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Why The Atlantic is being accused of disrespecting religion

Some Catholics have taken issue with a recent essay in The Atlantic exploring the link between political extremism and the rosary.

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A rosary hangs at a makeshift-memorial for the shooting victims at Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

A rosary hangs at a makeshift memorial for the shooting victims at Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Sunday, July 10, 2022.

Eric Gay, Associated Press

The Atlantic on Sunday posted an essay examining how a Catholic symbol has been coopted by political extremists online. But within hours, the website was facing intense pushback from Catholics and others, who accused The Atlantic of disrespecting millions of people of faith.

Much of the concern focused on the piece’s original headline, which highlighted the link between Catholic prayer beads and political violence. It was titled, “How the rosary became an extremist symbol,” and the main art was a picture of a series of bullet holes made to look like rosary beads.

Soon after it was published, many people took to Twitter to debate whether the headline or the essay itself went too far. Some described it as a fearmongering hit piece, while others said it raised important, albeit uncomfortable, points that needed to be discussed.

What was The Atlantic’s rosary article about?

The Atlantic essay on the rosary, like many pieces from The Atlantic, examines a trend. Writer Daniel Panneton describes the rise of social media posts featuring guns and the rosary, arguing that the Catholic beads are being misused by political extremists.

“The rosary — in these hands — is anything but holy,” he wrote.

Panneton noted that it’s not new for Catholics to refer to the rosary as a weapon, since many Catholics, including Pope Francis, have talked about using it to combat the forces of evil. But he argued that what’s happening today among extreme gun rights activists is different and represents a corruption of Catholic teachings.

“Catholics are taught to love and forgive their enemies, that to do otherwise is a sin. But the extremist understanding of spiritual warfare overrides that command,” he wrote.

Why did The Atlantic’s rosary coverage spark a backlash?

Many experts on faith-related political extremism have tweeted Panneton’s piece without critique. But others, including some Catholic leaders, only shared it in order to complain about its publication. Some members of this latter group have accused The Atlantic of attacking the Catholic faith.

“What justification has The Atlantic to publish this rubbish?” asked Catholic journalist Alejandro Bermudez in a tweet.

On Monday, the essay was the focus of a critical Fox News segment. “Fox & Friends” co-host Rachel Campos-Duffy described the piece as both dangerous and ignorant, arguing that it’s part of a growing group of articles that associated traditional religion with violence.

“We’re seeing more and more articles trying to associate people who are faithful, especially those who adhere to more orthodox or traditional interpretations of faith, as somehow being right-wing extremists,” she said.

But there’s also been backlash to this backlash, as some religion experts seek to refocus the public debate about the essay onto ways to confront political extremism.

“The conservative response to this Atlantic article has been really, really striking,” tweeted Religion News Service reporter Jack Jenkins. “(There’s been) just a repeated, dogged refusal to deal with the article’s very concerning subject matter.”

Has The Atlantic responded to the controversy?

Likely in response to pushback over the essay’s original headline, The Atlantic has updated its title and subhead. The headline now reads: “How extremist gun culture is trying to co-opt the rosary.”