Bravo to Kevin O’Brien, Sean P. Dailey, Emma Fox Wilson, John Médaille, Dawn Eden Goldstein for having the guts to speak out, and to Brian Fraga, author of this fine piece of reportage (be sure to read the whole thing). It has broken my heart to see the Chesterton Society get sucked into the moral and spiritual black hole of the MAGA Freak Show.
For the better part of two decades, O’Brien also spoke and performed at events organized by the Minnesota-based Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. He counted among his close friends leading Chestertonians such as Joseph Pearce, a conservative English-born U.S. writer and speaker, and Dale Ahlquist, the society’s founder and president.
“I was about as in as you could be,” said O’Brien, who has become estranged from his longtime friends in the society, which he left in 2021. O’Brien said he became disillusioned with Chestertonians he once admired when they accommodated themselves to right-wing political ideology.
“Trump, I think, enabled them to show themselves for who they really were,” O’Brien said, referring to former President Donald Trump. O’Brien and other former Chestertonians said Trump’s brand of hard-right, culture-war, nationalist politics influenced and “corrupted” large segments of the Catholic community in the United States, including the Society of G.K. Chesterton.
“I call it the great unmasking,” O’Brien told NCR.
The turmoil within the organization, which was founded as a literary society and in 2018 became an official Catholic lay apostolate dedicated to Chesterton’s cause for canonization, in several ways is a microcosm of how the Catholic Church in the United States today is being buffeted by strong ideological headwinds.
Anger, frustration and disillusionment over the influence of political and ideological forces that coincided with Trump’s political rise have ruptured longtime friendships and professional relationships in the society, which for years has been a staple in the conservative American Catholic universe.
Former members question the direction that Ahlquist, a former lobbyist, has taken the organization in recent years, especially his push to promote the society’s Chesterton Schools Network, a rapidly-growing network of private Catholic high schools rooted in a classical European educational model that critics say appeals to ultraconservative families.
“I’ve never liked the schools. They don’t understand Chesterton at all, especially Chesterton’s attention to social justice, which they really don’t care about,” said Sean Dailey, who edited the society’s bimonthly magazine, Gilbert, for nearly 14 years until he resigned in 2017.
The disaffection with the society has even prompted some once-ardent admirers of Chesterton to begin deconstructing parts of his legacy they had defended, including longtime concerns that Chesterton at times expressed antisemitic ideas that some former members now say make him an unsuitable candidate for sainthood.
“My days of dismissing [antisemitism], or excusing it or trying to explain it away, are over. I’ll never do that again. To say it’s no big deal is just not honest,” Dailey said.
But a half-dozen self-described Chestertonians, including those who received awards from the society, and made speeches and presented at its annual conferences, shared similar concerns about it becoming a vehicle for far-right ideological causes that they say its namesake would never have supported.
“They’re trying to make Chesterton into something that he really wasn’t,” Dailey said.
Dailey and other former Chestertonians told NCR that the tone and tenor of the society’s magazine in recent years has reflected American conservative ideology by publishing editorials sympathetic to far-right politicians like Trump and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
They said other editorials have displayed indifference to Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, skepticism of public health measures during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and support for abolishing public education. They noted that when George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police in May 2020 sparked nationwide protests, Ahlquist wrote a column in which he seemed to minimize racism while plugging the society’s private schools network.
“It all got more and more right-wing, and just became more and more a part of the American political debates. The more they got away from Chesterton, the less interest I had in it,” said John Médaille, a retired businessman and Catholic author who in 2015 received the society’s Outline of Sanity Award, an honor named after one of Chesterton’s books.
“I still have the award right here on my desk,” said Médaille, who teaches a social justice course for business students at the University of Dallas.
Other former members said politically conservative speakers used their platforms at the society’s conferences to rail against “the secular left” and to argue for right-wing projects like abolishing public education, privatizing all health care and defending Christopher Columbus from accusations that he brutalized Indigenous people in the Americas.
Past speakers at conferences hosted by the society have included Rod Dreher, who wrote the 2017 book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation and now frequently praises right-wing Hungarian leader Viktor Orban; Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe; and Seth Dillon, CEO of the conservative satire site The Babylon Bee.
Robert L. Kelly, who lives north of San Antonio, told NCR he attended the society’s 2015 conference. Kelly, who is of Mexican descent, recalled a talk about the ancient Punic Wars that he found interesting “but also a tad xenophobic.”
“More worrying was some of the conversation after that talk, which I believe was the keynote, where mostly older white men compared Mexican immigrants today to the Carthaginians in the past,” Kelly said.
“When the Trump stuff started and the society was mostly silent on his ideas, clearly out of line with Chesterton’s ideals and economic ideas, I muted them on Facebook,” Kelly added.
The society’s spokesperson said articles in the magazine have criticized “politicians and views from both parties,” and added that the society, like Chesterton, finds “much to criticize” and much to celebrate “across the political spectrum.”
However, former society members such as Emma Fox Wilson, a resident of Birmingham, England, who wrote a regular column for Gilbert based on Chesterton’s correspondence, told NCR that “the whole tone” of the magazine changed during the pandemic.
“They never quite unmasked themselves. They would never quite come out and say it, but they would drop a lot of hints,” Wilson said, adding that she thought the society used its magazine to strike a skeptical tone on mask-wearing and vaccines.
‘We couldn’t criticize Trump at all’
Wilson and Dailey also told NCR that Ahlquist, in his capacity as publisher of Gilbert, refused to publish any editorials or essays that criticized Trump for fear of alienating conservative readers.
“I was very shocked that Dale wouldn’t repudiate Trump in any way,” said Wilson, who wrote a column in 2016 noting that Chesterton was skeptical of millionaires and suggesting he would have been “horrified” by Trump’s political rise.
“But when I tried to return to the subject [Ahlquist] told me they were hemorrhaging readers and he couldn’t afford to lose more subscriptions,” Wilson said.
“Dale wouldn’t let us criticize Trump in the magazine,” said Dailey, who told NCR that Ahlquist refused to listen to his arguments that the magazine needed to challenge Trump and his political movement in order to be faithful to Chesterton.
“Every time I suggested an editorial, Dale turned it down and did something else,” said Dailey, who also said that in prior years, the magazine had published editorials criticizing Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
“There was no overall [policy] of ‘Don’t criticize so and so,’ until Trump came along. And then we couldn’t criticize Trump at all,” Dailey said.
In 2021, O’Brien told NCR, Ahlquist refused to listen to his pleas to publish an editorial in Gilbert condemning the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol building. In a May 2021 email that O’Brien wrote to Ahlquist and other society members, O’Brien expressed his concerns about what he saw as the society’s deafening silence on Jan. 6 and complicity with COVID-19 misinformation.
“This is our hour to own up to what it means to be a Christian, and we are ignoring that challenge, and pretending as if it’s still 1995 and we are blithely busying ourselves with apologetics and Culture Wars — when our refusal to own up to what we’ve done and to repent for it condemns us — quite rightly — to irrelevance both in the Church and in the culture at large,” O’Brien wrote in the email, which he later posted on his personal website.
A few weeks after sending that email, to which he said he never received a response, O’Brien said Ahlquist called to berate him and tell him that the people who stormed the capitol building on Jan. 6 were not violent and that they were only acting in frustration against liberal elites.
“He told me I needed to go back to being my old self,” O’Brien said.
In response to O’Brien’s accusations, the society’s spokesperson told NCR that the purpose of Gilbert magazine is to promote the life and thought of Chesterton, “not to take positions on political candidates or weigh in on election fraud debates.”
The spokesperson added: “We do not consider it our job to weigh in on every political matter, but rather we focus on presenting Chesterton’s thought and wisdom to readers. Most of them likely welcome this as a refreshing change from the fractious and divisive atmosphere of so much other media they encounter every day. It seems significant that so much is being made of alleged private conversations here, which points to the fact that our published material doesn’t provide our critics with the evidence they seek to bolster their claims of our alleged partisanship.”
Ahem: here is a sample of the Society’s non-partisan mail feed:
On the question of whether Chesterton was ever antisemitic, the society has posted lengthy statements online and published entire issues of Gilbert magazine to rebut that suggestion.
“He was not racist. He detested racism and was an ardent opponent of racial theories, including antisemitism. He fought for human dignity and affirmed the brotherhood of all men. Chesterton was a friend and defender of the Jews,” the society spokesperson told NCR.
Several Chesterton enthusiasts said they still find much to admire in the author but accuse the organization of airbrushing episodes in Chesterton’s life that they said show he had some negative opinions about Jewish people that were historically common in Europe, especially in the years before World War II and the Holocaust.
Dawn Eden Goldstein, a Catholic author of Jewish descent, credits discovering Chesterton’s writings in the 1990s with leading to her conversion to Christianity and to entering the Catholic Church in 2006. But she was unable to finish reading one of Chesterton’s books, The Everlasting Man, because of what she saw as some antisemitic tropes.
“I just couldn’t get any farther because of his talking about the peculiarity of the Jew, and the Jew as other,” Goldstein said. “He was othering the Jew pretty badly in a way that’s just not acceptable to Catholics, or for anyone really.”
In 2021, Goldstein delivered a talk at the society’s annual conference titled “Chesterton and My Jewish/Catholic Journey.” In her nearly hourlong presentation, Goldstein drew on research from Simon Meyers, author of the 2013 book Chesterton’s Jews: Stereotypes and Caricatures in the Literature and Journalism of G.K. Chesterton.
In showcasing quotes from Chesterton’s writings that indicated he thought of Jews as alien outsiders who could never be loyal citizens in Christian Europe, Goldstein — who received the society’s Outline of Sanity award in 2007 — argued that Chestertonians needed to acknowledge that troubling record and even do penance to show the world that the society was willing to reckon with difficult truths.
“The argument I wanted to make,” Goldstein said, “is to say we need to save whatever is good in Chesterton by acknowledging all the horrible stuff, and that’s the only way we’re going to save what’s good, if we come clean and say there are many things in Chesterton we should not emulate and we need to sort those before choosing what we’re going to emulate.”
The society pushed back on Goldstein’s talk by publishing a lengthy, nearly point-for-point rebuttal on its website, written by Brandon Vogt and Nancy Carpentier Brown. Vogt, president of the Central Florida Chesterton Society and a publishing director for Catholic outlet Word on Fire, and Brown, who has published a range of books about Chesterton, criticized Goldstein’s research and brought up earlier talks on Chesterton where Goldstein had not mentioned concerns about antisemitism.
The society’s spokesperson said that while “some people perpetuate the tired accusation that Chesterton despised the Jews,” the society has engaged the criticism numerous times over the years and is “eager to learn specifics” from anyone who thinks it has been dishonest on the topic.
Some former society members who have deeply read Chesterton say the organization is not being intellectually honest.
“It’s not as simple as saying Chesterton was definitely an antisemite or Chesterton was definitely not an antisemite,” said Wilson.
She added that Chesterton wrote some “pretty nasty things” about Jews during particular times in his life, notably during the 1912 Marconi scandal when Jewish government officials were accused of improperly benefiting from inside information about forthcoming government contracts.
“I think he went through patches where he behaved less well, which was quite common at the time, in England and Europe. People then said things about Jews that we wouldn’t today,” Wilson said. “But for them to say [Chesterton] absolutely wasn’t antisemitic, I don’t think that’s right. It doesn’t solve anything, and it’s not a truthful answer to the question. The truth is much more complicated than that.”
Dailey said Ahlquist also did not do the society any favors when in 2008, he used a pseudonym, “Bradley Rothstein,” to write a positive review in Gilbert of E. Michael Jones’ book The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit and Its Impact on World History.
The review, which had the headline, “Whatever You Do, Don’t Mention the Jews,” questioned why it was antisemitic for Jones — who has since made overtly antisemitic comments on social media — to say that the Catholic Church “has had to defend itself on more than one occasion from revolutionary movements in which the Jews played a part, small or large, and the Jews consequently faced the resentment of Christians afterwards.”
The society’s spokesperson said Dailey approved the use of the Rothstein pseudonym, and that it was “adopted precisely to avoid any impression that Dale or the Society endorses the full range of Jones’ views, many of which are problematic. No other implication was intended, and it was not meant to be offensive or insulting in any way.”
Mark here. I know Sean. He flatly and specifically rebuts this falsehood, saying, “I didn’t ‘approve’ it. I questioned the wisdom of running it at all, especially in that issue. I ultimately had no say in it because Dale was the publisher and what the publisher wants, the publisher gets.”
Médaille, the University of Dallas instructor, said he has long been aware of Chesterton’s “skepticism toward the Jews,” and added that some of his writings expressed indifference to persecuting Jews, even suggesting that they needed to wear distinctive clothes in public.
“That’s a big hurdle they’re going to have to get over for sainthood,” Médaille said.
“I liked it better when it was a drinking club,” Médaille said.
Very sad. I am a great admirer of Chesterton, but his published words on Jews are at best disturbing and at worst downright ugly. We can perhaps try to understand that we was a man of his times, and even in Merry Olde England, anti-Semitism was alive and well. But we can’t excuse it. There were other English Catholics in Chesterton’s time who had a much healthier and correct response.
When a German publisher wanted to do a German edition of THE HOBBIT, the publisher enquired of Tolkien’s heritage, wanting to make sure he was sufficiently Aryan. Tolkien hit the roof. Here is his response to his own publisher:
I must say the enclosed letter from Rütten & Loening is a bit stiff. Do I suffer this impertinence because of the possession of a German name, or do their lunatic laws require a certificate of arisch origin from all persons of all countries?
Personally, I should be inclined to refuse to give any Bestätigung (although it happens that I can), and let a German translation go hang. In any case I should object strongly to any such declaration appearing in print. I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.
I greatly admire GK, and read “Lepanto” every October 7, and recommend
Orthodoxy without reservation, and love Father Brown (and dislike the recent television series for essentially leaving out the Catholicism). All that said, the man is no candidate for sainthood by the objective measures of heroic virtue.
Apart from which, he clearly had some of the narrow mind typical of his time on matters of gender and yes, ethnicity. Which doesn’t in turn condemn him outright, but people ought not to lie about that aspect of a complex character.
Turning GK into a cudgel to batter political opponents is revolting. Associating him affirmatively with an illiterate like Trump would no doubt have provoked a rant worth hearing.