Evangelicals, Catholics Have Clout in Common

In the final part of her series on Christianity in the Public Square, Barbara Bradley-Hagerty explores the relationship between Evangelical Christians and Roman catholics.

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Ever since Martin Luther nailed his thesis to the door of the Wittenburg Church, relations between Catholics and Protestants have featured conflict and frequent confrontation, but in the culture wars of contemporary America, traditional Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants suddenly find themselves on the same team. In the final part of a series on conservative Christians in the public square, NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty explores the alliance between these theologically diverse Christians who've united to oppose a common enemy.

Group: (Singing) ...for the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

For several weeks this year, Pinellas Park, Florida, drew scores of fervently religious people who sang together and prayed for Terri Schiavo, a woman in a persistent vegetative state. Each day, the crowd served as living proof of a cultural revolution, a close alliance of conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants. Father Frank Pavone shared the microphones with Randall Terry of Operation Rescue. Attorney David Gibbs, an evangelical, worked hand in hand with Robert Destro, a constitutional lawyer from Catholic University.

Mr. ROBERT DESTRO (Attorney): There's an old saying that there are no atheists in a foxhole.

HAGERTY: Robert Destro says when it comes to life issues, the beginning of life and the end, there is virtually no light between conservative Catholics and Protestants. That's been the quiet dynamic for years now, he says. What started out as a co-belligerency of two hostiles playing side by side has become a warm and strategic marriage.

Mr. DESTRO: People would say in the '60s and '70s that, you know, `You better be very careful how hard you push on some of these social issues because if you wake up that sleeping bear, it's going to be a fairly powerful group.' As a matter of fact, it is.

HAGERTY: You can see that, he says, by glancing at some of the hottest court disputes in the culture wars whether it's the Ten Commandments or late-term abortion, school vouchers or same-sex marriage. In all these cases, Catholic and evangelical groups are side by side. Jeffrey Ventrella, a lawyer at a Christian public interest law group called Alliance Defense Fund, says the two groups compliment each other. Ventrella, an evangelical, says what the Catholic lawyers bring to the table is a centuries-long tradition of deep philosophical thinking about the issue of life.

Mr. JEFFREY VENTRELLA (Alliance Defense Fund): What the evangelicals bring is they are strong advocates. They understand a sense of urgency and a desire to go ahead and be active. It's a perfect wedding that occurs 'cause you have this intellectual horsepower combined with a `Let's get it done' kind of Protestant work ethic.

HAGERTY: Of course, it wasn't always this happy. Charles Colson, the Watergate felon turned born-again Christian, notes the traditional schism of theological issues like the role of the pope, but Colson says 14 years ago, he and Father Richard John Neuhaus tried to bridge the gap by starting a group called Evangelicals and Catholics Together. They brought out their first joint paper in 1994.

Mr. CHARLES COLSON: And, of course, that sent shock waves through the evangelical world. I began getting hate mail. I had people telling me I was a heretic. Actually contributions to the Ministry of Prison Fellowship dropped precipitously for the next two or three months. I think it cost us over a million dollars in gifts to the ministry. A lot of people thought that this was selling out to the anti-Christ.

HAGERTY: But what a difference a culture war in the larger society makes. Now, says Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, it's the liberals who have had a hard time cooperating. That's true even though mainline Protestants and progressive Catholics agree when it comes to, say, opposing the death penalty or the Iraq War. Lugo says that recently these issues have not been as effective politically.

Mr. LUIS LUGO (Director, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life): You can talk about being pro-poor, for instance, and lay out a series of policies but there's a lot of places where you can stop or go further. Abortion or gay marriage is much more of a yes or no kind of issue. So it's just a lot easier to mobilize people around those.

HAGERTY: Which is precisely what happened in the 2004 election. Democrat John Kerry was just the third Catholic in US history to be nominated for president by a major party, but for many conservatives, he was not Catholic enough. Kerry ran into trouble when a handful of bishops suggest he should be denied Communion because of his stand on abortion. Lugo says that issue along with the controversy over same-sex marriage knit conservative Catholics and evangelicals together and helped to give President Bush a second term.

Mr. LUGO: Now you're talking here about the two religious traditions that together comprise some 50 percent of the American electorate. These folks have significant electoral weight and when combined have an even more decisive impact.

HAGERTY: Mr. Bush and his adviser were keenly aware of this calculus. For example, the president, an evangelical, repeatedly uses Catholic code words as he did in this year's State of the Union address.

(Soundbite from State of the Union address)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Because a society is measured by how it treats the weak and vulnerable, we must strive to build a culture of life.

HAGERTY: Culture of life being a phrase made popular by Pope John Paul II. Moreover, the White House has worked to foster the alliance according to Shaun Casey, a former adviser to John Kerry, who teaches Christian ethics at Wesley Seminary. He credits Bush strategist Karl Rove.

Mr. SHAUN CASEY (Wesley Seminary): Karl Rove has a regular Catholic phone call that he makes. He has a regular evangelical phone call that he makes. And so there's been a lot of cross-pollination in between those two sets of political allies but one location where they overlap is, in fact, in the Bush White House.

HAGERTY: Having helped re-elect President Bush and the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, the Catholic evangelical alliance has turned its attention to the courts where many issues such as abortion and marriage are being decided. Consider "Justice Sunday," a satellite program held in a Louisville, Kentucky, megachurch two weeks ago where prominent Catholics shared the podium with evangelicals.

(Soundbite from "Justice Sunday")

Unidentified Man: Once again, people of faith across America must stand together. We must let those senators know one simple fact: We will not allow the Senate to filibuster well-qualified nominees in people of faith.

Mr. CASEY: The "Justice Sunday" event in Louisville was all about Jesus opposes the filibuster because it's going to keep the Democrats from allowing us to appoint pro-life judges.

HAGERTY: Shaun Casey.

Mr. CASEY: And so, sure, you're seeing the ground prepared, I think, for enrolling the grassroots armies on the right for this next Supreme Court opening.

HAGERTY: Casey says as tight as this alliance appears now, there may be ways for Democrats to find an opening. If Democrats were to take a middle road on abortion, he says, many traditional Catholics could be drawn back, especially those with Democratic roots who prefer more liberal positions on poverty and the death penalty. Then the current conservative alliance could be just one more political marriage of convenience that did not last.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

LUDDEN: To hear the rest of this series, you can go to our Web site, npr.org.

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