Catholics, Evangelicals, and Mainline Protestants: A Culture-War Realignment?

In a post last week on the dangerous legacy of Chuck Colson, I mentioned that one of his big projects was an effort, conducted in close conjunction with the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, to expand the relationship between Catholic “traditionalists” and conservative evangelicals beyond tactical cooperation in the fight against legalized abortion, feminism and gay rights into a full-blown alliance, up to and including a detente on ancient theological differences.

That led me into a meditation on the anomaly that this trans-confessional conservative alliance seemed to be displacing an earlier convergence between Catholics and mainline Protestants on doctrine and forms of worship–you know, those items that Christians have been fighting over for many centuries, and that gave rise to the Reformation in the first place–along with non-cultural social and political issues like poverty and war. I wrote this up in a column for TNR that some of you might find interesting. Here’s the conclusion:

All these cross-cutting trends and counter-trends in American (and global) Christianity call into question any glib arrangement of denominations, movements, or individuals as conservative or liberal, traditionalist or modernist. Neuhaus and Colson certainly had little doubt that what brought them together as culture-warriors was more important than any of the divergent ways their two Christian traditions have developed doctrinally in two millennia.

And for now, at least, the most powerful leaders among conservative evangelicals seem to agree with Colson. It’s too early to conclude that Neuhaus’s argument has won over the U.S. Catholic hierarchy for good—much less the many millions of Catholic lay people, priests and religious who have not enlisted in the culture wars. But if the recent alarms raised by the Bishops on “religious freedom”—complemented by the Vatican’s crackdown on non-compliant American nuns—are any indication, that’s the direction they seem to be headed. If so, they will stand against the mainline Protestants who increasingly find common ground with them at the altar and in the pews, if not on the cultural and political barricades.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.