Right-wing fringe group building multimedia empire near Detroit
FERNDALE, Mich. — Inside a plain, two-story brick building in Ferndale hums the nerve center for a growing, Catholic fringe group hoping the forces that elected President Donald Trump will tear down the wall between church and state.
Church Militant broadcasts pro-life, anti-gay, anti-feminist, Islam-fearing, human-caused-climate-change-denying orthodox Catholic news on its website churchmiltant.com
through social media using high-tech, professional production studios that rival those at local TV news stations. It has 35 full-time employees (and is hiring more) who publish about 10 stories and three videos every weekday.
Its leader, Michael Voris, has compared Trump with Constantine, the Roman emperor whom he says was "not a moral man" but a "power-hungry egomaniac," but who saw it desirable to end the persecution of Christians. He was a human vessel who elevated Catholicism to the state religion, Voris said.
For this analogy, it's irrelevant whether the man has been married three times or owns casinos.
"The personal proclivities, the personal sins or life of a particular leader is a separate discussion from how that man's view of the world might influence his policies," Voris said. "And if that policy is favorable to the church, well then, very good."
Many of Church Militant's headlines are similar to those on Breitbart News, the far-right news organization that White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon previously ran.
Many of Breitbart's articles are cited on the Church Militant website. But unlike Breitbart, Church Militant is under a Christian, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
It's not affiliated with the Catholic Church, which has taken action to distance itself from Church Militant. And Voris said he doesn't think his organization's political statements are violating what he calls the "stupid" restriction on political campaign intervention for tax exemption from the Internal Revenue Service.
Church and state have long been linked in this country, he said, and the combination of social media and Trump in the White House have altered the notion of mainstream media.
"The entire established order has been thrown up into the air," Voris said. "What we say now has some credence. We're allowed into the discussion."
Among the headlined stories on churchmiltant.com Friday were: "Bombshell: Priest at forefront of pushing birth control in Canada admits gay lifestyle," "Dismantling Obama's legacy," and "72 terrorists come to U.S. from seven banned Muslim-majority countries."
'The right religion'
Church Militant's audience includes more than 180,000 Facebook likes, about 30,000 YouTube subscribers and nearly 12,000 Twitter followers. Voris estimates the operation, including social media and the website, accumulates about 1 million-1.5 million online views per month.
A report the Detroit Free Press ran using SimilarWeb analytics, which don't measure social media traffic, estimates the website had a six-month peak of more than 750,000 visits in October and about 531,000 in December.
The organization's global audience is about 10 times bigger than it was five years ago, and Voris said the nonprofit's revenue is "well past" seven figures — but declined to be specific.
In 2014, the nonprofit St. Michael's Media that is connected to Church Militant reported total revenue of more than $1.6 million, according to the 990 form it is required by the IRS to submit every year.
the heart of what they do is Catholic theology.
They operate as a news source with analysis and commentary, the "news is a door into the theology," and premium users receive additional theological content, he said. He also said he thinks Trump's presidency "will even the playing field," allowing for his apostolate's influence to spread.
"The problem with America is America never sat down and had the right discussion about which religion is the right religion," Voris said, adding that Trump is making that discussion possible.
"The only way to run a country is by benevolent dictatorship, a Catholic monarch who protects his people from themselves and bestows on them what they need, not necessarily what they want."
The Free Press previously reported that he apologized. But Voris this past Monday said he "didn't apologize for the principle."
He said Americans have been living in a "secular dictatorship," and solid moral principles are expressed in Catholicism "more perfectly than any other" source.
"When it comes to moral issues, look what Obama threatened: North Carolina said it would not abide by transgender bathrooms," he said, adding that Obama said he'd "pull $30 billion of your funding. How is that not a dictatorship?"
(After North Carolina passed a law regarding gay and transgender rights, President Barack Obama's administration considered withholding federal funding. But USA TODAY reported in May 2016 that the administration decided not to; instead, it pursued a separate enforcement action in federal court. Reuters reported the state stood to lose $4.8 billion, mostly in education grants.)
Mark Weitzman, based in New York for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization, describes Church Militant as "radical traditionalist Catholics." He said such organizations are a small movement "with some influence and the ability to make a lot of noise."
They espouse beliefs that God's promises to the Jewish people were stripped away and assigned to Christians after the coming of Jesus, resulting in ideas that are theologically — not racially — anti-Semitic, Weitzman said.
Voris said that one doesn't speak "in terms of theology, of being anti-religion," and that "being anti-Semitic is, it's a political term ... that's supposed to shut down conversation."
Voris said he isn't a "secret Nazi white supremacist" or a white nationalist. When the Free Press asked him about Weitzman, Voris said, "I consider him an extreme leftist Marxist, probably bordering on atheist."
Weitzman said that for these groups, religious liberty is a "difficult and disquieting concept" that they'll do what they can to chip away at it, and "even small chips can hurt a lot of people."
"It's worth knowing that these people are out there, because any threat to the democratic system is worth paying attention to," Weitzman said. "But I wouldn't exaggerate their power, either — they haven't succeeded in reclaiming their own (Catholic) Church."
Church Militant started as Real Catholic TV in 2008, with airings on local television. The Archdiocese of Detroit issued statements indicating the organization was not authorized to promote itself as "Catholic."
Real Catholic TV is now off the air, and Church Militant is the name of the online effort.
Archdiocese spokesman Ned McGrath sent the Free Press a number of links to blogs and articles depicting the friction between Voris' organization and the Catholic Church. He also sent the transcript from a video of Voris, with text bolded on the parts where he describes Voris' previous sex life.
After a Church Militant subscriber told us that Voris was banned from speaking at Catholic parishes, we asked McGrath about it.
"We have a consistent policy in the Archdiocese regarding speakers in church property," McGrath said, adding that presentations must be "in the spirit and the law of church teaching."
"(Voris') ministry, his work is not approved or endorsed by the Archdiocese of Detroit, and that would be why."
McGrath declined to specify which teachings. But spend much time on ChurchMilitant.com, and you'll notice a frequency of articles criticizing the Catholic Church.
In July 2016, it reported on a Catholic church in Cincinnati hosting a "Black Lives Matter" meeting, then said multiple chapters of the movement — which campaigns against police brutality and systemic racism against black people — have supported "abortion and LGBT 'rights.'"
That story with the headline, "Catholic Church to Host Black Lives Matter," was posted under the category: "Crisis in the Church."
Voris told the Free Press that the Catholic Church has gone in the wrong direction since the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, adapting to a more progressive world.
He said it was "diabolical" for bishops to move child-molesting priests among parishes for years before nationwide sexual child-abuse scandals were exposed.
"These are clear-minded decisions that were made, and they are evil decisions," he said.
"And they don't like us talking about this stuff."
Voris blamed the Catholic Church last April when he revealed to his followers that he had lived a gay lifestyle while in his 30s. In a broadcast on Christian Militant, Voris told viewers he had always been upfront about his "extremely sinful" life prior to his return to the church, but now was giving specifics because he had been told the Archdiocese of New York was "collecting and preparing to quietly filter out details of my past life with the aim of publicly discrediting me."
"... I will now reveal that for most of my years in my thirties, confused about my own sexuality, I lived a life of live-in relationships with homosexual men. From the outside, I lived the lifestyle and contributed to scandal in addition to the sexual sins. On the inside, I was deeply conflicted about all of it. In a large portion of my twenties, I also had frequent sexual liaisons with both adult men and adult women."
A search of churchmilitant.com reveals dozens of articles about homosexuality, many with scandals involving Catholic priests, while others tackle it from a moralistic viewpoint, such as "Is Homosexuality an Addiction?"
As for liberalism, Voris makes plain his disdain for liberals in the transcript of a broadcast titled, "Trump and the Church Militant."
Evil wishes to dominate the world — that's you guys — and it is necessary to fight against evil — that's us, the Church Militant, Catholics who will no longer tolerate your murderous immorality for the sake of your own so-called liberty that you use to destroy all that is sacred and good."
Voris goes on to say
that Church Militant will engage in war "against your evil ideologies in politics, colleges, health care, the news media, the courts and entertainment. You bet your sweet evil-mindedness that we are going to battle you to the death."
Voris blames liberals and "evil-minded anti-Catholic culturalists" for looking the other way when it comes to the threat of Islamic extremism and terror.
"Doesn't it seem weird that the very people who decry Catholic Church teaching on the evil of sodomy are the virtual cheerleaders for a religion whose members maraud all over the Islamic world executing homosexuals?" Voris asks in a 2015 video. He warns that the Catholic Church must either "stand or fold" against the "onslaught of Islamic extremism."
'Wrapped around Voris'
Terry Carroll, 71, lives in Bedford, Texas. He's a practicing Catholic who's been following and subscribing to the Church Militant organization since about late 2009. He said that even in the Dallas-area suburb where he lives, supporting Church Militant is taboo.
"If you support Church Militant in most Catholic parishes, that's not the socially acceptable place to be," he said. "So you just don't talk about it."
But like the polls that grossly underestimated Trump's potential to win the 2016 presidential election, there are likely more Church Militant supporters than people may think, Carroll said.
"We just had the best year that we've ever had," he said.
When he first discovered Voris, Carroll said he thought it might be too good to be true — that there could be some kind of phoniness.
"I kept waiting for a weird stumbling block," he said. "There's so many religious charlatans out there."
But the more he learned, the more his enthusiasm developed. He liked how the content was "sounding aggressively Catholic, because it was sticking to the teachings."
He was paying for a $10-per-month subscription to Church Militant through Paypal, then at some point there was a problem with the payment system. He called Church Militant to resolve the issue, and he said he indicated it was "almost embarrassing" paying as little as he did per month, Carroll said. A short time later, he received a phone call from Voris.
"It was like getting a call from Paul McCartney," Carroll said. "It was like getting a call from a famous person. I was tongue-tied. It was like a teenager talking to somebody he admired."
They arranged for Carroll to increase his payments, and he became a volunteer, helping answer e-mails from viewers. Through the years, his contributions have reached about $300,000, the most anyone has sent, Voris said.
Carroll said the amount was about 20%-30% of what he and his wife, retired IT professionals, had saved for retirement. They gave $200,000 to help Church Militant with a building purchase — and, in a gift separate from the nonprofit, they paid $30,000-$40,000 to help one of Voris' employees with credit card debt. They also sent $10,000 to an Australian woman they'd never met, who frequently commented on the website and needed help.
"If I described it to somebody else, it would sound like a complete scam — but it wasn't. It isn't," Carroll said of the Australian, who'd sent him e-mails as long as 10,000 words. "Michael just opened up a kind of door of generosity within my wife and myself that we didn't know we had."
The 55-year-old Voris is fit,
with brown eyes and thick, brown hair that comes down over his forehead.
He wears makeup for the video cameras, and his delivery — whether he's talking about the U.S. Supreme Court nomination or human-influenced climate change as a fraudulent tool for population control — is with a calm, affable confidence.
He knows what he's doing: He worked in Detroit television for about 10 years, including WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) and other major stations. He's received four Emmys. Donella Crawford, a retired executive producer at WXYZ who was Voris' boss during the mid- to late-'90s, said he worked on mostly consumer-watchdog stories.
"He got his facts right. He was willing to dig to get the information," said Crawford, who now lives in Palm Coast, Fla. "He had a big personality — he was fun. He got along with everybody that was in our little group."
She said she knew he was "very much into religion," but she didn't think any of his work there involved religion or politics.
Voris said that he left television for General Motors, where he made about $500,000 per year doing commercials and other production work. He said he was living a "very sinful" lifestyle, and his mother had been praying for him for years.
When she got cancer, he began to return to the faith. After she died, he spoke to her body in the coffin: "I said, 'Mom, I'm a changed man.'"
He dedicated himself to the faith, and what would become Church Militant started within the next two years.
None of the people Voris has hired at Church Militant had a journalism background, he said. But he's trained them to operate everything from the cameras, lights and jib to control boards and editing equipment. Voris estimates they've spent about $400,000-$500,000 on studio equipment.
It all feeds into the website and social media. They've done two live Facebook/YouTube/website feeds for breaking news:
The first was election night, when they went for 9 1/2 hours straight.
Weitzman said that the Internet has "given Voris the ability to reach an audience that he never had before."
He's frequently at the center of attention.
"Church Militant is really wrapped around Voris himself," Weitzman said. "If you take Voris away, I'm not sure Church Militant would continue at this level."
Voris last Monday returned from a week-long cruise trip fund-raiser: The Church Militant 5th Annual Retreat at Sea. The 150 participants in the sold-out trip paid at least $1,303 to take a cruise with the Church Militant leader.
The week-long package included 12 exclusive conferences with Voris, along with DVD recordings of them, a customized backpack and more.
He said in a promotional video:
"We're living in perilous times. You need to be on board. Not only with us on this retreat at sea, but be on board with the faith in all aspects of your life, of our lives.”
A different kind of 'news'
Merriam-Webster defines the term "Church Militant" as "the Christian church on earth regarded as engaged in a constant warfare against its enemies, the powers of evil — distinguished from church triumphant."
The Church Triumphant is known as for those in heaven, and the Church Penitent is for those in purgatory.
the "Church Militant" theological term is 90% internal:
"Fighting evil inside yourself," but about 10% of it is realized unitedly:
"Sometimes you are called on to fight against a more collective sin, like killing children in the womb."
Bannon used the term "Church Militant" in a 2014 speech to a Vatican conference that Buzzfeed transcribed, saying an aspect of the Church Militant is to "really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting..."
The White House and Bannon didn't respond to a request for comment on the speech or whether he's familiar with Voris' organization.
Carroll, who no longer volunteers for Church Militant but continues to be a subscriber, said the purpose of Church Militant is "a matter of fighting sin within the culture."
"The active part of Church Militant is that we are attacking the evils within the culture from a Catholic point of view," he said.
Carroll also said he continues to consume mainstream news sources, such as Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. He questions why Church Militant has gotten into covering news stories that don't always have a clear Catholic element.
For example, Church Militant published stories with headlines such as "California on path to becoming sanctuary state" and "GOP changes rules, confirms Trump nominees without Democrats."
The home page is organized like a more-conventional news site, with categories such as "Latest News," "World News," "Investigations" and "Commentary."
It's hiring two more news writers/associate producers, with duties including researching and writing news reports, and writing and producing scripts for news packages, according to its website. It's also hiring technical assistants, a promotions producer and editor, and a post-production team member.
the "mainstream media" is now social media, and the traditional news media isn't in touch with reality.
"They missed in their polls," he said. "They certainly have the power and the money, but they don't have the vision. They don't understand why he's president."
Chad Seales is an associate professor at the University of Texas researching the relationship between religion and culture in America. He said he hadn't heard of Church Militant, but he's aware of similar organizations publishing online news.
"This is all new stuff," he said. "Honestly, I think a lot of academics are trying to grasp what's happening."
The Internet has made it easier for groups that wouldn't have previously been accepted in the mainstream.
"There will just be more and more of these groups. The question is legitimacy," Seales said.
"When the government — indirectly, perhaps — legitimizes some of the more fringe groups, it creates a more toxic environment for public discourse."
Stephen Lacy is a journalism professor emeritus at Michigan State University.
He said in an e-mail that "regulation, technology and failure to enforce antitrust laws" had concentrated the news media into fewer organizations for about the past hundred years.
"What we are seeing now is similar to the way it was in 1910-1920 when cities like Detroit had 50 or more publications that often took political sides," he said.
On the Church Militant website, Hillary Clinton is "Killary," and the Democrats are the "Party of Death."
"I think there's a fight for the soul and the identity of a country, and both sides understand that much more clearly now,"
"And both sides understand that much more clearly than, I think, any time since the Civil War."
Follow Robert Allen on Twitter @rallenMI
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