Last year, in the midst of the Harriet Miers flap, the media incorrectly reported that she was a convert to evangelicalism from the Catholic Faith. Before the error was corrected (she was never Catholic), evangelical heavy-hitter Dr. James Dobson puzzled some Catholics when he remarked, “I know the person who brought her to the Lord. I have talked at length to people that know her and have known her for a long time.” This sort of thing irked Catholics because Dobson was speaking not of Miers’s conversion from atheism or paganism to Christ, but of her supposed conversion to evangelical Protestantism from Catholicism. So members of the Church naturally asked, “Isn’t he implying that Catholics are not Christian?”
Actually, the answer is no. The truth is, Dobson is actually among the more Catholic-friendly evangelicals out there. Indeed, among some of the Neanderthal Fundamentalist sects, Dobson is a favorite target for his allegedly sinister coziness with “Romanism.” He is attacked by Way of Life Ministries, for instance, for “abominations” like putting Mother Teresa on the cover of Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine, for allowing a Catholic priest to speak at Focus on the Family conferences, and for speaking respectfully of Pope John
Paul II. In fact, he horrified and appalled some true anti-Catholics when he “praised the Catholic church for its efforts to protect the family and said that while he has some theological differences with the Roman Catholic Church, he often agrees more with the Roman Catholic Church than with other evangelicals on issues such as abortion, premarital sex and homosexuality” (www.wayoflife.org/ fbns/dobsonrome.htm).
So if all of that is true, what did he mean in his remarks about Miers?
In evangelicalese, being a Christian is not—as it is for Catholics— given as a fact of baptism or church membership. To “come to the Lord” or “become a real Christian” is bound up with a conscious choice at some point in life: a decision to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Catholics who show evidence of such a decision are generally reckoned as “real Christians.” Conversely, fellow Protestants who are obviously not interested in discipleship as evangelicals would recognize it are just as likely to be dismissed as mere ritualists, practitioners of “Churchianity,” and so forth. It’s not a denominational thing for most evangelicals; it’s a perception of serious discipleship.
At the everyday lived level, things get more complicated. The default assumption is that generic Catholics are mostly in the thralls of empty ritualism. But evangelicals also tend to assume this about most mainline Protestants. Interestingly enough, evangelicals tend to make exceptions for Catholics they actually know. Why? Because they see such Catholics attempting serious discipleship, and that—for them—is what a “real Christian” looks like.
True, they assume this is unusual for Catholics. The Catholic Church is often perceived by evangelicals as preserving the Faith while still clinging to various “traditions of men” (Marian devotion, purgatory, the communion of saints, indulgences, the Real Presence, etc.) that taint or pollute faith in Jesus and hinder the well-meaning disciple. So conversion to a “living faith” is generally thought to be easier in an evangelical environment. But there is a growing recognition among evangelicals that (as it tends to be put) “many Catholics are Christian too.” This irks Catholics, of course, but it’s a vast improvement over typical evangelical rhetoric even 25 years ago.
Keep that in mind as you decode the jargon of two peoples separated by a common faith, yet engaged in a common struggle with a Culture of Death that would love to destroy them both.