It’s unlikely that O’Reilly ever got that chance to try to persuade the pope on Wednesday when he briefly shook hands with the pontiff in Rome while on vacation.
O’Reilly’s dismissal from Fox News brings an end to his 20-year helm as a de-facto champion of the Religious Right in establishment Republican politics. During his tenure, O’Reilly helped to shepherd the once-fringe right-wing movement into the heart of the GOP by marrying a religious movement with right-wing media.
O’Reilly regularly invoked religion as a part of his show and acted as an aggressive right-wing prophet decrying the elitist secular left. Perhaps O’Reilly imagined himself as a modern-day King David, a prophet and psalmist, who with eloquence and persistence, would protect God’s people from the Goliaths of today — most notably the left.
In O’Reilly’s heyday, he was a mainstream champion of the Religious Right. His annual tirade against the “War on Christmas,” fueled fear that a much-beloved holy day would be culturally cast aside for a mere “Happy Holidays.” In 2012, he said the left was “tying the Christmas situation into secular progressive politics.” Why? Because they wanted “a new America, and traditional Christmas isn’t a part of it.”
For O’Reilly and Fox News, the most damning evidence of this supposed coordinated effort was the Obama White House’s refusal to say “Christmas” on their annual holiday cards, part of a bigger effort by O’Reilly and his allies on the Religious Right to bring the culture wars to the front and center of American politics.
O’Reilly tried to distinguish secular progressives as the far left of political ideology. Driving fear of possible persecution, he accused the group of marginalizing people of faith, particularly in positions of political leadership.
“It is long past time for the secular progressive movement to stop denigrating people of faith,” he said in 2015. “I believe most fair-minded Americans get angry when they hear fanatics attacking folks who believe differently than they do … The big reason the secular progressive movement has succeeded so well is the lack of religious leadership in America.”
By pitting the left against religion, O’Reilly was making a clear claim: the Republican Party should be the natural political home for religious Americans.
And in doing so, he oftentimes defied Catholic teaching to give his own Christian imprimatur on a GOP initiative, most notably during the Iraq War in 2003. A defiant O’Reilly said then that Pope John Paul II was misunderstanding Jesus’ teaching by opposing the Iraq War: “I admire John Paul as a philosopher and as a humanitarian. I simply think he’s a terrible administrator and is wrong about dealing with killers.”
O’Reilly’s religious shtick won him many admirers. In his 2013 New York Times best-selling book “Killing Jesus,” O’Reilly attempted to retell the story of the crucifixion of Jesus in an accessible way for his audience. The Catholic Church claims the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and likewise O’Reilly claimed his book was as well. But as scholar Candida Moss wrote when the book came out, “The Holy Spirit may have inspired Killing Jesus but he didn’t fact-check it.” Loose facts didn’t matter, as Moss argues, because O’Reilly’s Holy Spirit helped him sell books. By setting himself up as a prophet, O’Reilly knew his audience, knew their values and knew how to appeal to them.
King David had a fatal flaw: his sexual misconduct with women. After being confronted by the prophet Nathan, David repented and changed his ways. But according to O’Reilly’s accusers, he was never able to repent and, because of the continued allegations against him, ultimately lost his kingdom.
Christopher Hale, a contributor to Fox and a columnist for TIME on faith, is the executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the co-founder of Millennial. He helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection.