Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Catholic-Evangelical Alliance
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 07:01:20 PM EST
It would be hard to be awake in America and not sense that some deep currents are shifting somewhere beneath the surface of our our politics and religion -- things that go unmeasured by sociologists and pollsters. But but we do get glimpses of these developments in the media and in the actual political behavior of conservative pols and religious leaders. Nevertheless, it can be hard to see, even when it is right in front of us.

Trends are often like that. We don't really see them, until we do. And when we do, we are surprised that we hadn't fully realized it before.  

And that's how I have felt about the growing alliance between the leaders of the U.S. Catholic Bishops and the leaders of the protestant evangelical Christian Right.  I have written an essay, Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance, for the next issue of The Public Eye magazine about this and some of the implications.  Here are some excerpts:

Given the Christian Right's recent defeats in the realm of marriage equality, it might seem that its power is diminishing and that the so-called culture wars are receding... This dynamic, multifaceted movement--one of the most powerful in U.S. history--aims to become a renewed, vigorous force in American public life, and it continues to evolve even while maintaining its views on core issues.

Notably, the movement is being shaped and sustained by a political alliance between evangelicals and the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. Though it was unthinkable as recently as a decade ago, this developing evangelical-Catholic alliance is key to understanding the Christian Right's plan for regrouping in the near term--and ultimately reclaiming the future.

I should hasten to add here, that just because the Christian Right has a plan, that does not mean it will necessarily succeed, and I stay away from making predictions.  But it is important to recognize that there is a plan, and that it is already gaining some traction.

The turning point was the November 2009 publication of a manifesto titled The Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience. Originally signed by 150 Christian Right religious and political leaders, its distinct achievement has been to broaden and deepen the emerging alliance between conservative Roman Catholics and right-wing evangelical Protestants. Indeed, the historic convergence of evangelical institutions and activists with the American Roman Catholic Church is underscored by the fact that fully 50 sitting bishops, archbishops and cardinals--not merely a token Catholic prelate or two--signed the Declaration.

The document is a statement of shared principles and a common approach to politics and public policy for the foreseeable future. It focuses on three interrelated values: "sanctity of life," "traditional marriage," and "religious freedom." Invoking Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous Letters from a Birmingham Jail, it calls for "resistance to the point of civil disobedience against any legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage."

Robert P. George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and prominent Roman Catholic neoconservative, originated the Declaration.i George is also the founder and guiding light of a number of related institutions, including the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), the Witherspoon Institute, the American Principles Project, and American Principles in Action. He recruited the late evangelical leader Charles Colson and Beeson Divinity School Dean Timothy George as co-authors, and he later helped recruit the document's original 150 signatories (most of whom were men), subtly in the style of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.  

Some are among the best-known Christian Right leaders in the United States. These include top Catholic prelates and evangelical leaders, notably Archbishop (now Cardinal) Timothy Dolan of New York and Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Signatories also include more politically oriented figures such as Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council; James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage; and Alan Sears, president of the Alliance Defending Freedom. There are also half a dozen leaders of the low-profile New Apostolic Reformation, including Revs. Harry Jackson, Joseph Mattera, and Samuel Rodriguez, each of whom is an "apostle" overseeing a large network of Neocharismatic churches. Primarily via the website devoted to the Declaration, more than 540,000 people have joined the original signers, generating a massive email list that may prove useful to the Christian Right.

For all the Declarationists' ecumenical diversity, the document's significance is perhaps best epitomized by Albert Mohler, who, a decade earlier, had declared his abhorrence of Roman Catholicism on Larry King Live. In 2009, Mohler explained his rationale for signing the Declaration, though he does not usually sign manifestos, and he noted that this exception should not be taken as a sign that his views on Roman Catholic doctrine had changed. But, he wrote, "we are facing an inevitable and culture-determining decision on the three issues centrally identified in this statement. I also believe that we will experience a significant loss of Christian churches, denominations, and institutions in this process. There is every good reason to believe that the freedom to conduct Christian ministry according to Christian conviction is being subverted and denied before our eyes."

The concluding paragraph of the Declaration's first section is explicit in saying that its purpose is to unify and mobilize the Christian Right:  "We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right--and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation--to speak and act in defense of these truths. We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence."

The Christian Right sees the times as dire indeed. The Manhattan Declaration's integrated approach to abortion, marriage, and religious liberty is designed to unite key leaders of major factions around common arguments and to function as a catalyst for political renewal.

The ties that bind

Indeed, the Declaration's three-part formula emerged as a central feature of the movement in the 2012 election season. It was taken up by the Roman Catholic bishops, as well as the major political organizations of the traditional, evangelically oriented Christian Right. The Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, used it in his convention acceptance speech. And it promises to be the way that the Christian Right frames its common platform for the foreseeable future.

Shortly before the 2012 election, in a homily titled "Godless Secularism Assaults Life and Liberty," Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who chairs the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), described the profound relationship between the three issues of the Declaration. Lori claimed that godless secularism led to the legalization of abortion--and that this, in turn, is a source of wider threats to religious liberty.

Lori's claim rests on the idea that those who favor reproductive choice and marriage equality are non-religious or anti-religious, and thus are prepared to trample the religious liberty of everyone. Yet many major religious bodies were prochoice even prior to Roe vs. Wade. The mainline Presbyterian Church (USA), for example, became officially prochoice three years before Roe. And major branches of Judaism, along with several mainline Protestant denominations, are affiliated with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Similarly, the Declarationists argue that marriage is given by God, not by government. They consider it a violation of the religious freedom of both individuals and institutions to be required to recognize the equality of LGTBQ persons in legal marriages, and to treat these marriages as the equivalent of heterosexual marriages. They deny the intention of imposing their views on anyone--even as the Declaration itself tries to impose a religious view of marriage by force of law, and even as many mainline Protestant churches have recognized same-sex marriages for years.vii (In 2005, the United Church of Christ became the first Protestant denomination to affirm marriage equality; it began ordaining openly gay ministers in the early 1970s.) The Declaration, in other words, proposes a form of theocratic Dominionism--the antithesis of religious freedom.

I've long thought that the Catholic right and the fundamentalist Protestant right have far more in common than they do with their more liberal brethren. The linchpin in this relationship will be the Catholic doctrine of "natural law" from which all their socially conservative positions flow (naturally?).

Their implacable opposition to abortion, homosexuality, contraception, divorce, euthanasia, and pre-marital sex all stem from this doctrine, which teaches that anything that deviates from the natural order for mankind that God has ordained (i.e. life from conception to natural death, and married, procreative sex only) is not only sinful, but evil, and a mortal sin. Hard to see that changing any time soon.

They make a natural ally for the religious right and, except for the fact that the vast majority of the Catholic laity ignore the teachings concerning things like sex before marriage and contraception, they would actually drag the religious right rightwards, if that can be believed!

The Catholic radio channel, Relevant Radio started broadcasting in my home a few years ago, and it's given me quite an education on all things (conservative) Catholic. It's basically anti-abortion and anti-Obamacare 24/7, but they do it with a much more friendly and self-effacing tone than the demagogues of the Religious Right. I'm sure that makes them more effective in reaching out beyond their core constituency, but I'm not sure they're large enough to make much of a difference as yet.

It is also interesting that they almost never talk about Catholic church positions that liberals champion, like opposing poverty (rarely), supporting immigration reform (very rarely), and opposing the death penalty (never). One priest actually stated that his personal opinion was that more rapists and murders should be executed. You never hear any of them deviating from the conservative church doctrines or policies.

I guess the only thing that really stands in the way of Relevant Radio from bridging the divide with the Religious Right is their devotion to Mary, the saints, the Pope, icons, talismans, apparitions, etc. which would be all too much for Protestant fundamentalists to swallow.

by tacitus on Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 10:51:23 PM EST

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