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The Widening Political Divide Between Catholicism and Mainline Protestantism

When Charles Colson died last weekend, he was best known as the Watergate felon turned prison minister. But Colson, a constant presence in Christian Right circles for over two decades, had perhaps his greatest impact in another sphere of American life: expanding evangelical-Catholic cooperation in the fight against legalized abortion into a broader political alliance.

For signs of his success, look at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ latest manifesto, published just last month. Titled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the statement embraces the long-standing conservative evangelical campaign against secularism in the courts and in the Obama administration. To protest the alleged threat to religious liberty, the document announced a “fortnight of freedom” series to occur in churches across the country this summer—coinciding with the quickening of the 2012 general election.

The Catholic document, which adopts culture-war memes long associated with the Christian Right, clearly reflects Colson’s long-standing campaign to identify religious freedom with the right of churches and church institutions to defy laws and polices they find repugnant. The statement even included a prominent shout-out to a similar, if more sharply worded, manifesto issued by Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT)—a loose alliance of thinkers and actors founded in 1994 by none other than Colson and his Catholic comrade, Richard John Neuhaus. (Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and former Lutheran minister, is responsible for creating much of the basic vocabulary of the more cerebral elements of the Christian Right in his 1984 book The Naked Public Square.)

When ECT issued its first manifesto, it was a highly controversial exercise that attracted considerable criticism from both evangelicals and Catholics. ECT proclaimed that the moral and political emergency facing conservative Christians trumped their vast theological differences—not to mention centuries of conflict, persecution, and vituperation. And while ECT’s struggle to achieve Catholic-evangelical convergence on doctrinal issues had at best a mixed record, the more fundamental claim that the most urgent matter for today’s Christians is common opposition to “secularist” policies has made astonishing strides, as witnessed by the Bishops’ statement.

But even as conservative Catholics and evangelicals agree to subjugate their continued differences in doctrine, worship, and non-cultural political traditions to a unified front against the enemy of moral relativism, the often-ignored third force in American Christianity—mainline Protestants—have been steadily overcoming precisely those doctrinal barriers that have long divided them from Rome. We may be on the brink of a religious realignment, whereby the issues on which Christians argued, fought, killed, and persecuted each other (and others) since the sixteenth century are giving way to a different source of division: the culture wars.

The signs of this realignment are most visible in politics. A highly traditionalist Catholic, Rick Santorum, who belongs to a parish where the Latin Mass is still celebrated, became the preferred presidential candidate of conservative evangelicals. Over the course of the primary campaign, it became clear that he shares the common conservative evangelical view that mainline Protestants are largely apostates, barely deserving inclusion in Christianity.

Yet the single most notable trend in mainline American Protestantism in recent decades has been the adoption of liturgical practices associated with Catholicism, such as frequent communion and observance of liturgical seasons, particularly since Rome reformed its own liturgy during and after the Second Vatican Council Catholics and most mainline Protestants have long since adopted a common “lectionary” of scripture readings for use during worship services throughout the year. At the same time, the radical theological experiments that were once so fashionable in liberal Protestant circles have been subsiding; mainliners are far more likely to recite the historic Nicene or Apostle’s creeds during worship than are evangelicals. In other words, a growing number of mainline Protestants now worship much like Catholics. And on non-cultural issues, from social justice to anti-war protests, Catholic and mainline Protestant cooperation—particularly at the local level—has become a familiar part of the civic landscape. This tradition, in fact, is continuing currently in the combined criticism of Paul Ryan’s budget proposal by both mainline Protestants and Catholic Bishops.

For anyone familiar with the history of intra-Christian conflict, the mainline-Catholic convergence on doctrine and worship is jarring. I recently attended a Sunday service at a mainline Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation in Atlanta where the Lord’s Supper was referred to as a “sacrifice.” This would have been startling not only to that denomination’s nineteenth century founders, but to the Protestant Reformers themselves, who abandoned regular communion precisely because of its treatment by the medieval Church as a sacrifice instead of as a testament of faith.

The oddity of the ever-strengthening conservative Catholic-evangelical alliance against the “modernist” mainliners on cultural issues, if nothing else, is most evident in the battles within the mainline denominations over acceptance of homosexuality among lay people and clergy. More often than not, the evangelicals who accuse denominational leaders of abandoning “orthodoxy” in moral teaching are most avid to promote innovation in styles of worship. As an Episcopal priest in Maryland ruefully told me of conservative dissidents in his parish during the 1990s: “These people come to church with a Christian Coalition tract in one hand and a ‘praise hymnal’ in the other.” In the broader fight over ordination of LGBT priests and bishops that has shaken the Anglican communion during the last decade, it’s the evangelicals indifferent or hostile to traditional worship who are leading the battle for “traditional” moral views, while the liturgically conservative Anglo-Catholic wing has generally been indifferent or supportive towards the advent of openly gay clergy.

All these cross-cutting trends and counter-trends in American (and global) Christianity call into question any glib arrangement of denominations, movements, or individuals as conservative or liberal, traditionalist or modernist. Neuhaus and Colson certainly had little doubt that what brought them together as culture-warriors was more important than any of the divergent ways their two Christian traditions have developed doctrinally in two millennia.

And for now, at least, the most powerful leaders among conservative evangelicals seem to agree with Colson. It’s too early to conclude that Neuhaus’s argument has won over the U.S. Catholic hierarchy for good—much less the many millions of Catholic lay people, priests and religious who have not enlisted in the culture wars. But if the recent alarms raised by the Bishops on “religious freedom”—complemented by the Vatican’s crackdown on non-compliant American nuns—are any indication, that’s the direction they seem to be headed. If so, they will stand against the mainline Protestants who increasingly find common ground with them at the altar and in the pews, if not on the cultural and political barricades. 

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic, a blogger for The Washington Monthly, and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.