Franklin Foer: How Catholics Became the Brain Behind Evangelical Politics





[Franklin Foer is a senior editor at TNR.]

In 1994, the eminent evangelical historian Mark Noll wrote a scorching polemic about his own religion called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. The book lamented the "intellectual disaster of fundamentalism" and its toll on evangelical political and theological thought. All around him, Noll saw "a weakness for treating the verses of the Bible as pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that needed only to be sorted and then fit together to possess a finished picture of divine truth."

While many evangelicals reacted angrily to Noll's description, they tacitly acknowledged his argument with their actions. Evangelicals began aggressively reaching out to Catholics for intellectual aid. That movement reached its apotheosis with the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. With his addition to the ranks of Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and John Roberts, all five members of the Court's conservative majority would be Catholics.

This unprecedented Catholic majority, assuming Alito's confirmation, might seem a historical accident. When George H.W. Bush appointed Thomas, it's a good bet that his Catholicism wasn't foremost on the president's mind. But the emergence of the Court's Catholic bloc reflects the reality of social conservatism: Evangelicals supply the political energy, Catholics the intellectual heft.

For much of U.S. history, this alliance would have been unthinkable. Protestants once fought hard to teach the King James Bible in public schools, insisting that every schoolchild consume its subtle description of the Pope as "that man of sin." But shared animus toward abortion provided the initial grounds for rapprochement. And, at about the same time Noll's book appeared, Catholic-evangelical cooperation began transcending any single issue. In 1994, the influential Catholic journal First Things published a manifesto called "Evangelicals & Catholics Together." Its signatories--including Richard John Neuhaus, Pat Robertson, and Bill Bright, founder of the Campus Crusade for Christ--vowed, "[W]e will do all in our power to resist proposals for euthanasia, eugenics, and population control that ... betray the moral truths of our constitutional order."

As an exercise in political coalitionbuilding, this alliance made perfect sense. But evangelicals didn't just need Catholic bodies; they needed Catholic minds to supply them with rhetoric that relied more heavily on morality than biblical quotation. You could see the partnership in countless examples. After James Dobson's Focus on the Family funded a Colorado initiative permitting discrimination against gays, Catholic law professors Robert George and John Finnis testified for the measure in court. Evangelical politicians began borrowing John Paul II's "culture of life" critique of abortion-- a phrase that they also deployed during the Terri Schiavo controversy. Indeed, Catholic conservatism provided much of the case for keeping Schiavo alive, from Tom DeLay's invocation of natural law to the oft-cited warnings about a slippery slope to eugenics.

There's no clearer example of evangelicals dressing themselves in Catholicism than George W. Bush's 2000 campaign. His speeches were rife with talk of "solidarity" and "common good," the language of the social teachings. And the authors of Bush's Faith Based Initiative--the hallmark of his feint toward compassionate conservatism--traced the program to papal encyclicals. Marvin Olasky, the original face of the Bush program, once credited Catholicism with "provid[ing] a structural framework." And, in the end, the campaign was an object lesson in the new alliance. By defending his positions on abortion with phrases drawn from Catholics--"expand the circle of freedom" and "protect the weakest member of society"--Bush simultaneously reassured the hard right and avoided the impression of a Bible-thumping radical. ...




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