Washington, DC, lost a cable television station last week when “RT America,” a Russian government funded operation, went dark (though it remains available via streaming and satellite). The reason for this, according to RT, involves a government ruling last year requiring the station to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or “FARA.” Complying with that law, according to an RT spokesman, “has placed undue burden on multiple areas of RT operations.”
FARA was adopted back in 1938, at a time when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was (quite rightly) concerned about Nazi propaganda disrupting his plans to strengthen America’s preparedness. The idea is not to prevent foreign governments, or anyone else, from talking to the American people or their representatives. It is simply to say that when such a message is communicated, e.g. “Germany’s intentions are entirely peaceful,” it ought to be clear that the German government paid for it. That helps American information consumers decide how large a grain of salt to take with it.
The RT case is similar. The New York Times and others have documented how RT and other Russian government operations have engaged in systematic disinformation campaigns in order to undermine western democracies, with rather spectacular results in the last presidential election. Even much of the distrust about GMO agriculture seems to originate from deliberate Russian disinformation. When a foreign government or its agents attempt to influence American politics, we are better off if we have full information about who’s behind it. RT calls this disclosure “an undue burden.”
This leads me to wonder about the registration status of another foreign government that is highly industrious in its efforts to influence US politics. I’m referring to Vatican City, the political entity of the Catholic Church. The Vatican demands full recognition as a “government,” and eighty-seven docile countries (including the United States) cater to this fiction. This “government” and the agents it handpicks and meticulously supervises in the US (i.e., its bishops and cardinals) do an enormous amount of lobbying and public persuasion. So do they register under FARA, like RT has to?
The answer is no, they don’t. If you’ve read this column before, you’ve already guessed the reason: a “religious exemption” is letting them off the hook. This exemption is a combination of explicit language in section 613(e) of the statute for “activities in furtherance of bona fide religious…pursuits,” plus Department of Justice enforcement timidity—they could attempt to construe this exemption narrowly and make the Vatican register, but have never chosen to do so.
There’s no more classic example of having your cake and eating it too. When the Vatican wants to be treated like a government, e.g. so it can run its own shady banking operations free from oversight, it stoutly demands that right. But when it doesn’t want to be treated like a government, e.g. so it can operate without the FARA disclosure rules, it gets itself a religious exemption.
Back in the 1950s, church-state activist Paul Blanshard urged “the registration of all Roman Catholic higher officials operating in the United States under the provisions of the Foreign Agents Registration Law.” He got nowhere. How much the Vatican and its agents spent opposing him, we’ll never know, because that’s secret information under the FARA religious exemption.
A big example of what Blanshard was concerned about involves the “gag rule” banning US government funding for any foreign aid organization that provides women with information about abortion. It’s not just a ban on using direct US funding for abortions; it’s a ban on US support for any organization that uses its own separate funding to educate women about their options. Each Republican president since Ronald Reagan has implemented this church-championed rule, and each Democratic president since then has revoked it.
The big financial winner from the gag rule is the Catholic Church. Organizations under its control almost certainly receive billions more US taxpayer dollars than they would have if they simply competed fairly for foreign aid contracts. How much has the church spent, directly and indirectly, to achieve this result? How did they spend it? For the same reasons it’s helpful to know about Nazi and Russian propaganda, it would be helpful to have answers to these questions.
Catholic hospitals control one sixth of the hospital beds in this country. This has enormous implications for American health, because Catholic hospitals refuse to provide certain essential services. These restrictions may grow even more important if therapies based on future advances in medical technology (that the church frowns on) start to become more prevalent. How much money and effort has the church expended to keep this lucrative deal going? We’ll never know.
In the wake of the Trinity Lutheran case, the Catholic Church is stepping up its campaign to extract more money from your pockets to pay for their schools—the ones that teach children what a horrible person you are. Indoctrination at Catholic schools has been the church’s chief recruiting strategy for centuries, so expect a full court press. And expect to have no clue about how much this country and its agents are spending on this—because they’re exempt under FARA.
Picture, say, China or Iran controlling one sixth of US hospitals, with power to decide which patients and medical procedures they will or will not handle. Picture them spending millions—maybe hundreds of millions—on a decades-long campaign to win taxpayer funding for brainwashing American children into believing how wonderful the value systems of China or Iran are. Then picture that same country demanding an exemption from the foreign disclosure laws, simply because it promotes unprovable beliefs about the supernatural.
Is this picture OK? And if not, what makes the Vatican different?