Wednesday, April 18, 2012

From A Distance We Look Like Friends: Catholics and Evangelical Protestants in Post-Modern America

In a recent New York Times article, Samuel Freedman reported on Rick Santorum’s surprising popularity among evangelical Protestants who voted in this spring’s Republican primary elections.  “After more than a century of widespread antipathy between Catholics and evangelical Christians,” Freedman wrote, “a Catholic with Italian immigrant roots from the industrial Northeast has emerged as the favored presidential candidate among evangelicals . . . ” Indeed, writing before Santorum dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Freedman reported that Santorum was apparently more popular with evangelical Protestants than he was among Catholics, who tended to favor Mitt Romney.
What accounts for this “seismic shift” in evangelical Protestant attitudes about Catholics, which this group has historically despised? Freedman offers two explanations. First, evangelical Protestantism is shifting away from denominationalism, which had made anti-Catholicism an article of Protestant theological doctrine. Increasingly, Protestants are joining nondenominational “megachurches”, which do not emphasize doctrine of any kind. Second, as the United States becomes more urbanized, evangelical Protestants are coming in contact with Catholics more frequently, and greater contact is breaking down old prejudices.
These explanations provide a partial explanation for greater friendship between Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism, but I think there are two more fundamental reasons why the two groups have become more respectful toward each other.  First, to the surprise of many Catholics, the evangelical Protestant community has become Catholicism’s staunch ally on fundamental social issues--particularly abortion and same sex marriage. In recent years, Catholics and evangelical Protestants have stood shoulder to shoulder in the fight to persuade state legislatures to turn back abortion by every possible means and to protect the traditional family. It should not be surprising then that evangelical Protestants voted overwhelmingly for Rick Santorum in the Republican primary elections.
Catholics might ask themselves how it came to be that Evangelical Protestants and Catholic stand together against post-modern American social values on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.  Catholic beliefs on these issues are solidly grounded in two thousand years of tradition and theological dogma. In contrast, evangelical Protestants--for the most part anyway--do not base their views on abortion and same sex marriage on doctrine or dogma, because many evangelical Protestant groups rely very little on doctrine and dogma as the foundation of their faith.
No, it seems that for evangelical Protestants, their beliefs on abortion and sexuality are “written on the heart.” Their sympathy with Catholicism on these issues is based on natural law principles--fundamental truths than men and women can understand based on reason. Although it may sound bizarre to say it, evangelicals may be the true Thomists, the true adherents of natural law--at least on the issues of sexuality, marriage, and respect for human life.
Second, Catholics have become more tolerant of non-Catholics. They have abandoned the old doctrine of “No salvation outside the Church” (which has been officially repudiated by the Vatican), and most now embrace the ancient doctrine articulated by Thomas Aquinas: Facienti quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam.  “God does not refuse grace to one who does his best” (Hanke, 1974, p. 160).
Although Rick Santorum dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination, his campaign showed Catholics and evangelical Protestants that we have a great deal in common. As Catholics and Evangelical Protestants gaze together at the cultural landscape of Post-modern America, increasingly we see each other as friends--friends doing our best in a world grown increasingly hostile to their mutually-shared traditional Christian values.

Freedman, S. G. (2012, March 23). Santorum’s Catholicism proves a draw to evangelicals. New York Times.

Hanke, L. (1974). All mankind is one. DeKalb, Ill: Northern Illinois University Press.

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