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Rethinking Evangelicals & Catholics Together

'Few shared values exist' says traditionalist Catholic columnist. He's wrong

Matthew Walther, a right-of-center Roman Catholic and columnist for The Week, goes there. Excerpts:

The affair of Fr. Patrick Conroy’s tendered and withdrawn resignation as chaplain of the House of Representatives is one of those regrettable incidents in our public life that nevertheless has the virtue of bringing to light certain things that most politicians would prefer to be kept in the dark.

Among these is the tenuous strength of the Republican alliance between Catholics and evangelical Protestants born of supposedly shared values. In fact, few shared values exist.

Walther agrees that Catholics and Evangelicals agree on the sanctity of life. But he points out that Evangelicals only relatively recently (in the 1970s and 1980s) came around to the Catholic position on abortion, and that

this opposition is a crudely fideistic, if welcome, development. It exists in complete isolation from the other propositions about human nature that for Catholics make it comprehensible. This is why it is also difficult to make sense of the Protestant strictures against homosexuality except as a species of bigotry, appearing as it does against a backdrop of tacit, and at times explicit, approval of divorce, concubinage, contraception, and other disordered practices within marriage, fornication, and self-abuse.

I’ll have something to say about that in a moment. But let’s stick with Walther for a moment more:

Seemingly in exchange for the cooperation of evangelicals, conservative American Catholics have abandoned one of the great jewels in the crown of the Church, her modern social magisterium, the tradition that runs from Pope Pius IX’s denunciation of Victorian-era classical liberalism to Pope Francis’ Heideggerian assault on the merciless logic of globalized technocratic capitalism. For evangelicals, the idea that there is a common good toward which the political order must be oriented — and that this mutual flourishing cannot be conceived of as the mere aggregate of millions of individuals pursuing their own material interests with limited interference from the state — has no basis in theology. In return for evangelicals’ acknowledgement of one evil, Catholics have learned to ignore what the Church has to tell them about how we are to live in the world with one another.

What has been the result of this abandonment of principles? Forty years of infanticide, economic exploitation, and spoliation of the Earth as the forces of capital and technology disrupt all our settled customs, habits, convictions, and affections, at an increasingly rapid pace. Think tanks have been founded, fellowships have been granted, journals have been founded, and symposiums held. A whole new conception of politics has emerged out of what ought to have been a limited prudential alliance — but the clock has not been turned back a minute. “All that is solid melts into air,” as Marx put it, and Catholics and evangelicals stand together with their paper cups trying to catch a few drops of the precious liquid to put back in their broken refrigerators.

In short, he believes that American Catholics have ignored what their church’s social teaching, and become uncritical capitalists, as the price of their cooperation with Evangelical Protestants on abortion. Walther concludes by saying, “I am a Catholic rather than a conservative.” For more on that, read his past column about Mike Pence’s having abandoned Catholicism for Evangelicalism.

Read the whole thing. It’s important. Why is it important? Because even though I think he’s wrong — I’ll explain below — Walther is on to something.

For clarity’s sake, let me point out that Walther identifies as a Catholic traditionalist. For those without a scorecard, this means that he is very conservative on social issues, but much more to the left on economic matters. One can argue over where exactly the lines should be drawn, but that’s the basic outline of what fidelity to the whole of magisterial Catholic teaching requires of one.

The fact that relatively few American Catholics — of either the political right or left — line up there tells us something important about American Catholicism, and indeed about America.

One thing I’ve noticed over the years as I’ve traveled in France, Italy, and other Catholic countries, is how very, very Protestant America is. It’s hard for Americans, even American Catholics, to see this from within, but it’s true. This can hardly be surprising. Our country was founded by Protestants, and its dominant culture was and is Protestant. These are historical and sociological facts.

What is more surprising — at least it was to me — is how Protestantized American Catholicism is. I say this as someone who was raised as an unobservant Protestant who came to Catholicism in his mid-twenties, and spent 13 years practicing Catholicism. Others may disagree, but whenever I’ve been to Catholic services overseas (both as a Catholic and as an ex-Catholic) or spent time in Catholic circles abroad, I’ve been made acutely aware of these cultural differences. American Catholics typically seem more American than Catholic. That is, our way of approaching the world conceptually is more an expression of our American-ness than our Catholicism. I have never been to an Orthodox country, but as an Orthodox convert who has been Orthodox for about as long as he was a Catholic, I would expect to find the same thing about myself and fellow US Orthodox.

This is because we are Americans — and that has historically meant that we are more culturally Protestant than many of us care to admit. And not just Protestant, but English Protestant. That does not mean that we are culturally Evangelical; not all Protestants are Evangelicals, of course. What it means is that we are classic liberals in the way we approach politics and economics. It’s in our cultural DNA.

All of this is to say that Walther is correct in theory about the irreconcilability of Catholic and Evangelical theology, but that in practice — that is, in the actual world that American Catholics and American Evangelicals share — he’s very wide of the mark.

Is it really the fault of a devil’s bargain with Evangelicals that conservative American Catholics reject Catholic social teaching? How is that remotely plausible?

To be sure, it is equally implausible to say that liberal American Catholics reject Catholic teaching on abortion and sexuality for the sake of what secular liberals offered them on economics.

As the political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell showed in their 2010 book American Grace, most churchgoing Americans pick their church based on their political beliefs, not the other way around. This is not something theologically inclined people (like me) want to hear. But American life is messy that way. My own political convictions more or less line up with Catholic social teaching — conservative on social issues, more liberal on economics — but most of the Catholics I know are either conventional American conservatives or conventional American liberals. I’ve not polled them, but I bet very few even know what Catholic social teaching is, except for a vague sense that they should be nice to poor people and unborn children.

Here, from an interview with Putnam, is a non-political explanation for this:

We think that a large part of the explanation is that over the last half-century there has been a huge increase in personal ties across religious lines.

Most new marriages now cross religious lines. The wedding between Chelsea Clinton and her new Jewish husband is now completely normal. I assure you that a half-century ago, it was anything but normal.

But now, about a third of us are in a different religion from our own parents, from the religion we were raised in, and that doesn’t count, say, a Methodist becoming a Lutheran. If you count those kinds of changes, then it’s about 45 percent of all Americans have changed their religious affiliation. So about a third of us are in a different religion from our own parents or from our own kids.

When you ask the average American — we asked people about their five closest, most intimate friends, their go-to friends, the ones that they would go to if they discovered they had cancer or their marriage was falling apart or whatever — for the average American, half of their most intimate, personal friends are in a different faith tradition.

So you add that all up, and it means that almost all of us love somebody in a different faith tradition. “Aunt Susan” was the name we used for this: “Aunt Susan is a great person. I really like her. Unfortunately, she’s Jewish and I’m Catholic or she’s Catholic and I’m Baptist or she’s Baptist and I’m Mormon or whatever, and I know that my faith says, ‘Poor Aunt Susan. She’s a nice person, but she’s not going to make it to heaven, because she prays at the wrong altar.’

“But on the other hand, I know Aunt Susan. I mean, Aunt Susan is just made for heaven. If anyone is going to get to heaven, it’s Aunt Susan. She’s a wonderful, saintly human being.”

So all of us are caught in our daily lives between what we say on Sunday and Aunt Susan. Aunt Susan almost always wins those contests.

What Putnam is talking about here is the waning of religious identity and cohesion in America. He’s right about that. When people aren’t strongly guided by religious particularity, everything becomes Aunt Susan. That is to say, when your religion is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, naturally things you feel more strongly about — race, for example, or cultural affinity — will guide your politics. And as most Americans — even liberal Democrats — became market-oriented individualists over the past half century, our politics have reflected that too. There’s a reason Democrats didn’t start winning elections again until they embraced the free market.

My point is simply this: American Catholics made no kind of deal with capitalist Evangelicals to trade their patrimony for pro-life votes. They walked away from a consistently Catholic approach to political and social life very much on their own. Today, significantly more US Evangelicals endorse the Roman Catholic position on abortion and homosexuality than to US Catholics. See here for Pew survey data on US religious views of abortion. As for homosexuality:

What’s more, there are huge divisions between Anglo and Latino Catholics in the US on immigration — with non-Hispanic white Catholics opposing the official views of the Pope and the US Catholic bishops. Excerpt:

Other findings also show that “when it comes to views about immigrants and certain immigration policies, the views of white Catholics are much more closely aligned with white evangelical Protestants than Latino Catholics,” said Dan Cox, PRRI’s research director. “In this case, race and ethnic background matters more than religious affiliation when it comes to determining views on immigration,” he added.

I could go on, but you see what I mean. I take Walther’s frustration to be a rebuke of the 1994 Evangelicals and Catholics Together document, which was a kind of a treaty of practical ecumenical cooperation between conservative Catholics and Evangelicals. If you haven’t read the document, or haven’t read it in a long time, please do. Even today, with all that has happened in the nearly 25 years since it was signed, I find it hard to disagree with most of it. The only contentious parts are these:

We contend for a free society, including a vibrant market economy. A free society requires a careful balancing between economics, politics, and culture. Christianity is not an ideology and therefore does not prescribe precisely how that balance is to be achieved in every circumstance. We affirm the importance of a free economy not only because it is more efficient but because it accords with a Christian understanding of human freedom. Economic freedom, while subject to grave abuse, makes possible the patterns of creativity, cooperation, and accountability that contribute to the common good.

Isn’t this still true, or still thought true by faithful Catholics? I suppose it all turns on what counts as a “free” economy, and certainly Catholic teaching is more restrictive of the free market than what many conservative Evangelicals believe. But are the differences between Catholics and Evangelicals on the limits of the free market really so great that they cannot cooperate?

Then there’s this:

Finally, we contend for a realistic and responsible understanding of America’s part in world affairs. Realism and responsibility require that we avoid both the illusions of unlimited power and righteousness, on the one hand, and the timidity and selfishness of isolationism, on the other. U.S. foreign policy should reflect a concern for the defense of democracy and, wherever prudent and possible, the protection and advancement of human rights, including religious freedom.

The Iraq War, which was strongly supported by Evangelicals, and by the two most important leaders of intellectual Catholic conservatism, Father Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel, gutted this view. It’s odd to read this today, and to generally agree with it, yet know that this principle in practice supported neoconservative foreign policy.

For that matter, the ECT statement of support for the free market, however qualified, has done nothing to guide or marshal conservative Evangelical and Catholic opposition to economic practices and structures that have widened inequality and made life harder for families and communities.

I think that Matthew Walther’s attack on the political alliance between Catholics and Evangelicals is seriously wide of the mark, for reasons I’ve explained, but important because all of us conservative Christians would do well to rethink how our political commitments conform, or fail to conform, with our religious ones. Despite its conspicuous lack of charity towards Evangelicals, and its misreading of US politics, Walther’s column ought to cause serious critical reflection among Catholics (and other conservative Christians) about what price we have all paid to the integrity of our witness for being so uncritically supportive of the Republican Party and its goals.

Still, I cannot see the use of conservative Catholics abandoning a practical ecumenical alliance with conservative Evangelicals. What unites them — and all of us small-o orthodox Christians, including those within Mainline Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches — is far greater than what divides us. How can any theologically and socially conservative Christian today not recognize that the greatest political threat to us comes on the religious liberty front, from secular liberals and liberal Christians who consider us to be hateful bigots?

And, as much as it pains me to admit it, as little love I have for the Republican Party, and as cowardly as it has been on defending religious liberty, the fact is that the GOP is not leading the charge against us and our institutions. We can’t honestly say that there’s no serious practical difference between these parties, not for us theologically conservative Christians. There can be no doubt that had Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election, we would be in even worse shape regarding religious liberty than we are. That may or may not justify voting for Donald Trump, but it cannot be seriously doubted. I believe that the ECT civic project of American Christianity is all but dead — read Michael Hanby on the topic — but that we have no choice but to hold together defensively.

Bottom line: we’re all stuck with each other, because the alternatives are worse. When Big Government and Big Business come at us and our institutions (especially educational ones) with clubs in their hands, they aren’t going to make any distinction between pro-life Catholics who embrace Rerum Novarum and megachurch prosperity-gospellers. To the power-holders in post-Christian America, those distinctions — as theologically important as they may be — are without a meaningful difference.

If we’re going to dwell on the theological differences among us small-o orthodox Christians, let us do so with charity. It’s important. This has become much more clear to me since I’ve been writing about The Benedict Option.  Again: what we share really is far greater than what divides us, and this will be increasingly the case, I’m convinced. In post-Christian America, to focus too sharply on our differences in the public square could easily turn into what has been described as “the narcissism of small differences.”

During the First World War, traditional English Europhobia was captured in the saying “the wogs begin at Calais” — the idea being that to a certain kind of Englishman, everybody not-English is an undifferentiated mass of inferiority. To the cultured despisers of traditional Christians in post-Christian America, the wogs begin at the doors of small-o orthodox churches. We’d best not forget it.

UPDATE: Jake Meador, a PCA Presbyterian, weighs in. Excerpt:

[T]he thread that I would have liked to see Rod pull a bit more, though I suppose that may not be reasonable given his lack of personal history with evangelicalism, is to run the same critique he does of Catholicism on Evangelicalism. Because I think there’s an implicit idea here that American Catholicism has been compromised and is somehow not the real Catholicism but American Evangelicalism is basically representative of historic Protestantism. And that point is almost entirely false or, at least, far too simplistic to be useful.

Jake’s right about that. I simply know too little about Evangelicalism to address the point. I’m happy to point readers to Evangelicals who do. Jake concludes with an appeal to readers to check out the work of the Davenant Institute, for which he works; those that do will find that “Protestantism is deeper than most people realize.”