I Got Trolled by Breitbart

Two months ago I wrote an Op-Ed for “Acts of Faith” at the Washington Post and conservative media slandered me. Since Breitbart is a cultural force and “truth” continues to be at issue, I decided to set out the facts for anyone who wonder what it’s like to be falsely vilified by the media.

Op-Ed in Washington Post

Here’s the Op-Ed  “Our culture of purity celebrates the Virgin Mary. As a rape victim, that hurts me.”

Having my first by-line in the Washington Post was very exciting. People warned me not to read the comments, but of course I did. At least at first. A lifetime of listening to parishioners’ feedback about my sermons, and valuing editors’ suggestions about my writing, has predisposed me to listen to comments. I care what people hear in my words.

More than 300 people commented. Some I could easily trash, but others showed that I had offended Catholics. I quickly realized the enormity of the emotions behind the worship of Mary, or Mariology, which I had previously understood in a purely intellectual way. I love Mary too, but I love her as a sort-of-Big Sister, which is quite different than loving her as a sort-of-Deity.

So I chewed over that. Maybe I had tried to say too much in too little space. Why didn’t I phrase it with a bit more nuance? I had lots of emotions all at once — pride and excitement and chagrin and self-recrimination. I had never before put something controversial into the public sphere. I told myself, rather sternly, Well, Ruth, you wrote a thought-provoking article. So surprise! People are provoked! Live with it.

The article was published on the Friday before the fourth Sunday of Advent. On Saturday, a friend contacted me. He had done a Google search on my name, and wondered if I was aware that Breitbart had picked up my piece.

Picked up by Breitbart

Breitbart is Steve Bannon’s mouthpiece, which he has declared to be the platform of the alt-right. I don’t like the word alt-right as it feels like whitewash to me. To put it plainly, Breitbart is the online gathering place for white supremacists, misogynists and xenophobes.

I had never read any Breitbart content before. What they published was an article about my article. The author was “Dr. Thomas Williams” whose byline connected him to the Center for Ethics and Culture at Notre Dame University. Williams’ article was shared on Facebook nearly 25,000 times, and generated more than 5,500 comments. Similar articles — 3 or 4 more — appeared in other conservative outlets and were widely shared. At one point I made a list of more than 30 online magazines and blogs. Then I just stopped googling my name.

Some persons sought out my social media and left me venomous messages. Some even found their way to my church’s social media, which felt more intrusive. In nearly every case they referred to me as “so-called Reverend” and mocked my existence as a female pastor. Most commenters had not read my Op-Ed, only an article about my Op-Ed. Actually, a huge number of the comments were about the war between the Washington Post/Jeff Bezos and Breitbart.

I took screen shots of a few messages before I deleted them. Then I tried to erase them from my mind. But they stung.

At least three radio shows or podcasts discussed my heresy that week. I listened to one of them, which treated me as a poor victim who had somehow been exploited by the liberal media. It then used me as Example A for “America’s War on Christmas.” I tried to chuckle at that. If a single Op-Ed about Mary’s purity is the best they can scrounge up to prove a cultural war on Christmas, the topic is a non-starter.

Perhaps a Call to Do More

There were some positive outcomes as well. A few people sent me touching letters, thanking me for shedding light on the culture of sexual purity and how it oppresses women. Some said they had never read this kind of thing in the Washington Post and it gave them hope for the church. Some staunch Catholics asked me questions, and I engaged them in dialogue.

Eventually the furor died down. The brevity of the news cycle is perhaps a blessing.

The Take-Down of Thomas Williams, Who Took Me Down

Then, on January 10 the New York Times published this article about the person who authored the Breitbart piece. It turns out that Thomas Williams was a priest who spent years defending a superior who was guilty of fathering children, and who was also a drug abuser and pedophile. What’s more, Williams himself was later defrocked for fathering a child. He married his lover, and they live together with their child in the shadows of the Vatican, where they consult to outlets such as Ave Maria Radio.

I did write to Thomas Williams to tell him about the fallout of his actions, but he did not respond.

Obviously the subject of sexual purity and the church is not something we have dealt with once and for all. People of faith have work to do.

Perhaps the best result of all this is that I’ve been inoculated. There is more work to do.


2 responses to “I Got Trolled by Breitbart”

  1. Marion Smith Avatar
    Marion Smith

    I’m happy for you to know who I am. And, as I’ve said before, I trust that the more this issue is discussed, the more likely that the right people will find your healing words. I’m sorry so many must sort through the nasty stuff, but apparently there’s no way to avoid it.

    1. I love your no-nonsense approach! Thanks for your support, Marion.

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