We’d Better Hang Together: It’s Time for a New Alliance between Catholics and Evangelicals

For the past decade-and-a-half, I’ve often been in an odd role: a Roman Catholic defending evangelicals in the courts.

The most dynamic force in American Protestantism today are the evangelicals who are building schools throughout the land, amassing in their churches converts from other faiths, playing a highly visible role in the pro-life movement, and preaching what they hold to be Biblical principles as the proper foundation for a moral public order. These evangelicals are found mostly in churches of congregational polity—myriad “independent” churches not tied to policy-setting national judicatories. Hence their uniformity of belief and their resulting uniformity of positions on public issues is quite surprising. These “born agains,” stressing the need for separation, in family and social life, from a “pagan” culture, take in their stride accusations that they are fanatical, self-righteous, negative, and censorious. In spite of persistent battering by the national media, they are growing in numbers and strength.

I have been in the courts for evangelical pastors, churches, parents, children, and schools in Maine, California, and a dozen states in between. These have been cases with high religious liberty stakes in which government agencies have sought to shut down evangelical schools, or to regulate their internal church affairs, or to impose taxes on their ministries. While, for reasons I cannot comprehend, making the sign of the cross is no longer considered good form by some Catholics at meetings with those of other faiths, I have signed myself in prayers with my clients before trial, not wishing to hide my faith from them and because no act could be more meaningful at the start of these hard contests for justice.

A special reward which I have enjoyed for defending evangelicals has been the blossoming of many friendships; a particular benefit has been knowledge I have gained of what evangelicals are really all about. When people on account of their beliefs are faced with prosecutions, fines, shutdown of their churches or schools—and possibly even jail—the process of trial preparation opens up to their attorney a more graphic picture of their lives than might be seen by others. In these cases I have had to bring out on the witness stand the facts of evangelicals’ beliefs and why, despite government prosecution, they determine that they must hold to those beliefs. It has been necessary to show courts why teachers in evangelical schools, such as those of the Association of Christian Schools International, regard their work as a religious vocation for which sacrifice of income is warranted. In most of these cases, the children attending these schools (invariably racially nondiscriminatory) and their parents have had to testify. From their testimony has flowed a love of the virtuous family life held dear by them; it is what makes these families sacrifice for the sake of their schools, their churches, and their day-care centers. My overall impression of these people is that they possess deep Christian faith, promote good family life, and contribute to the moral quality of the nation.

For a decade there has been talk of a coalition between evangelicals and Roman Catholics. The 1980, 1984, and 1988 presidential campaigns witnessed sporadic comings-together of Catholics and Protestants in support of candidates popularly labeled “conservative.” There was much media comment on Catholics who worked on behalf of Pat Robertson last year. Jerry Falwell, three years ago, reported that one-third of his Moral Majority membership was Catholic. The annual March for Life in Washington and recent pro-life demonstrations throughout the country have found Catholics and evangelicals shoulder to shoulder. But those who believe that Catholics and evangelicals should unite in pursuing a social agenda for the betterment of America must first take account of factors that separate them and may even polarize them. These factors arise chiefly from ignorance and from stereotyping as a substitute for fact. Yes, there are also antagonisms which are expressions simply of bigotry. But while there is some mutual antagonism of that sort, most anti-Catholic and anti-evangelical hostility today emanates from secularist sources.

Mutual Suspicions

First, to look at the conservative evangelicals’ views of Catholics: Catholics are in a sense non-persons to evangelicals. Few evangelical journals attack Catholics or their Church. Rather, they ignore them. Where a Catholic is recognized for merit, he or she will often not be identified as Catholic. Catholics are rarely, in evangelicals’ conversations, referred to as “Christians.” The world scene, in most evangelical publications, does not include the figures of John Paul II or Mother Teresa.

The evangelical historical perspective appears to see Christianity as having gone dead at the time of Constantine and having stayed that way until Luther’s posting of the 95 theses in 1517—all the saints, holy people, Christian worship, and art of 13 centuries are lost in the darkness of the “Dark Ages.” Rarely in evangelical publications is a good word—or any word—said about the Catholic sisterhood, for the hospitals they give our communities, for Catholic services to the poor, for the Catholic schools. Abrasive is the sometimes cocksure manner of some of those who, having been “saved,” surprisingly seem to regard as inferior and benighted others who await the Judgment for their answer.

This outlook makes for distancing. Perhaps more basic in evangelicals’ remoteness from Catholics is the notion that Catholics substitute image-worship and a hierarchy for the Bible and a direct I-to-Christ relationship. Stretching the distance a bit more are longstanding evangelical perceptions of Catholics as worldly. A party at a hall in a Polish Catholic neighborhood, with beer flowing and jocund polkas danced, obscures for many evangelical eyes the solid family life, spirituality, and rugged patriotism which so often has distinguished Catholic “ethnics.”

Finally, evangelicals have been witnessing, since at least 1970, what they perceive as the beginnings of dissolution of the Catholic faith—the publicized decline in Mass attendance; the defections of priests and nuns; the public wranglings and tolerated defiance of Church authority on Catholic college campuses; the closing of Catholic schools; the embracing by many younger Catholics of the secular, hedonistic culture; and the scandal of “Catholic” politicians who publicly defy Church teachings without vigorous confrontation by those whose office is said to be to protect those teachings.

Increasing the distance between Catholics and evangelicals, as well, have been Catholic misperceptions of evangelicals. A June 1989 Associated Press dispatch from the recent Seton Hall meeting of the U.S. bishops bore the headline: “Catholic Bishops to Counter Draw of Fundamentalism.” In the story appeared a statement by Archbishop John L. May that fundamentalist churches have “a very clearly fashioned plan to entice people away from the Church in a very deceptive way.” The article stated that the Catholic Church “has lost tens of thousands of minority members to conservative Protestant groups in recent years and is fighting back.” A Catholic News Service release the same day described the “deceptive way” as providing, in Protestant churches in Hispanic neighborhoods, art and music very similar to “traditional” Catholic art and music, in order to make Hispanic Catholics “feel at home” in those churches. The denunciation went on to arraign these missionary efforts for their preaching against the veneration of Our Lady and attacking the Catholic sacrament of penance.

To what extent the Seton Hall statement characterizes the attitude of Catholic leaders toward the conservative, school-building Protestants is not certain. But the view is, in several ways, unfortunate. It appears as a blanket condemnation of all conservative evangelicals. It judges the motives of all to be dishonest. Now it cannot be denied that, in the proselytizing efforts of some of the most feverish fundamentalists, the spreading of lies about the Church and the inspiring of malice toward Catholic believers are deliberate. But in great part the evangelizing effort toward Hispanics involves the same techniques by which Catholic missionaries converted the Indian ancestors of many of these same Hispanics: praying over them, giving them personal attention, food, clothing, and a sense of warm welcome.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that evangelicals’ successes among Catholics have been due mainly to any of these factors. While the Protestant attraction has indeed consisted in an indomitable, Bible-centered conviction and zeal, it is the present confusion within the Catholic Church and the widespread loss of the Catholic sacrament-centered sense of mission (with a concomitant loss of laborers in the field of souls) that has set the stage for the success of the Protestant evangelicals.

And to the extent that Catholic liturgical changes have diminished the sense of the mystical in the Mass, have removed old and loved statues as bric-a-brac, and downgraded devotion to Mary, the Church has invited the competition of the zealous evangelicals. Downgraded though the sacrament of penance may be by some evangelical “soul winners,” Cardinal Oddi’s remark some years ago about the shortening of the confessional lines makes one ask how much the sacrament has been downgraded within the Church. If Catholics are no longer told that the Catholic faith is the one true faith and that it must be held the most important thing in their lives, those who, Bible in hand, say that there is one faith, that they have it, and that it is the only important thing in life, will prevail. As one ponders the Catholic complaints against evangelicals, the remark of Cassius comes to mind: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.”

The gap between Catholic and conservative evangelicals will not be narrowed by singling the latter out for attack while avoiding confrontation with mainline Protestant (and Jewish) leaders who publicly denounce, lobby, and litigate against the Church’s positions in the most basic areas of morality. And inevitably the attack on evangelicals produces counterattack. The same Associated Press article drew a pained retort from a prominent member of the Southern Baptist Conference, who called the ascribing to evangelicals of bad motives “unfair.” What we have, on the part of these religious conservatives, is not chiefly tricks, but simply earnest evangelizing. It would be both false and disadvantageous to the Church to spread the presumption that most conservative evangelicals today carry the baggage of anti-Catholic bigotry which characterized Nativism, the APA, and the POAU.

While the orthodox Catholic and the traditional Protestant differ on historic issues such as the papacy, tradition, and the sacraments, these issues do not have direct consequences in terms of public issues in the United States today. Too often forgotten by both evangelicals and Catholics are areas of doctrine which both share. In his recent book Evangelical Is Not Enough, where he describes his pilgrimage from evangelicalism to Catholicism, Thomas Howard states:

At bottom… one cannot distinguish evangelical teaching from traditional Christian orthodoxy. We [evangelicals] could be counted on to embrace all that is spelled out in the ancient creeds of the Church. There is nothing in the Apostles’, Nicene, Chalcedonian, or Athanasian creeds that we would have jibbed. We were stoutly among those who with Athanasius, “hold the Catholic Faith… whole and undefiled.” In this sense we would have been more at home in the company of apostles, fathers, doctors, confessors, and the ancient traditional catholic orthodoxy than among modern churches who look on the gospel as being shot through with legendary matters.

Whatever faults I have found among conservative evangelicals, including misconceptions they may have of the Catholic faith, I have felt comfortable with them—indeed, consoled by the knowledge that, unlike so many modern Protestants, they do embrace so much traditional Christian orthodoxy.

Beyond Ecumenism

Because this orthodoxy naturally leads to insistence, by both Catholics and evangelicals, upon certain moral principles which are at once vital to the public order and gravely threatened, it is important for the common good that Catholics and evangelicals join minds and hands for the promoting of those principles. To that end, the narrowing of the gap between us is essential. The way to one another, however, is not that of familiar ecumenical practice, i.e., exploring and discussing doctrinal differences. The most conservative evangelicals do not want to ecumenize with you. They will reject, in principle, a dialogue on doctrine in which their role is other than to convert you.

Evangelicals and Catholics can get together on the broad roadway that now divides them by realizing that it is morally imperative that our society be changed and that it won’t be without our joint action. They should, and must, bear in mind Franklin’s warning, at the start of the nation’s struggle for its freedom, that if we “don’t all hang together, we shall all most assuredly hang separately.” Hanging together on some public moral issues must now be seen by both as a matter of religious duty.

What practical steps, then, should each group be taking so that they can construct and successfully pursue a social agenda not only for “the betterment of America” but for the very survival of a nation worth living in?

First, each should undertake to find out what the other is really like. This can only be accomplished through meeting—in a spirit of love and prayer. The cherished images of negative stereotypes of the sort I have described should become obscured by seeing the immense spirituality which each so truly possesses. Praying together will do much to bring about that proper vision. A model for this kind of association is found in a remarkable organization known as Allies for Faith and Renewal, which during the past decade has brought together Catholics, evangelicals, and Orthodox for prayer, fellowship, and discussion. Cardinal Law, Richard John Neuhaus, Peter Kreeft, and Charles Colson have been among the speakers addressing the great moral issues of the day at Allies’ meetings.

Second, each should be willing to give platform and press to one another’s spokesmen, and credit to one another’s achievements. This need not involve a “yoking together with unbelievers.” In campaigning side by side for a law to save unborn lives, no more offense is given to God—nor scandal to one’s co-religionists—than there would be in the joining together of a Catholic and a Protestant to save someone’s house from burning down. Not a syllable of doctrine or conviction is put on the negotiating table when fully cooperative action takes place between conservative evangelicals and Catholics on issues on which they not only doctrinally agree but on which they are morally bound to act.

Opportunities for common constructive action abound. Five years ago, the evangelical schools in Pennsylvania sought a state statute which would liberate all religious schools from the threat of state dictation of curriculum and state certification of religious school teachers. After initial reluctance on the part of some Catholics to support the “fundamentalist” bill, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, under the leadership of Harrisburg’s Bishop William H. Keeler (now Archbishop of Baltimore), threw its weight behind the bill. That bill, a “religious schools Magna Carta,” is now the law of Pennsylvania. In that state, Catholics and evangelicals are now cooperating for the passage of a “Parent and Pupil Protection Act” that enables parents to protect their public school children against sex clinics and other manifestations of enforced secular humanism.

As I write, in the wake of the Webster decision by the Supreme Court, it is more evident than ever that the financial power and media dominance of anti-life forces may eradicate the limited but precious opportunity afforded by Webster unless evangelicals and Catholics everywhere join in grassroots political action. Related anti-life manifestations in favor of euthanasia present another occasion where united action is absolutely necessary. The co-opting of the public schools by militant secularist forces will proceed to the ruin of generations unless heavily countered. Religious liberty, now the one First Amendment liberty suffering increasing restriction, will be further diminished in the absence of that force which can best act to save it: the combined intelligence, will, and numbers of Catholics and evangelicals. Legal survival of Catholic, Protestant (and Jewish) religious schools should now be deemed a matter of common cause.

Tragically, there are good opportunities for co-operation which are being missed. The now famous bill of Senator Dodd known as the Act For Better Child Care (“ABC”) is, at this writing, being given Catholic backing—that in spite of ABC’s provision for a total shift, on the Swedish model, of all religious child care to government regulation. Ironically, this spring, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE)—traditionally an exponent of old-style “church-state separation”—came out opposing ABC and in favor of tax credits for all parents whose children attend religious schools. A coalition of Catholics and NAE would have sufficed to defeat ABC and to establish a meaningful tax credit principle. A precious opportunity which could have brought about a new day in parental and religious rights in our country was missed. Instead, it looks as though—thanks to this failure—we may get Sweden.

Catholics have much indeed to learn from conservative evangelicals of the Baptist tradition about the defending of religious freedom. Conservative evangelicals can use schooling by orthodox Catholics in the areas of euthanasia, ethical problems in biotechnology, and the implications of contraception. Nor dare the agenda of this alliance exclude the endeavor to find truly Christian solutions to problems of poverty, race, and family life, with special concern for the value of subsidiarity and volunteerism.

It is time that Catholics and evangelicals sit down with one another to address pressing problems in the political order. For that they will both need, in the name of public duty, to suppress old suspicions and antagonisms and endeavor to see in one another brothers and sisters in Christ.


  • William Bentley Ball

    William Bentley Ball was one of the nation's foremost Catholic constitutional lawyers. He died in 2000.

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