Is “the” Evangelical-Catholic Alliance on Moral Issues Coming Apart?


Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, and Michael Novak were some of the important Catholic architects of “Evangelicals & Catholics Together”

National Public Radio religion reporter Tom Gjelten seems to think so.  Here is a taste of his report:

…their shared opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and their common interest in parochial schools, brought them together. In 1994, with a “Catholics & Evangelicals Together” manifesto, leaders of the two faith groups announced they could collaborate as co-belligerents, allied on some issues while disagreeing on others.

That alliance, however, is again coming under strain, in part over their different reactions to the Trump administration’s policy priorities.

Some prominent Catholic leaders worry the country is becoming increasingly divided.

“America has lost her way,” said Archbishop José Gomez, whose Los Angeles archdiocese is the largest in the country. “We no longer know who we are or what our national purpose is,” he said, in a commencement address at the Catholic University of America.

Read the rest here.

Gjelton may be correct, but by comparing the Catholics who signed the 1994 “Catholics & Evangelicals Together” manifesto with Pope Francis or Archbishop Gomez is something akin to comparing apples and oranges.

The Catholics who signed Catholics & Evangelicals Together were conservative Catholics.  Today these Catholics (or at least the ones who are still alive) represent some of the strongest critics of Pope Francis.  Moreover, the evangelical signers of Catholics & Evangelical Together were mostly conservative evangelicals.

So in order to truly evaluate whether Catholics & Evangelicals Together is falling apart in the age of Trump one must compare conservative Catholics and Evangelicals in the 1990s with conservative Catholics and Evangelicals today.  Such a comparison might lead one to conclude that the alliance is stronger than Gjelten’s piece suggests.

Of course there have also been Catholic-Evangelical alliances between more moderate and progressive Catholics and Evangelicals.  I participated in one of them.

Catholics, Evangelicals, and the American Future

Next week I will be at Georgetown University for a meeting of “Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good.”  (See my posts on the Fall 2011 meeting of this group).

As part of the gathering, Georgetown is sponsoring an afternoon panel discussion entitled “Catholics, Evangelicals, and the American Future.”  As you will see below, panelists will include Ron Sider, Cathleen Kaveny, E.J. Dionne, Michael Gerson, and Margaret Steinfels.

The sessions are open to the public.  I hope to see you there.

The Office of the President
of Georgetown University
The Berkley Center for
Religion, Peace, and World Affairs
request the pleasure of your company
for a panel discussion
 Wednesday, May 30th, 2012
3:00 – 6:00 p.m. Copley Formal Lounge
3:00 p.m.
Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue:
Lessons Learned and Ways Forward
Ron Sider
President of Evangelicals for Social Action and a Professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry & Public Policy in the Palmer Seminary at Eastern University
Glen Stassen
Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at the Fuller Theological Seminary
Cathleen Kaveny
John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law and Professor of Theology in the University of Notre Dame Law School
John Borelli
Special Assistant for Interreligious Initiatives in the Office of the President at Georgetown University

4:30 p.m.
Catholics, Evangelicals, and the 2012 Election
E.J. Dionne
Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and Georgetown University and Columnist for the Washington Post
Michael Gerson
Senior Advisor for the One Campaign and
Columnist for the Washington Post
Margaret Steinfels
Co-director of the Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture and previously editor-in-cheif of Commonweal magazine
Tom Banchoff
Director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University
Through much of American history, Catholics and Evangelicals have been sharply divided on matters of faith, values, and public policy. Over the past several decades both groups — who together encompass about half of the US population — have grown closer across a range of religious, moral, economic, and social issues and in a variety of contexts. To what degree have Catholic and Evangelical perspectives converged and where do major disagreements remain? What can Catholics and Evangelicals do together to promote greater common ground in this election year and beyond?
Since 2008 Georgetown University, in cooperation with Eastern University and other Evangelical institutions, has convened a dialogue, Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good, to address these and related questions. This symposium will bring together participants in the dialogue to assess lessons learned, ways forward, and the impact of Catholics and Evangelicals on the 2012 election.

Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good–Part Six

This will be our final post on this series on the recent meeting of Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good Earlier posts can be found here:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

The final major paper presented at the annual meeting of Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common at Georgetown University was delivered by John Borelli, a theologian and the assistant to the president at Georgetown.  Borelli offered his interpretation of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the statement of political engagement written by the United States Catholic Bishops.

Here were some of the key themes he addressed:

  • The bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote, but will “encourage Catholics to focus on issues and make judgments based on church teaching.”
  • “Forming Consciences” is not a voter guide–a document that “advises specifically on where to check ballots.”
  •  The document states that “a Catholic voter cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position.  “Intrinsic evil” is defined as actions “incompatible with the love of God and neighbor.”
  • Catholic social teaching comes to us “as a gift of human reason.” The goal is to defend life and human dignity. Practices such as abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, destructive research on human embryos, genocide, torture, racism, and the targeting of noncombatants are thus morally suspect and against the teaching of the church.
  • The text of “Forming Consciences” rejects the idea that Catholics should be single-issue voters.  At the same time it “seeks to counter the age-old stereotype of Catholic clergy telling American Catholics how to vote and think.
  • John 13:34 is the only direct reference to the Bible in “Forming Consciences.”  Borelli adds that “care is taken in official Catholic statements not to cite scripture in a fashion that provides a proof text.”  A more “holistic” approach should be employed.
  • The scriptures should always be interpreted in light of church tradition, but tradition cannot be reduced to bishops.  Instead, Catholic “tradition” includes church life, precedents, the sacraments, pastoral writing, preaching, theology, and reflections on the Bible using the tools of science.
  • “Personalism” or the theological and philosophical tradition that celebrates the dignity of the human person and the idea that humans were made for relationships, is a fundamental part of Catholic social teaching.
  • Catholics believe that religious pluralism and freedom of religion are good things, but, as Borelli notes, this view is only about fifty years old.
  • The following teachings are at the heart of Catholic social teaching:  the protection of the weak, the rejection of violence to solve the nation’s problems, marriage as defined as a union between one woman and one man, immigration reform, the alleviation of poverty, health care for those who do not have it, opposition to policies that reflect injustice, care for creation, the placing of moral limits on the use of military force, and the pursuit of peace, human rights, religious liberty and economic justice.

Borelli’s paper was the best explication of Catholic social teaching  that I have ever heard.  (Although I am not sure that is saying much!)  Some suggested that Borelli’s interpretation of “Forming Consciousness” was in some ways better than the document itself. His paper triggered much discussion.

For example, one member of the group noted that “Forming Consciences” was almost entirely about voting.  People of faith often make other kinds of political choices such as donating money or volunteering for campaigns.  Borelli admitted that these issues were not directly addressed in the document.

A Catholic participant wondered how the Church is able to convince non-Catholics that its interpretation of natural law is correct.  In other words, how does one enter the public square with faith-based ideas based on either the Bible or natural law when the society does not embrace these ideas? Cardinal McCarrick suggested that one must do so with humility.  Ronald Sider argued that a person of faith must make his or her argument in the public square and then trust in natural law or something akin to common grace to call attention to the law of God “written upon the hearts” of all people.

A Catholic participant made an attempt to define “conscience.”  He said that when most Catholics use the term “conscience” they mean something akin to “I can do anything I want in the way I want to do it.” This is not a Catholic understanding of conscience.

An evangelical participant asked a great question about the virtue and character of political candidates.  What if a candidate has the temperament or character to lead, but has the wrong views?  What role does “conscience” play in such a situation?  In other words, one might agree with Sarah Palin on life issues, marriage, family, etc…, but decide to vote for another candidate based on the fact that Palin’s temperament and/or style is not conducive to her being President of the United States.  Borelli believed that such a view of conscience was permissible in Catholic social teaching.

In the end, when it comes to social teaching, Catholics and Evangelicals (or at least the moderate Catholics and Evangelical who attend this annual meeting) are doing nearly identical things.  This was the most important thing I took away from this dialogue.

Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good–Part Five

Earlier posts in this short series on the recent meeting of Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good can be found here:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

After the historical panels were complete, it was time to explore the theological and philosophical roots of “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Reponsibility” and “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”

Bryan McGraw of Wheaton College got the ball rolling with a critique of both documents.  First, he wondered about the Catholic concept of “human dignity.”  Does it come from special revelation in the form of scripture and the incarnation of Jesus Christ, or does it come from a Catholic understanding of natural law?  Second, he asked how American culture has shaped Catholic social teaching, particularly as put forth in “Forming Consciences.”

He then turned his attention to “For the Health of the Nation.” As a Protestant, McGraw commended the document for grounding the call to social responsibility in biblical principles, but he also argued that the Bible alone was insufficient for developing a robust view of evangelical social engagement.  For example, is the idea of “equality of opportunity,” as presented in “For the Health of the Nation,” a biblical idea?

McGraw also noted what he perceived to be the neo-Calvinist (Kuyperian) nature of the document and wondered if such an approach best represented the diversity of American evangelicalism.

In the end, McGraw concluded that the wording of “For the Health of the Nations” implied that the Bible is not entirely sufficient for a theory of Christian social engagement, but at the same time the document does not draw upon on any theological system outside the Bible.  He concluded that “For the Health of the Nations” makes policy claims based on the Bible that are not necessarily biblical.

Ron Sider agreed that evangelicals have no deep theological framework for civic engagement.  But he also took issue with McGraw’s assertion that the “For the Health of the Nations” was neo-Calvinist in orientation.  As a Mennonite-Pietist-Wesleyan, Sider said that he was tired of Reformed thinkers taking ideas that were simply “Biblical” and making them “Reformed.”

Rich Cizik, who was part of the committee that wrote “For the Health of the Nations,” said that many on the committee thought the document was too Neo-Anabaptist and too influenced by the theological commitments of Ron Sider.  He added that none of the theological and philosophical issues raised by McGraw played a role in the way the members of the National Association of Evangelicals voted on the document.  He felt that the document, in this sense, was “remarkable” (McGraw had called it “unremarkable”) because it represented a changing of the guard in American evangelicalism toward young people concerned with the social issues addressed in “For the Health of the Nation.”

Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good–Part Four

For the first post in this short series on the recent meeting of Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good click here.  For part two click here.  For part three click here.

Following my presentation on the history of evangelical social engagement, Thomas Banchoff, the director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown, gave a paper examining the recent historical context for “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”

Banchoff argued that Forming Consciences (2008) included an emphasis on “conscience” that had not been present in the previous election-year calls to political responsibility distributed by the the Catholic Bishops of the United States.  He also suggested that Forming Consciences used stronger pro-life language than previous statements and was the first of such statements to employ the use of the word “evil” to describe political and social views that did not defend life.  Earlier documents by the U.S. Catholic Bishops did not distinguish between abortion and other life issues, but Forming Consciences does.  After a close reading of the Bishop’s statements on political responsibility that have been distributed since 1976, Banchoff concluded that by 2008 abortion had become the dominant issue in the Catholic pro-life agenda in a way that made it different from previous statements.

The conversation on Banchoff’s paper was spirited.  Some Catholics who were involved in the crafting of Forming Consciences disagreed with Banchoff, arguing that abortion does not trump the rest of the “life issues” addressed in the document.

Cardinal McCarrick asserted that a person cannot be a Catholic without being pro-life, but a person could be pro-life and not be an authentic Catholic.  McCarrick called on Catholics to uphold a consistent ethic of life when they go to the polls.  He affirmed that a Catholic does not necessarily have to vote for an anti-abortion candidate if such a candidate does not support other life issues such as capital punishment or euthanasia.

The conversation then moved to whether or not ordinary American Catholics, when they go to the polls, take into consideration the pronouncements of the Bishops.  Do they even know that statements such as Forming Consciences exist?  Ron Sider said that the same thing applies to evangelicals.  Are ordinary evangelicals aware that a statement like “For the Health of the Nation” is out there?

Stay tuned.  Following these historical presentations the discussion moved to a theological and philosophical analysis of the documents.

Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good–Part Three

For the first post in this short series on the recent meeting of Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good click here.  For part two click here.

Friday morning was history morning at the annual gathering of Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good at Georgetown University.  Ron Sider asked me to present a historical overview of evangelical engagement with public life as background for the discussion of “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility” that would occur later that morning.  Thomas Banchoff, the director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, was asked to do a similar talk in preparation for the afternoon discussion of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” I will discuss his paper in the next post.

My paper offered a sweeping overview of evangelical social engagement from the late 19th-century to the present.  The topics I addressed included the Evangelical Alliance of 1873, Dwight L. Moody, William Jennings Bryan, the Social Gospel, the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals, John Harold Ockenga, Carl F.H. Henry’s Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947), Billy Graham, evangelicals and Eisenhower civil religion, the evangelical responses to the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam, the rise of the evangelical left, Francis Schaeffer, Mark Hatfield, Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority, abortion, the Green v. Conally case, and Jim Wallis and the election of 2004.  A lot of my material came from the early chapters of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation.

Here is the conclusion to my paper, which a few evangelicals at the meeting found far too dour and depressing.

So where does this leave us?  Since 1980 the Christian Right has defined for the general public what it means to be a socially responsible evangelical.  Its leaders continue to understand Christian activism in terms of two or three social issues.  And as long as conservative evangelicals remain concerned with abortion and gay marriage the Christian Right will continue to have traction in American life and in the Republican Party.  In other words, I don’t think the Christian Right is going away any time soon, but I am a historian, and these kinds of predictions take me beyond my pay grade.

Meanwhile, the evangelical middle and left toiled in relative obscurity during the 1980s and 1990s until the Democrats found God in the wake of the 2004 presidential elections and called upon Jim Wallis and other progressive Christians for help.  The willingness of Democrats to entertain the possibility of thinking religiously (and even theologically) about their political agenda opened the door for a more nuanced and comprehensive conversation about evangelical social action.  As Christian Right founders pass from the scene, a new group of evangelical leaders such as Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Joel Hunter, and Richard Cizik are challenging evangelicals to rethink their commitment to social justice and to embrace a consistent and comprehensive ethic of life.

Evangelical young people, many of them connecting with “emerging churches” that meet in coffeehouses and shopping malls are getting their politics and understanding of cultural engagement from evangelical progressives such as Shane Claiborne and Brian McClaren.  Columnists like Nicholas Kristof consistently praise evangelicals working to alleviate poverty in Darfur and stopping sex trafficking around the globe.  Compassionate evangelical conservatives are engaged in fighting HIV/AIDS by making sure the infrastructure is present for folks to search for testing centers by zip should they need it.  Evangelicals continue to defend the right of the unborn and the institutions of marriage and family.  James Davison Hunter, in his recent book To Change the World, has challenged evangelicals–of both the left, right, and neo-Anabaptist persuasions–to stop trying to change the world through politics and instead consider social change through faithful presence in their communities.

Yet, while observers of American religion such as David Kirkpatrick, Amy Sullivan, and E.J. Dionne, just to name a few, are noticing an increasing number of evangelicals becoming engaged in social action, we still, to borrow a phrase from the late Christopher Lasch, are living in a “culture of narcissism.”   Sociologist Christian Smith informs us that young people uphold views of the world today defined by “moral therapeutic deism” and “extreme moral individualism.”  As a professor at an evangelical college, I see both a strong concern among students for bringing their faith to bear on the problems of the world that goes beyond politics and the culture wars.  But I also see an obsession with the self–as defined by consumerism and narcissism–that makes me wonder if there is any significant difference between the habits of evangelical young people and non-evangelical young people.

Thankfully, we evangelicals have a document such as “For the Health of a Nation” to guide us through these times.  I am sure those at the 1873 meeting of the Evangelical Alliance would have read these document and been proud.

Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good: Part One

“Have you ever been involved in Catholic and Evangelical dialogue?

This was the question Ron Sider, the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, a longtime professor at Palmer Theological Seminary (formerly Eastern Baptist Seminary), and author of the classic Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (1977), asked me before the first session of this weekend’s Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good (CECG).

I told him that I spent the first fifteen years of my life as a Catholic and served on the board of the Lilly Fellows Program in the Humanities and Arts, an ecumenical network of Catholic and Protestant colleges designed to strengthen church-related higher education, but I had never participated in a Catholic-Evangelical dialogue for the purpose of promoting the “common good.”

CECG is now in its sixth year.  This year’s meeting was held on the campus of Georgetown University in Washington D.C.  The purpose of these discussions is to think together about how Catholics and Evangelicals might work together to defend a “consistent ethic of life,” alleviate poverty, promote a civil society, protect the environment, and engage in a host of other social justice initiative for the “common good.” The conversations are not focused on theology.

Most (but not all) of the discussion during the weekend centered around two documents.  One of them was entitled “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.”  It was produced in 2004 by the National Association of Evangelicals.  The other was entitled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (2007).  It was written in 2007 by the United States Catholic bishops.

Attendees at the meeting included:

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick: former Archbishop of Washington D.C.

Ronald Sider:  President, Evangelicals for Social Action

Michael Gerson:  Former Bush speechwriter and Washington Post columnist

John Borelli: Catholic theologians and special assistant to the president at Georgetown.

Mark Rodgers: former aid to Rick Santorum and principal of The Clapham Group.

Thomas Banchoff: Director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown

Stephen Monsma: researcher at the Paul Henry Institute at Calvin College.

John Carr: Director of Justice, Peace, and Human Development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Cathleen Kaveny:  John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law and Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Paul Alexander: Director of Jesus & Politics for Evangelicals for Social Action

E.J. Dionne: Fellow at The Brookings Institution and columnist for the Washington Post.

Galen Carey: Vice President for Government Relations at the National Association of Evangelicals.

Richard Cizik: President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good

Jack Downey:  Ph.D candidate in American Catholic History at Fordham University and a visiting scholar at the Berkley Center.

Daniel Finn:  Clemens Professor of Economics and Liberal Arts at St. John’s University, Collegeville, MN.

Anne-Elisabeth Giuliani:  Office of Campus Ministry, Georgetown University

John Fea: Messiah College

Bryan McGraw: Assistant professor of Politics & International Relations at Wheaton College

George Monsma: Professor of Economics Emeritus at Calvin College

Timothy Shah: Associate Director, Religious Freedom Project, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

Cheryl Sanders, Professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University School of Divinity and Pastor of the Third Street Church of God, Washington, D.C.

Amelia Uelmen, former Director of the Institute on Religion, Law, & Lawyer’s Work at Fordham University and Visiting Lecturer in Georgetown Law School.

My responsibility was to present a paper on the recent history of evangelical social and political engagement as a background to the discussion of “For the Health of the Nations.”

 Stay tuned.

Pictured above:  The Riggs Library at Georgetown, the site of our conversations.