The Other Christian America: Catholics, Evangelicals, and Politics Through the Ages

Evangelicals and Roman Catholics have, in recent years, become contemporaries, allies even in what is viewed as a broader struggle against an increasingly hostile cultural mainstream.  It should not go unsaid this is a drastic change from the vast majority of American history.

Early on, Catholics were viewed as standing for everything Americans resented and feared.  Evangelicals on the other hand see themselves as an indispensible part of the country’s social fabric from the beginning.

The English Puritans, tired of perceived corruption eroding the Church of England began to settle the New World in 1630 under the leadership of John Winthrop.  Winthrop was an idealistic lawyer who desired a “city on a hill.”  The new colony was to be a beacon of Christian light for the world, a new way of doing civilization, a new Israel.  Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” outlined his plan of what can only be called a Christian theocracy.  There was a Christian way of life and there was something else.  Thus, for the early Puritans the church was the centerpiece of society.

Meanwhile, down in Maryland, something quite different took root.  A Catholic colony was founded in 1634, though the founding Catholic families were soon overtaken by Protestant sympathizers.

The 19th Century saw evangelicals take hold of higher education and gain a monopoly on Americans’ faith on the sawdust trails and sleepy farmsteads of the back country.  The battle for America’s colleges and universities was not easy.  Timothy Dwight, president of Yale, provided a spark when he held a series of campus debates on issues of faith.  Though results were not immediate, slowly the academic community was transformed and what became the Second Great Awakening took off.  The Awakening entrenched Protestant, low church, Evangelicism across the western frontiers through the tireless work of such archetypal figures as the Baptist bi-vocational farmer-preacher and the Methodist circuit rider.  These flexible, low overhead positions allowed the two denominations to reach and minister to isolated, far flung communities across the vast American interior.

On the other hand, Catholic communities in America remained a stigmatized,  bitterly divided minority.  Matters were not helped when already small Catholic numbers were dwarfed by the evangelical Great Awakening.  Catholic internecine disputes often revolved around how to function in a suspicious society.  The traditionalists, usually led by ethnic Germans, demanded they remain closely tied with both the Church and their own ethnic traditions.  On the other side lay the Americanists, often of Irish origin.  This group yearned for assimilation into mainstream America.  They maintained their identity with pride, but were willing to make concessions.  The Americanist cause was not helped by the Vatican when in 1864 Pope Pius IX issued his Syllabus of Errors condemning a number of perceived contemporary fallacies, not in the least of which were democracy and individual freedom.  The utter reality of the time was that Catholics simply did not fit the definition of an American and many Americans were simply anti-Catholic.  The horrific wars of religion and abuses of the pre-Reformation and pre-Trent Church were still fresh in the collective Protestant memory.

The fall of evangelicals in the public sphere and the rise of Roman Catholic sway are oddly simultaneous.  Evangelicals lost their hard won control of America’s university system when, during the Civil War, the government developed land grant institutions.  More wealth, growth, the societal challenges of new technology, the advent of grammatical-historical criticism, as well as new learning styles such as the seminar format adopted from Europe,all conspired to induce a rapid decline of Evangelical sway in the academic world as the 20th Century dawned.  Evangelicals were caught off guard and simply did not know how to respond.  This social development was of course best encapsulated with the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial here in my home state of Tennessee.  At the trial, Evangelical leader William Jennings Bryan (incidentally also a tireless champion of working families and the poor), was made to look like a country simpleton clinging to antiquated superstition.  The Evangelical response to this humiliation, and to other challenges from liberal Christian organizations, was to withdraw from the public spotlight and embrace a separatist mentality.

Conversely, a drastic increase in the numbers of immigrants coming from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe suddenly vaulted Roman Catholics onto the national scene.  Their sheer numbers no longer allowed for overlooking.  Suddenly, Catholic politicians sprang up across America’s major cities.  Under the leadership of James Cardinal Gibbons, the archbishop of Baltimore until his death in 1921, Catholics began to embrace American patriotism and see themselves as having ownership in the American experiment.  These efforts took off with the nomination of Al Smith for President by the Democrats in 1928 and culminated when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic President in 1960.

Evangelicals of course were not finished.  Under a new generation of leaders, notably Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, and Carl F. H. Henry, they slowing emerged from the shadows to re-engage mainstream culture.  The election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 announced their success.  Carter’s presidency also saw the first glimmers of political coalition building between Evangelicals and Catholics.  The romance however really heated up in the late 1970’s when Evangelicals were ignited against abortion largely through Francis and Frank Schaeffer’s work.  The Evangelical battle against the perceived encroaching secularism found ready and willing allies in the Roman Catholic community.

The New Religious Right, active since Carter’s day, still remain a potent force.  Made up of Evangelicals and conservative Catholics who feel the traditional place of religion is constantly under attack. While the coalition perhaps saw its strength sapped in the first decade of the new century, there is not doubt the healthcare mandate of 2009 revived it will a new found furry and desperation.  Whatever theological differences exist are certainly now secondary as many religious, conservative Americans feel the comforting social framework of the past coming apart at the seams.

Where will this partnership go from here?  I’m not sure but I’d be willing to bet it will make for good viewing.




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