How the Evangelicals and Catholics Joined Forces

New York Times/May 30, 2004
By Laurie Goodstein

In 1960, the last time a Roman Catholic ran for president on the Democratic ticket, evangelical Protestant leaders warned their flocks that electing John F. Kennedy would be like handing the Oval Office to the Antichrist.

So deep was the antipathy toward Catholics that the president of the National Association of Evangelicals sent a distressed letter to pastors saying: "Public opinion is changing in favor of the church of Rome. We dare not sit idly by - voiceless and voteless." The Rev. Billy Graham's magazine Christianity Today said in an editorial that the Vatican "does all in its power to control the governments of nations."

Forty-four years later, less than a fortnight in Christian history, evangelicals and conservative Catholics have forged an alliance that is reshaping American politics and culture.

Now another Catholic Democrat from Massachusetts, Senator John Kerry, is running for president. But this time evangelicals are cheering on the handful of Catholic bishops who have said they will deny communion to politicians like Mr. Kerry who support abortion rights. In an about-face, Christianity Today says in a June editorial that it is "certainly appropriate" for bishops to expect a Catholic president to submit to Vatican authority.

More than political expediency is at work here. Once blinded by suspicion, evangelical and some Catholic leaders have spent more than a decade laying the groundwork for a religious realignment. Though the old animus is not dead, there has been a rapprochement with both moral and theological dimensions, and broad political implications.

Coalitions of Catholics and evangelicals form the backbone in the fights against gay marriage, stem-cell research and euthanasia, and for religious school vouchers. Catholic and evangelical leaders who forged relationships in the anti-abortion movement, which the Baptist theologian Timothy George has called "the ecumenism of the trenches," are now working side by side in campaigns on other culture war issues, and for Republican candidates.

Catholics, once a solidly Democratic voting bloc, are now fractured. Polls of the 2000 election showed traditionalists and centrists breaking away to join conservative evangelicals in voting for George Bush. "Voting groups are far more fluid than they used to be," said Patrick Allitt, a professor of American history at Emory University.

Mr. Allitt recalls seeing his glimpse of the new alliance at an Operation Rescue anti-abortion rally in Atlanta in the 1980's.

Now conservatives in both groups share the sense that they are fighting a losing battle against secularism, relativism and a trend that the Christianity Today editorial brands "hypermodern individualism." Though miles apart on salvation, they find common ground in the language of moral absolutes. Evangelicals have thoroughly adopted Pope John Paul II's language on the "culture of life" to convey their anti-abortion principles. In a recent poll of evangelicals, the pope had higher favorability ratings (59 percent) than either Jerry Falwell (44 percent) or Pat Robertson (54 percent).

"This is a phenomenal change from the days when the pope was considered by evangelicals who were not on the fringe as the Antichrist," said Rev. Richard Cizik, who handles government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals.

"There is many an evangelical now who believes that they have more in common with the Catholics down the street than they do with mainline Protestants," he said, a reference to the Presbyterians, Episcopalians or Methodists, whose churches are internally divided over homosexuality.

Evangelicals in past generations were once among the loudest voices calling for separation of church and state, largely as a defense against government financing for Catholic parochial schools. But with evangelicals busy building their own private Christian academies in recent years, they have joined forces with Catholics to push for government vouchers for parents who choose to send their children to private or religious schools.

Audiences of evangelicals and Catholics defied critics and made "The Passion of the Christ" one of most profitable films ever produced. Catholics regard the film as a thoroughly Catholic spectacle, focused as it is on the Virgin Mary and Jesus' suffering. Yet Mel Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic, built an audience with screenings in evangelical megachurches, even hiring Billy Graham's public relations man. Many evangelicals embraced the movie as a way to strike a blow of their own in the culture wars.

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