Source: The Economist: Erasmus
But in a secular age, Christian groups find common cause
VERY NEARLY a quarter of a century has passed since a sort of joint manifesto was published by some of America’s most prominent Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians. The document entitled „Evangelicals and Catholics Together“ emphasised how much the two groups had in common, both spiritually and in their ideas about public policy, and it pledged that they would work together for a further narrowing of differences. After all, it declared, „all who accept [Jesus] Christ as Lord and Saviour are brothers and sisters in Christ.“ While accepting and indeed elaborating the two sides‘ theological bugbears, it proclaimed a common interest in causes such as opposing abortion, curbing pornography and encouraging „parental choice“ in education.
At the time, the proclamation was seen both as a rallying-cry for the future and an acknowledgement of how far the two sides had already inched towards bridging a chasm which had once seemed vast. Memories were fresh of an era when most evangelical Christians had virtually defined themselves in opposition to a Catholic church which, as they saw things, seriously distorted the message of Bible by adding extra teachings. The advent of a Catholic president, in John F Kennedy, was still recalled by hard-line evangelicals as a dark moment because, despite his assurances to the contrary, they could never overcome their suspicion that he would put loyalty to Rome before his earthly homeland.
So how do things stand now? One change is that the secularising and liberalising forces that were driving evangelicals and Catholics together in 1994 have grown vastly stronger. The latest figures, based on some number-crunching by Ryan P. Burge of Eastern Illinois University, suggest that „religious nones“ (those who deny any formal spiritual affiliation) have surged into roughly equal place with evangelicals and Catholics as a category of American citizens: each of the three groups now accounts for about 23% of the population, according to the data quoted by Religion News Service. (In recent years, a decline in mainline or liberal Protestantism and a rise in „nones“ have been two of the clearest trends in American religion.)
As an article in the Jesuit magazine America pointed out, the slogan „stand up and be counted“ was used by Protestants, circa 1960, to galvanise the faithful as they held their ground against the advance of Catholicism. These days, it expresses the determination of Protestants and Catholics to work together and roll back the tide of godless humanism.
Abortion was already an ultra-sensitive political issue in 1994 and it has lost none of its salience; since then the advance of gay rights and new understandings of sexuality and gender have created even greater incentives for conservative Catholics and evangelicals to work together on what, in their common terminology, they describe as family values and pro-life causes. In the earliest skirmishes of America’s culture wars, abortion was mainly a Catholic concern, and some evangelicals took pro-choice positions. Now, as one of the most substantial results of Catholic-evangelical co-operation, the latter group at least matches and possibly outdoes rank-and-file Catholics in the zeal of its opposition to terminating pregnancy.
No less tangible has been the inter-Christian co-operation during the Supreme Court battles of recent years over the right of employers to opt out of contraceptive coverage for their workers. Whether the litigants were an evangelically-owned retail chain like Hobby Lobby, or a Catholic religious order such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, Catholic and evangelical campaigners were as one in offering free legal advice and cheering on the opters-out. Whatever else they think of the current administration, conservative Christians generally applaud its effort to broaden the leeway enjoyed by employers.
Still, some have predicted that the presidency of Donald Trump, approved in overwhelming numbers by evangelical Christians and by a smaller margin by white Catholics, will drive the two sides apart. America’s Catholic bishops, at least, have obvious differences with the current president, often over the very policies which conservative evangelicals warm to. These include the Trump administration’s harsh line over immigration and its determination to fortify the southern border; and America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, to the delight of Christian Zionists and the dismay of Christian churches, including the Catholics, which have deep roots in the Middle East.
But it would be nearer the mark to say that the Trump era (and the papacy of Francis) has laid bare deep ideological divisions within both the Catholic and evangelical worlds. Hispanic and liberal Catholics love the present pontiff for his support for migrants and the global South; conservatives yearn for the metaphysical certainties offered by his predecessors. Within the evangelical scene, there are zealously pro-Trump figures who seem more interested in politics than theology, such as Jerry Falwell junior, who lauds the president not on religious grounds but for making America strong. People of that stripe have little obvious interest in talking metaphysics with Catholics, and their theology is often pretty sectarian. And then, among both Catholics and evangelicals, especially younger ones, there are those of a politically progressive bent who might sometimes come together in opposing the president, say over climate change, but only as part of a much broader coalition.
In any case, all that still leaves intact the relationship that has developed between moderate religious conservatives, often religious intellectuals, from different denominations, in other words exactly the sort of people who put together the ECT in the first place. One such personality, the evangelical theologian Russell Moore, told Erasmus that the expectations raised in 1994 had proved over-blown in some respects and too cautious in others. „The ECT pretended more unity than really existed,“ says Mr Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which is the policy arm of the Southern Baptists. „But the relationship is robust, even though neither side is a monolith,“ he adds.
The statement in 1994 probably underplayed the importance and likely persistence of theological differences, for example over the Catholic belief in venerating the Virgin Mary and the saints. On the other hand, the signatories could not have foreseen how deep and mutually beneficial the inter-Christian partnership would become in certain areas. In what they see as a dangerously secularising age, Catholics have come to appreciate more clearly the Protestant emphasis on acts of individual conscience, made in courageous defiance of authority. And some Protestants, at least, acknowledge their debt to Catholic thought as a route to what they would call a holistic pro-life view that opposes both abortion and euthanasia. In Latin America, and to some extent among Latino immigrants to the United States, the Catholic and evangelical churches are in competition for souls; but that does not seem to have prevented vigorous pan-Christian alliances over matters of common concern.
Certain policy issues, though, will continue to divide the two camps. The Catholic church now opposes the death penalty unconditionally; many evangelicals support it as a matter of principle. But at least the two sides are more conscious than ever of their metaphysical commonalities. They agree in seeing one particular execution, that of their faith’s founder nearly 2,000 years ago, as a defining cosmic event.