flock that Thinks for Itself and Doesn’t Listen to Liberal Liars Like the Pope what they were all to think about the sudden mysterious liberal pogrom against the Rosary they were all told was happening.

It was the latest in an endless series of Right Wing Panics du Jour commanded, not by the bishops or the pope, but by the real authority to whom Reactionary Catholics look for their moral formation: FOX and the GOP Gun Cult of Christian Nationalism:

Now, I love the Rosary and pray it frequently. And because I do, I detest the attempt to hijack it by the Right Wing Lie Machine.

Here’s what actually happened: a writer for the Atlantic wrote a piece on the perfectly real phenomenon of an “extremist fringe” of Reactionary Catholics weaponizing the Rosary as a sacramental, not of meditation on the gospel, nor even as a tool of spiritual warfare with the world, the flesh, and the devil, but as an emblem of violent, gun-obsessed, sullen, self-pitying, and deeply dangerous right wing MAGA culture war and Christian nationalism:

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.

Their social-media pages are saturated with images of rosaries draped over firearms, warriors in prayer, Deus Vult (“God wills it”) crusader memes, and exhortations for men to rise up and become Church Militants.Influencers on platforms such as Instagram share posts referencing “everyday carry” and “gat check” (gat is slang for “firearm”) that include soldiers’ “battle beads,” handguns, and assault rifles. One artist posts illustrations of his favorite Catholic saints, clergy, and influencers toting AR-15-style rifles labeled sanctum rosarium alongside violently homophobic screeds that are celebrated by social-media accounts with thousands of followers.

The theologian and historian Massimo Faggioli has described a network of conservative Catholic bloggers and commentary organizations as a “Catholic cyber-militia” that actively campaigns against LGBTQ acceptance in the Church. These rad-trad rosary-as-weapon memes represent a social-media diffusion of such messaging, and they work to integrate ultraconservative Catholicism with other aspects of online far-right culture. The phenomenon might be tempting to dismiss as mere trolling or merchandising, and ironical provocations based on traditionalist Catholic symbols do exist, but 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.

The rosary—in these hands—is anything but holy. 

Now the idea of spiritual warfare–and of prayer as its principal weapon–is something that goes back to the roots of the Faith.

For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Co 10:3–5)

As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger; by purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Co 6:4–10)

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. ¶ Stand therefore, having fastened the belt of truth around your waist, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, ¶ and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the Evil One. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. (Eph 6:10–18)

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. ¶ And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. ¶ And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. (Re 12:7–11)

(Note that the conception of spiritual warfare for the apostolic Church is prayerful martyrdom, not destroying culture war enemies, and that the way the warrior wins is by sharing in the sufferings of Jesus, not by killing somebody else in his name. The enemy, for Paul, is “powers and principalities”, not flesh and blood. Just war theory and the tradition of tolerating violence in the defense of innocents or the defense of a Christian state is not something that will arise until the Christianization of Rome changes the equation in the fifth century and the duty of a Christian emperor to his subjects in a deadly world begins to be discussed. That’s a span of time separating Shakespeare from us. In the first century, Peter’s sole counsel to a Church facing the flames of Nero is to be sure to die well (cf. 1 Peter 4:12-19).)

And despite the sneers of his Right Wing critics, the author of the Atlantic piece gets that distinction between spiritual warfare and culture war and has no problem with the idea that, as the Catechism puts it, prayer is a “battle”. Nor is he blind to the perfectly legit use of the Rosary as a venerated weapon in such warfare:

But for millions of believers, the beads, which provide an aide-mémoire for a sequence of devotional prayers, are a widely recognized symbol of Catholicism and a source of strength. And many take genuine sustenance from Catholic theology’s concept of the Church Militant and the tradition of regarding the rosary as a weapon against Satan. As Pope Francis said in a 2020 address, “There is no path to holiness … without spiritual combat,” and Francis is only one of many Church officials who have endorsed the idea of the rosary as an armament in that fight.

What he is warning against, rather, is the perversion of the Rosary into an emblem of intensely politicized, menacing, threatening, and violent culture war that glorifies violence and toxic masculinity:

Militia culture, a fetishism of Western civilization, and masculinist anxieties have become mainstays of the far right in the U.S.—and rad-trad Catholics have now taken up residence in this company. Their social-media accounts commonly promote accelerationist and survivalist content, along with combat-medical and tactical training, as well as memes depicting balaclava-clad gunmen that draw on the “terrorwave” or “warcore” aesthetic that is popular in far-right circles.

Like such networks, radical-traditional Catholics sustain their own cottage industry of goods and services that reinforces the radicalization. Rosaries are common among the merchandise on offer—some made of cartridge casings, and complete with gun-metal-finish crucifixes. One Catholic online store, which describes itself as “dedicated to offering battle-ready products and manuals to ‘stand firm against the tactics of the devil’” (a New Testament reference), sells replicas of the rosaries issued to American soldiers during the First World War as “combat rosaries.” Discerning consumers can also buy a concealed carry” permit for their combat rosary and a sacramental storage box resembling an ammunition can. In 2016, the pontifical Swiss Guard accepted a donation of combat rosaries; during a ceremony at the Vatican, their commander described the gift as “the most powerful weapon that exists on the market.”

The militarism also glorifies a warrior mentality and notions of manliness and male strength. This conflation of the masculine and the military is rooted in wider anxieties about Catholic manhood—the idea that it is in crisis has some currency among senior Church figures and lay organizations. In 2015, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix issued an apostolic exhortation calling for a renewal of traditional conceptions of Catholic masculinity titled “Into the Breach,” which led the Knights of Columbus, an influential fraternal order, to produce a video series promoting Olmsted’s ideas. But among radical-traditional Catholic men, such concerns take an extremist turn, rooted in fantasies of violently defending one’s family and church from marauders.

The rosary-as-weapon also gives rad-trad Catholic men both a distinctive signifier within Christian nationalism and a sort of membership pass to the movement. As the sociologists Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry note in Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, Catholics used to be regarded as enemies by Christian nationalists, and anti-Catholic nativism runs deep in American history. Today, Catholics are a growing contingent of Christian nationalism.

Helping unite these former rivals is a quasi-theological doctrine of what Perry and another sociologist, Philip S. Gorski, have called “righteous violence” against political enemies regarded as demonic or satanic, be they secularists, progressives, or Jews.

This is really not that hard to grasp–if you are a) even mildly informed about the actual Atlantic piece and b) anything like an honest person. One need look no further than intensely MAGAfied priest Fr. Richard Heilman, disciplined by his bishop for defending the Big Lie about the “stolen election” and raising money to support violent and deadly insurrectionists and his massive, years-long grift where he hawks precisely the militarized gun nut piety the Atlantic piece talks about–at exorbitant prices:

But as the ginned-up #RosaryExtremist campaign quickly demonstrated, the easily stampeded MAGA Catholic is often neither informed nor honest. Indeed, lots and lots of them, in the very act of condemning the piece as “hysteria”, simultaneously spread the falsehood that the author hated the Rosary itself (not its perversion) even as they went out of their way to demonstrate precisely the perverted, gun-obsessed, threatening, self-pitying, paranoid, sneering, and bullying culture of MAGA Catholicism the article was actually warning about.

And so, led by people like Taylor Marshall and Alexander Tschugguel–who famously ginned up the “Pope is a heretic!!!” crowd, spat in the faces of innocent Amazonian Catholics and declared them pagans, and did all in their power to gin up schism in the Church–shocked and offended MAGA zealots immediately cried “What MAGA Reactionary Catholic Gun Fetishism?”

And the targeted enemy of this Looney Tunes Culture War Hate was emphatically not “powers and principalities” but flesh and blood:

(Zmirak, notably, is already on record hungering not for “spiritual warfare” but for human blood):

Also, there’s longing to kill Muslims:

And there is likewise this sort of blasphemous right wing secular messianism that insists, in defiance of St. Paul, that the struggle is absolutely with flesh and blood Democrats–and all in the service of the one true god, Donald Trump:

Unsurprisingly, therefore, there are defenses of violent insurrection cloaked in “Libs Fear My Piety” baloney:

And there was, running through the whole thread of thousands of “You’ll never get my Rosary, you damned Lib persecutors!!!” the omnipresent MAGA propagandist Jack Posobiec, who, in between ginning up the MAGA Catholic troops with a completely unfounded sense of butthurt persecution…

…also somehow suffused the #RosaryExtremist posts on Twitter with a ton of Trump agitprop utterly irrelevant to the gospel but emblematic of the toxic masculinity the Atlantic piece warned of, such as this deeply pious encomium to GOP “Big Dick Energy”:

Indeed, Posobiec is the living incarnation of everything the Atlantic piece is warning about, because there is indeed a sect of Reactionary MAGA Culture Warriors who are trying to pervert the Rosary from a prayer to an emblem of violent, hateful, political rage against those they hate.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The Atlantic writer, in fact, made the perfectly true observation, not that the Rosary is bad, nor even that Catholics who pray it are all extremists, but that an extremist fringe (who helpfully came out of the woodwork in droves to bear out exactly what he was saying and marinate themselves in self-pity and a bogus claim of “liberal persecution”) is perverting the Rosary into an emblem of ugly right wing culture war and Christian nationalism instead allowing it to remain the beautiful and powerful instrument of prayer it is supposed to be.

Portraying this filth as Resistance to some Great Persecution while celebrating gun violence, Big Dick Energy, and falling down in adoration of a violent traitorous mobster is a particularly sickening act of blasphemy. It is a stain on the Church’s witness and an ugly example of the way in which right wing politics, alloyed with false piety that has entirely lost the thread of Catholic morals, punches down at the victims of gun violence, foments hatred of neighbor, and covers the gospel in scandal in its self-absorbed sense of threatened privilege.

Unlike MAGA antichrist religion, which constantly tries to gin up terror among its adherents of The Coming Persecution, the Great Reset, the Vast Conspiracy, the Great Infiltration, the Heretic Dictator Pope, the COVID Plot to Kill Us All and all the other bogeyman they are arming themselves to shoot and kill, Jesus never tells his disciples to fear persecution. On the contrary, what he tells them to fear is seduction:

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Mt 10:28)

Only you, by your own sin, can destroy yourself in hell. Nobody can do it to you. And MAGA Catholics are among the most seduced Christians on planet Earth, as this ugly episode abundantly showed. Christ teaches his disciples to fear, not suffering, but sin. MAGA antichrist religion teaches its followers to do anything, even commit grave sin, in order save their terrified skins from suffering. That is why they are such passionate lovers of torture and why they passionately supported cruelty to refugee children. It’s why they love and admire a man like Alex Jones who sadistically tortured the parents of Sandy Hook for years in defense of their gun fetish. It’s why they continue to defend a traitorous mob boss who promised them “All this will I give you if you bow down and worship me.” Such false religion controls its flock by filling them with imaginary terrors of persecution in order to gin them into fleeing bogeymen who don’t even exist and slander honest people telling the truth.

So. Here’s reality: Nobody, but nobody, cares if you pray the Rosary and nobody is “coming for” our Rosaries. If you buy the hogwash of the #RosaryExtremist Panic du Jour and join in spreading it, you aren’t a hero defying imaginary liberal persecutors who hate you for praying it, just as you aren’t brave for, yet again, saying “Fuck Joe Biden” under the exhausted sophomore wheeze “Let’s go, Brandon.” You are a coward cosplaying at martyrdom while slandering an honest person who made a perfectly valid observation about right wing perversion of a beautiful sacramental. You are, in fact, bearing false witness against your neighbor.

The objection of the Atlantic piece, borne out abundantly by the responses above and thousands more like it, is to the ugly, militant, violent, anti-Christian combination of gun fetishism, threats of domestic terror, bullying, Trumpolatry and self-pity with Catholic aesthetics. That piece is a defense of, not an attack on, the goodness and holiness of the Holy Rosary.

God’s Name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of junk like the #RosaryExtremist Panic du Jour.


23 Responses

  1. OMG! Sometimes I wish I had never found your site Mark… By that I mean, I was content to live in my cocoon, thinking that all is well… God save us! Oh, and by the way, why doesn’t Raymond Arroyo go full time with Fox? I just don’t get it….

  2. Screwtape has new fodder for his nephew, and laughing his head off. As for Arroyo, he likened the FBI to the Gestapo. EWTN is losing its credibility every second that man is there.

  3. “Coming for my Rosary”, you bet! I happened to hear EWTN’s Teresa Tomeo complaining about the Atlantic article yesterday afternoon. She’s generally a fine example of the assertion that accusation is confession, so I didn’t actually think that the Liberals were going to come to my house and confiscate my Beads. (Or cut off my fingers for that matter, since I can use them to count to 10 in a pinch.) It’s a huge effort not to hate these people.

    People have no sense of history. Conservative Catholics have no real idea what our MAGA “Christian Nationalist” friends think of us and our faith, and how long any mutual-defense pact would last if they actually established a Christo-Fascist government, with or without the lion-like Trump as overlord. We’d be outlawed before you could say “The Pope is the Anti-Christ.”

  4. The Christian Taliban has learned the art of marketing junk. I’m pretty sure only MS-13 gang members are licensed to own bullet rosaries, and they are supposed to wear them like hip hop bling!

      1. The funny, and tragic thing is how incredibly gullible and easily led MAGA people are. They fancy themselves free thinkers and intellectual rebels but believe anything their master tells them without a microsecond of skepticism.

        Once you learn how to manipulate the fear center of the brain, humans are far easier to train than dogs.

  5. What appalls me is the sheer number of people that I used to think were sane Catholics who are all in on the insanity and depravity of Donald Trump. As an example, before he went power-mad insane, Pavone decades ago gave a sermon at an EWTN Mass describing heaven – and it was beautiful. What happened to the man who once believed that?!

  6. I have a mixed response to the Atlantic article and this commentary on it.

    When I see photos of rosaries draped over firearms, I fail to see a coherent Catholic message, and have some concerns similar to some of what the Atlantic piece tries to articulate. On the other hand, when I see a photo of someone’s rosary collection that they describe as “my gun cabinet,” with no guns anywhere in sight, I simply think of St. Maximillian Kolbe describing the Miraculous Medal as “a bullet with which a faithful soldier hits the enemy, i.e. evil, and thus rescues souls,” or St. Paul talking about “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

    I found article itself at times painted with an overly broad brush, although not as much as I was concerned it might when I saw the title. In particular, I noticed I apparently was being referenced to some degree in it:

    “radical-traditional Catholics sustain their own cottage industry of goods and services that reinforces the radicalization. Rosaries are common among the merchandise on offer—some made of cartridge casings, and complete with gun-metal-finish crucifixes. One Catholic online store, which describes itself as “dedicated to offering battle-ready products and manuals to ‘stand firm against the tactics of the devil'”

    I can’t say I’m a fan of making a rosary out of cartridge casings, but the quote they offer from one online store is plainly related to the spiritual warfare against “‘powers and principalities’, not flesh and blood,” as you discuss. Following the link confirmed that store (a) does not sell rosaries made from cartridges (b) is a store I previously bought a rosary from and (c) the Pontifical Swiss Guards has publicly shown the “combat rosaries” they were donated by this store. I’m not under the impression the Swiss Guards are a hotbed of American right wing radicalism.

    So it turns out I own the specific combat rosary the above quote links directly to reinforcing radicalization. However, in contrast with how the article suggests this rosary should be viewed, I bought and use it because:

    (1) I wanted a a durable rosary

    (2) The price was reasonable. I disagree with you that the price is exorbitant, and since my day job sometimes involves having custom specified products made, I have some decent points of reference. I wanted something better than the plastic bead rosaries you can buy everywhere for a few bucks. On the other hand, I had no interest in the $100+ rosaries made of polished stone, exotic woods, or plated with silver. $30 was a nice middle ground.

    (3) It feels great to hold. Just like a well-made tool motivates me to work more, this actually helps motivate me to pray more.

    (4) Like many or perhaps even most males, I identify with the ideals of a good soldier – not a self-serving or easily manipulated culture warrior, but a strong, faithful man who is disciplined and would never resort to violence except in true defense of his family or fellow citizens, and who takes pride in being a member of a team and will sacrifice for the sake of others. Similarly, it offered a sense of connection with Catholics in the past who carried rosaries like this when our country sent them into harms way.

    I didn’t buy it to treat as a weapon against people who disagree with me, or as a fashion accessory for an AR-15. I didn’t buy it as a counter to masculine insecurity. I didn’t buy it because I thought it reflected some sort of conservative political value, much less because I thought I could make any kinds of statement with it about whether I thought a certain president I voted against multiple times could make America great.

    I want to add that the rosary came with one of the manuals that the Atlantic also linked to “reinforcing radicalization.” It starts with tips on when and how to pray, discusses the concept of spiritual warfare, the need to strengthen oneself against temptation, and some specific comments for Catholics in the military. Then it has a set of daily prayers, a set of prayers to say before and after Mass, prayers for adoration, and an examination of conscience. Although the Atlantic author made multiple references to radical traditionalism, the book says nothing about Vatican II and doesn’t even have any Latin in it.

  7. Thanks for writing this, Mark. I was looking at all kinds of sources of how to address this on the radio program and then I found your link on Twitter to this article. I was fascinated by the pictures you have embedded.

    As you know, I am a veteran and do not own or carry a firearm or an F.I.D. card. So, such things as using shell casings to create a Rosary was quite much. What I see in Dan Panneton’s piece, however, is that underlying this is a fear of violence against him and his social group. I think that was the root cause of the article.

    I do not think it was well written, he takes the pope out of context as well. He also does not note, as the Atlantic has before that this group would no more use the pope’s words as marching orders as they would use Judas’. I know one of the people you cite above against the Atlantic article refers to Francis as the evil pope. Enough said.

    However, your take is helpful for me to bring this issue to the radio audience in a balanced way.

    1. Thanks for your kind words. My view is that it is on us as Catholics to make sure that people like Panneton have no cause to feel threatened with violence, not to defend those doing the threatening or worse, pretend they are not threatening or that they do not exist. So I very much appreciate your efforts to address this obscene perversion of the Rosary and the false self-pity from Catholics that blames people for seeing what is clearly there.

  8. Mark just this past Sunday the vicar of my church (who many in my parish including myself) have sensed is getting more angry and radical since Trump’s rise on the political scene. Went on a bit of a rant in yesterday’s homily attacking the Atlantic for “anti-catholicism” and “elitism” because of this piece (which he admits he didn’t read) instead he must have just went with whatever EWTN said about it.

    A lot of us were looking around at each other during the homily with looms of “what in the heck is this all about?”

    After mass was over a few of us got together and discussed the odd homily and were puzzled by his anger at it. Most of us thought the author made some valid points about the rosary being sullied by militia extremists. Ive thought of sending your piece in a email to my pastor who was out of town for this weekends masses and addressing his homily.

    I know many people who like myself are having a difficult time in the church these days and the last thing we want is Fox News talking points as a homily.

    (PS our pastor is a good man who makes everyone feel welcome so I think this will get a reaction)


  9. Hey Mark, tomorrow I will air my show on the reaction to Daniel Panneton’s article. I will tweet out the podcast. Thursday I do a follow-up. Thanks to your pictures, I showed them to some people not familiar with US gun culture. They found them confusing. One pointed out the gun is a symbol of power which obviously does not go with the rosary. Others pointed out the obvious, a firearm is useless for spiritual warfare.

    Thanks, again.

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