Bannon Discusses Growing Up in ‘a Very Observant Catholic Family’ in the South Where the KKK ‘Tarred and Feathered’ Priests

Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist to President Donald Trump, speaks at the Macomb County Republican Party dinner in Warren, Mich., Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. The event takes place on the anniversary of the election that put Trump in the White House. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
AP/Paul Sancya

In a freewheeling new interview with author Keith Koffler, Steve Bannon recounted his upbringing in a “very observant Catholic family” in the 1950s and 1960s and how that molded who he is now.

Koffler, author of Bannon: Always the Rebel, asked Mr. Bannon—Breitbart News executive chairman and former senior counselor and chief strategist to President Trump—to delve into his childhood and what influenced him the most in his early years.

In the interview, Bannon described growing up in a working class, middle class, Irish Catholic household in Richmond, Virginia, with a stay-at-home mom who raised five kids, and a dad with a high-school education who worked as a foreman and gradually “worked his way up to a lower-level white-collar management, a guy who took the bus to work and was home every day at six o’clock.”

“I was raised in an observant Catholic family,” Bannon relates. His grandmother, raised as a southern Baptist, had converted to Catholicism. “When southern Baptists convert to Catholicism … she was like hard core. At one point she was a daily communicant. She’s the one who really kept the family focused on Catholicism,” he recalled.

Bannon’s father and mother were also devout Catholics, and as a boy, Steve served as an altar boy at the local parish. He also had family members who went into religious life, as monks or priests.

“The Catholic Church, particularly in the South … remember that up until I think it was the forties Virginia and other parts of the South were still considered mission territories,” he recalled.

“That’s one thing about these guys like the klan,” he said. “My dad would always tell us the stories about how when he was growing up priests were actually tarred and feathered by the KKK. Back in the thirties the KKK was quite prevalent and virulently anti-Catholic. They were very racist and anti-Semitic but they were anti-Catholic also.”

“The Catholic Church becomes a cultural thing,” Bannon said. “To culturally be a Catholic is almost as powerful as the religious part of it because the Church is such a community when you grow up, particularly being Irish Catholic, which has a whole other connotation to it.”

“You know, you’re raised a Catholic and it stays with you forever,” he said.

Bannon said that his Catholic upbringing gave him “a view particularly as regards capitalism”:

It’s always struck me the more I’ve gotten involved in conservativism the way people addressed economics. And I realize you’ve got the Protestant work ethic and everything like that. I call it this Cato-Austrian economics and it cuts so across the grain of how you’re raised as a Catholic. There’s an enlightened form of capitalism and then there’s this whole bare knuckles, everything’s related to net present value, everything’s related to return on investment, it’s just not the way Catholics think, it’s not the way Catholics are brought up to think.

Bannon recalls his younger years as growing up in “a typical fifties-sixties Americana neighborhood” in northern Richmond. Like many Irish Catholics, the Bannons were “Kennedy democrats,” he says. “It was a very Democratic blue-collar family.”

These years also forged his opinions regarding race relations, particularly because of a decision made by his parents to stay in a mixed neighborhood as segregation was coming to an end.

“I think one of the big decisions my parents made like in ‘66, ‘67 we had bought an older house in an older neighborhood in the late fifties,” he recalled. “And what happened is that the neighborhood around it everything started to desegregate, and so many people in the neighborhood just fled to the suburbs. And my mom and dad made the decision that, hey, we’re going to stay here, we’re not going to flee, and the neighborhood over time, the north side of Richmond, became more of a predominantly black, working-class neighborhood, which was fine with us.”

“So my mom, she had a lot of black friends and became very engaged in the community and things worked out. She was not a fire-breathing liberal, but it was just these people are neighbors,” he said.

What actually made the Bannons “more conservative,” he said, “although Kennedy Democrats are pretty conservative, was the Vietnam War. I went to a Catholic military school that was kind of the centerpiece of the Catholic community, and I just remember how vicious, how the Vietnam War broke apart the parish, had people that were peaceniks and people who came from the military families.”

“We were quite pro-Vietnam War and that was the shift,” he said. “I remember when I was a kid Nixon was a curse word in the Bannon household since he had run against Jack Kennedy, which was unheard of. And I remember my parents in ’72 actually voting for Nixon against McGovern. And the Vietnam War kind of did that.”

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