The campaign mailing from the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) of Minnesota was said to be a nasty blast aimed directly at the Catholic Church. Perhaps it was an effort to capitalize on anger at the archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who last month raised hackles by sending a DVD infomercial against gay marriage to hundreds of thousands of Catholic homes.
In the black-and-white image from the DFL
campaign mailer -- at least the version that went zipping around the Internet on Tuesday -- a man in a clerical shirt and Roman collar was shown with a campaign button photo-shopped onto his shirt pocket that read, "Ignore the Poor."
The Catholic Church, with its long history of social justice lobbying and works of charity, ignoring the poor? What an accusation! Some speculated that the picture could have represented a Lutheran pastor, though that didn't seem to make sense.
So right on cue, the Catholic blogosphere lit up with indignation.
"The Most Anti-Catholic Political Ad You'll Ever See," headlined an item
by Matthew Archbold in the National Catholic Register, the newspaper of the archconservative Catholic order, the Legionaries of Christ.
"Sometimes there's a little subtlety to anti-Catholic political rhetoric but not this time," Archbold wrote. "This is in your face anti-Catholicism."
Yet in a cautionary tale for the digital age, it turns out that someone was doing a little photo editing of their own. The mailer in question was in fact not aimed at Catholics, nor even at Lutherans, but at Dan Hall, a conservative Protestant and candidate for the state senate
When viewed in full (PDF here
), the Democratic mailer -- 10,000 went out in the 40th senate district -- is clearly a blast at Hall for what it says was his support for Gov. Tim Pawlenty's decision to reject $1 billion in federal aid for health care for the poor and elderly. "Preacher Dan Hall protects politicians -- not the poor," it reads.
In fact, the other side of the mailer notes that while the Catholic Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul and the state's Lutheran Synod both objected to the health care funding decision, Hall -- a volunteer chaplain at the state senate who attends a Pentecostal-affiliated megachurch called River Valley
-- did not speak out.
"I understand that some Republican bloggers have taken one image from the first piece, and claimed that the mail is somehow anti-Catholic," Donald McFarland, a DFL spokesman, said in an e-mail. "But the text explicitly criticizes Preacher Hall for distancing himself from policy views that have been taken by the Catholic Archdiocese, by the Lutheran Synod, and other leaders in Minnesota's faith community. Dan Hall is willing to enlist God and religion in his campaign when it helps him -- but in fact, his views hurt the poorest and sickest among us, and this mailing holds him accountable for those views."
It is unclear who started sending around the edited version of the pamphlet or claiming it was anti-Catholic propaganda. But given the heightened sensibilities of many Catholics these days and the pressure-cooker atmosphere before the election -- as well as the fact that DFL for some reason chose to represent a lay Protestant by using a Catholic priest in clerics -- it wasn't hard to start an Internet wildfire.
From mainly conservative Catholic sites, the charges of rank anti-Catholic spread and grew angrier throughout the day, and went across the Catholic spectrum.
The mailing "has successfully impugned the charitable efforts and concerns of the Catholic Church in general, and its priests in particular, all while reinforcing the notion that Democrats not only don't get religion, they harbor animosity toward it," Grant Gallicho, associate editor at Commonweal, a liberal-leaning Catholic periodical, wrote on the magazine's blog
By late afternoon, Gallicho had updated the post
(disclosure: I often post at the Commonweal site) to reflect the misdirection. "At least we can dispense with the claims that the mailing is anti-Catholic, although it may be anti-wise," Gallicho wrote.
Hall was not quite so forgiving.
"I've never worn a Roman collar," Dan Hall told Gallicho. "No one in my church does." Asked why the DFL would use such an image, he said, "I have no idea. You're offending all kinds of church people, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish."
Jewish? Whatever. Other websites
were not so swift
with the clarifications or reporting, and it's unclear whether the genie could be put back in the bottle -- or whether Hall even wanted to try.
"In the end, it's probably going to help me," Hall told Commonweal, explaining that he's received a lot of media attention. (And in the end, the misleading blog rumors are unlikely to generate much sympathy for the DFL among Catholics, given that the DFL has another flyer targeting Hall that uses an even more explicitly Catholic image
to tar the evangelical candidate. Someone in the DFL needs to go to church, and more than one.)
Some believe another factor priming the suspicions of Catholics and helping to create this furor is that Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis was already under fire for mailing more than 400,000 DVDs
with a personal six-minute message to Minnesota Catholics against gay marriage. Gay marriage is not an issue in next week's election, but in general Republicans oppose same-sex marriage, so the message was seen as having a partisan edge.
Moreover, some Catholics and critics -- including one of Nienstedt's priests
, Father Michael Tegeder of St. Edward's Church in Bloomington -- argued that the money spent on the DVDs could have been better spent on the poor, or in helping couples whose marriages are failing because of economic woes.