The ties that bind: Is there unity between Evangelicals and Catholics in the US?
The Tablet02 August 2017 | by Jon M. Sweeney
US Catholics and EvangelicalsThere is an Italian saying, Meglio un prossimo vicino che un lontano cugino, which translates, “Better a near neighbour than a distant cousin” and echoes almost verbatim a line from the Book of Proverbs. Many Evangelicals in the United States would be able to rattle off confidently the chapter and verse: “Better a near neighbour than a distant brother” (Proverbs 27:10).
When I was growing up in the Evangelical heartland of Wheaton, Illinois, our Baptist youth group would play a game designed to reward the child who was first to locate a verse in his study Bible. “Sword drills”, the game was called, strangely you might think, but it was not strange to Evangelicals who knew their Bibles: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12).
Our youth pastor would call out a reference to a room of kids with well-thumbed, closed Bibles on their laps. We would then flip furiously until someone yelled, “Got it!” It rarely took more than six or seven seconds. The first child to locate the verse would be rewarded by being invited to read the passage aloud to the group. These verses then became the Bible passages we were encouraged to memorise. After all, there was no better way to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16).
I left behind my membership of Evangelical churches at about the same time I graduated from Wheaton College. Wheaton’s graduates include some notable Americans, such as evangelists Billy Graham and Ruth Bell Graham; Kenneth Taylor, paraphraser of The Living Bible; Bart Ehrman, controversial theologian; Michael Gerson, senior adviser to President George W. Bush; and Rob Bell, former megachurch pastor who is now pally with Oprah. My time at Wheaton overlapped one year each with Gerson and Bell.
I was eventually to become a Catholic, but I have never fully cut those Evangelical ties that bind. After all the fuss over the article co-authored by Antonio Spadaro SJ in La Civiltà Cattolica a few weeks ago, alleging an “ecumenism of hate” between American Evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics, apparently in league to promote “political Manichaeism and a cult of the apocalypse … attributable to its xenophobic and Islamophobic vision”, I thought of taking a step back. I’ve begun to think about what it is that binds Evangelicals and Catholics of a certain stripe together.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Fr Spadaro’s critique, how did these two seemingly disparate groups become so chummy? Fr Spadaro calls the relationship between Evangelicals and Catholics in America a “strange ecumenism … that wants walls and purifying deportations”. That is highly inflammatory language and overtly political; but the unlikely alliance he is criticising has always been more political than religious.
There was certainly no ecumenism between Puritans and Papists in the early history of the US. But there is more cosiness between Evangelicals and Catholics now than ever before, and more than one finds anywhere else. In South America Catholics, for the most part, look on Evangelicals with suspicion, and Catholic leaders have watched helplessly as Evangelicals siphon off communicants. In places such as China, where freedom to worship is often threatened or risky, the “Roman” in “Catholic” feels like a gulf of separation. In Britain, it has only been relatively recently that Evangelicals and Catholics have begun to discover common moral and political ground. Not so in America, where this all started two generations ago.
The kinship of Evangelicals and Catholics in the US began with the abortion battles of the 1960s, and was galvanised with the founding of The Moral Majority by the late Revd Jerry Falwell and his associates in 1979. It was at about this time that Evangelical pastors of large churches got booking agents and publicity representatives. Their work rapidly seemed to commodify beyond their congregations, and take on political priorities in communities beyond their own, as Evangelicalism grew into a new kind of national movement and individual Evangelicals began to learn how to leverage their platforms.
Then came the spiritual formation movement, with Richard Foster’s influential book, Celebration of Discipline (1978), and his subsequent founding of Renovaré (1988), a non-profit parachurch organisation dedicated to teaching Evangelicals and others the riches of liturgical prayer, fasting, meditation, confession and solitude. A previous generation of Evangelicals had shunned these dangerous practices as much too Catholic and not nearly biblical enough.
Soon, Evangelical pastors such as Dallas Willard and John Ortberg were quoting Catholics from the past (Francis of Assisi, for example, without the St) without anyone batting an eye. Thus began a serious valuing (one could not call it a re-valuing) of church tradition, in part as a reaction to the shallow attractions of the megachurch movement, which was also popular then. This led to the discovery and appreciation of Catholic writers such as Henri Nouwen and, to a lesser extent, Thomas Merton.
The year 1994 saw the real sea change, with the publication of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, an ecumenical document spearheaded on the Evangelical side by Charles “Chuck” Colson (Nixon’s “hatchet man”, imprisoned for Watergate-related offences, and later author of the memoir Born Again), and on the Catholic side by Richard John Neuhaus, a recent convert from Protestant liberalism to a fluent and confident conservative Catholicism, and founder of the journal First Things.
ECT, as the document became known, drew lots of attention because of the breadth of support it received: from the widely trusted British-born Canadian J.I. Packer and others who praised it to Evangelical audiences, and from Avery Dulles SJ and George Weigel, who backed it in the Catholic media. Quickly, the document became a movement, and Evangelicals and Catholics joined together in common witness, or in simple and practical cooperation on moral and spiritual issues, above all, in fighting abortion and keeping Christian principles at the forefront of American politics and education.
The ECT movement remains active today throughout the US, perhaps most of all in Steubenville, Ohio, at the Franciscan University, where bestselling author Scott Hahn, himself a convert from Evangelicalism to Catholicism, and others preside over large conferences.
Political conservatism is the primary shared passion of these Christian cousins. This is seen for example in the personal biography of Vice President Mike Pence, who was raised Irish Catholic, was once a youth minister in his Catholic parish, but since the mid-1990s has attended an Evangelical megachurch in Indiana. Today he usually calls himself an “Evangelical Catholic” and everyone seems to accept the nomenclature without much comment.
Pence and Evangelicals and Catholics like him have shared moral values and a mutual distrust of government. They have a minimalist understanding of the verse, “[Jesus] said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22:21)”. And they share a visceral loathing of liberals.
I suspect one reason why this alliance has emerged so strongly is the breakdown of any cohesive Catholic subculture or distinctive identity in America today. When one speaks of “Christian culture” in today’s US, we mean Evangelical culture. There is little distinct Catholic culture left. One rarely sees the once-familiar images of Catholic life: girls in First Communion dresses; Corpus Christi processions; rosary beads in use, and so on. There are Catholic hipsters who are sort of bringing such things back; 200,000 Polish-American Catholics live in Chicago and the largest parishes still have Polish language church bulletins, Masses and websites. But their efforts cannot make up for what has vanished.
In the “fly-over states” in the middle of the country, including the Bible belt, Christian expressions from the American heartland centre most of all on individualism, on rights to worship, on prayer in schools, or any number of other issues that focus on keeping Washington out of the lives of US citizens.
The presidential election and the overwhelming support Donald Trump received from Evangelicals have caused many to ask whether Evangelical beliefs and priorities (which once derived from the Bible) have been replaced by ones more purely political. No doubt that has happened; and to complicate matters, we live in the age of “alternative facts” when what one finds in the Bible varies widely, even from one Evangelical to another.
As the late Jerry Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr, defends President Trump and Jared Kushner vociferously on Twitter, the Pew Research Center is reporting its latest findings: 40 per cent of white American Evangelicals own a gun: for Black Protestants, the figure is 29 per cent; for Catholics, 24 per cent; among all Americans, 30 per cent.
Could it be that those who left Evangelical churches over the past 30 years for other churches, or to join the “Nones”, have been replaced by Americans committed to gun rights, less government and all manner of “America First” nostrums, without a close interest in what the Bible has to say? Is it possible that these people easily find an Evangelical pastor who will assure them that their political commitments fit nicely in their new congregation, and with the Bible as it’s preached there? I fear so.
Jon M. Sweeney is the author of several works of history, biography and spirituality; his most recent book is A Course in Christian Mysticism by Thomas Merton, which he has edited and introduced for the Liturgical Press.