Protestant America's Selective Embrace of the Pope's Teachings

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Mr. Fea is an assistant professor of history at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and a writer for the History News Service.

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In one of the more interesting and ironic twists in recent American religious life, a Catholic pope has found some of his most vocal supporters among conservative evangelical Protestants.
Evangelical-Catholic relations have come a long way over the last generation, but for all their papal cheerleading, conservative evangelicals have made no effort to consider embracing the breadth of John Paul II's social teachings. As a result, their moral authority to address American culture as Christians has been severely hindered.
A seismic shift has occurred in the way American evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants have understood the religion of Rome. For much of the last 500 years, praise of a particular pope's work, even at the time of his death, would have been unheard of among most evangelicals.
Consider that Martin Luther and John Calvin, the two most influential leaders of the Protestant Reformation and heroic figures to most contemporary evangelicals, believed that popes of their time were the"Antichrist," the political leader described in the Book of Revelation as the great enemy of God during the earth's last days. Roger Williams, a Puritan and one of early America's champions of religious liberty, described the pope as the"son of perdition" prophesied by St. Paul in the book of Thessalonians. Cotton Mather, a 17th-century New England minister and a prolific Puritan intellectual, wrote that those who could not see that the pope was the Antichrist had a"marvelous blindness upon them."
When Irish and German Catholics began entering the country in large numbers in the decades before the Civil War, many Protestants saw this influx of immigrants as a threat to Protestant civilization in America. In contrast with the attitude of today's evangelicals, Lyman Beecher, a popular evangelical reformer of the era, said that he feared that Catholic priests would settle in the American West and use their"sinister influence" to undermine the creation of Protestant and republican institutions.
This anti-Catholic rhetoric was a vital part of Protestant fundamentalism (the religious movement through which many of today's evangelicals trace their history) at the turn of the 20th century.  Popular speakers at fundamentalist"prophecy conferences" taught a view of the"last days" that placed Roman Catholicism and the pope at the center of the resistance to God's kingdom.
Carl McIntire, one of the most outspoken fundamentalists in the United States, would have been shocked at the warm reception that John Paul II received from conservative evangelicals. In 1945, McIntire announced that the Catholic Church was the"greatest enemy of freedom and liberty that the world has to face today."  Evangelicals and fundamentalists did not hesitate to employ similar rhetoric in their assessments of two Catholic presidential candidates, Al Smith in 1928 and John F. Kennedy in 1960.
But hostility between Catholics and evangelicals started to dissolve in the 1980s. As cultural and social issues such as abortion and gay rights began to play a prominent role in American politics, evangelicals found an unlikely ally in the Roman Catholic Church and its charismatic leader, John Paul II.
Today, evangelical cultural warriors such as James Dobson and Pat Robertson applaud the late pope's unbending moral convictions. Evangelical and conservative Catholic leaders have united to produce"Evangelicals and Catholics Together," a statement affirming what these two branches of Christendom hold in common. And in the best-selling Christian novel, Left Behind (the first in the popular series of"end times" fiction by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins), the pope actually gets"raptured"--suddenly and without warning removed from the earth to join fellow believers in heaven.
This new ecumenical spirit between Catholics and evangelicals should be celebrated as an important step toward healing old wounds dating from the Reformation of the 16th century. Yet evangelicals' embrace of the pope's social views has been limited at best. The differences between the social teaching of today's conservative evangelicals and the social teaching of John Paul II are profound, abortion and gay rights not withstanding.
For example, in a statement issued by Focus on the Family, his organization, James Dobson claimed John Paul II as a moral ally, but confined his remarks almost entirely to the pontiff's pro-life views. Others have limited their warm feelings for the late pope to his stand against communism, his commitment to Christian orthodoxy and his defense of the traditional family.
The Christian vision of conservative evangelicals may help to win national elections, but by failing to seriously consider papal wisdom on the dangers of rushing to war, the oppressive nature of"savage capitalism" or the inhumane use of the death penalty, the evangelical supporters of George W. Bush are turning their backs on a rich reservoir of moral thought that would certainly empower them in their efforts to bring the Christian faith to all dimensions of human life. For these evangelicals, the" culture of life" apparently extends only so far.
Conservative evangelicals may no longer view the pope as the Antichrist, but don't expect them to embrace John Paul II's legacy fully anytime in the near future. To do so would force them to rethink their politics, and that they're unlikely to do.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

So-called "conservative Christians" are, in many instances, fundamentally neither conservative nor Christian, but rank hypocrites comparable at least in spirit to the popes of centuries ago who wallowed in corruption and persecuted Galileo.

These phony American Protestants worship war, celebrate materialism, praise the destruction of the earth, and laud ignorance. That they find a temporary adherence to some teachings of one latter-day Catholic pope expedient should not be a surprise. If it somehow conveniently served their crooked power-hungry greed, they would no doubt "selectively embrace" Osama bin Laden.

Jeremy Arthur McLellan - 4/22/2005

I sympathize with your desire not to included among those whom Prof. Fea rightfully criticizes for appropriating piecemeal the Pope's message of life, but you are incorrent to assume that Prof. Fea is referring to all Evangelicals; I am sure that Jim Wallis would not fall into his generalizations.

Also, I assure you that even in the most "independent" or "Christ-centered" of Christian Colleges (like my own), Christian sympathies are consistently determined by American political categories of "conservative" and "liberal." These words cannot fully describe the consistent message of life that John Paul II advocated.

Furthermore, from what I understand, Prof. Fea is a Protestant Christian who, while a "fellow traveler with Rome," is increasingly annoyed at Protestant hurrahs for parts of Pope John Paul's consistent message of life, which would include such things as preventing abortion and pre- and post-natal care.

In short, let the Pope be the Pope, and let Christ be Christ. Americans should stop colonizing them.

Colyn Brent Roberts - 4/21/2005

While in great agreement with some of the concepts expressed in the article, it's sad that it perpetrates some rather sweeping generalisations about evangelicals.

The implication that somehow James Dobson, Pat Robinson, Tim LaHaye and the rest of the "Christian celebrity" establishment in any way voice anything near to the full spectrum of "evangelical" thought is so terribly trite and wide of the mark that it is difficult to forgive in secular reporting. To see it in print (picked up by the Miami Herald today, among others) connected to a source where independent evangelical thought (Messiah College) is both exercised and promoted is a bit disconcerting!

Paragraph 2 of the article may - possibly - be true of the prominent evangelicals whose pronouncements get picked up by the media, but I really have a hard time accepting that the "... moral authority to address American culture as Christians ..." of other thoughtful evangelicals - Coulson, Zacharias, Yancy, Donald Miller ("Blue like Jazz") even Billy Graham come to mind just to name a short selection - is in any way "...severely hindered".

The fact that the media doesn't cover these voices who are nevertheless influential on many levels within the community says more about the media than it does about their message - which is simply not as shrill and cannot easily be reduced to sound-bytes.

While decidely not in theological agreement with Rome, there are quite literally millions of evangelicals whose positions on the dangers of war, the oppressive nature of "savage capitalism" and the death penalty are indeed closely parallel to - if not fully in agreement with - those expressed by the late Pope. There are (heavens!) even many evangelicals who did not - and do not - support Bush.

Put me - and millions of other "evangelicals" - in the camp of those whose considered opinions (which we, too, believe to be Biblically based) are seldom in concord on social and political matters with those of the "celebrated" voices of some imaginary monolith labelled "Evangelicalism". We may sometimes be aligned theologically with much of what these people believe. But what a mistake to think that equates to agreement on social and political questions.

If the point of Prof. Fea was to state that the examples he quotes were selective in their agreement with John Paul II, I couldn't agree more.

But that's not all he wrote.

Too bad.

Tim R. Furnish - 4/20/2005

Philip Melancthon, Luther's right-hand man, added a caveat to his signature on the Smalcald Articles (1537) that should the pople preach the Gospel, he be recognized as the highest-ranking bishop of the Christian church. It's pretty hard to argue that at least some popes, esp. John Paul II, did NOT preach the Gospel (the salvific power of the death and resurrection of Christ for our sins).

Paul Noonan - 4/18/2005

Take away everything relating to sexual morality and "life" issues and you'll find the Catholic Church of the present day much closer to liberal Protestantism than fundamentalist or evagelical Protestantism.

Catholic elementary and high schools teach Darwinian evolution (and they did a generation ago when I attended them). Pope John Paul 2 once wrote something about the early chapters of Genesis containing "human truths, not historical truths". (Please don't drag up Galileo here- that was 400 years ago and I'm not sure G would necessarily fared much better in most Protestant countries at the time -both Catholics and Protestants were avidly persecuting "witches" at the time, for example.)

THE JERUSALEM BIBLE,one of the 3 contemporary English translations of the Bible approved by the US bishops, in addition to being a brilliant translation from a literary point of view, contains critical material that admits that the Pentateuch is a compilation from various sources and was not written by Moses, that Isaiah is a compilation of two seperate books written in different eras (something I also recall being discussed in high school), that the book of Daniel was written hundreds of years after it pretends to be and contains numerous footnotes that cheerfully point out contradictions between various passages in the Bible.

It's an exaggeration to say that Catholics are sexually conservative Unitarians, but not as much of an exaggeration as it might appear at first.

Suzanne G. Bowles - 4/18/2005

I don't disagree with you at all, Tony, on your assessment. I was responding to the original article whose author, I thought, was taking some gratuitous swipes at the Christian Right while making a valid historical point.

Tony Luke - 4/18/2005

I'm not sure whether you're responding to the original article or to the first poster's crude and intemperate response accusing evangelicals of being hypocrites. If the "so what" is to the main article, I think what the writer said was thought-provoking and important because it addresses a major impact Pope John Paul II (along with Mother Theresa) had on the Christian evangelical movement. While there are still significant theological differences between Catholics and evangelicals that may never be resolved, evangelicals have crossed a major threshhold and will not be able to easily return to the anti-Catholic bigotry that marked so much of that movement in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Suzanne G. Bowles - 4/18/2005

My response to this article is a big fat "So what?" All Protestants (including Luther & Calvin) have at SOME times agreed with SOME popes about SOME things. That doesn't make them hypocrites. By definition, Protestants disagree with popes on various things. And if you're going to play the "selective agreement" card, then be consistent & do it with liberal mainline Protestants, too. They also agreed with the late pope on some things & disagreed with him on others. It was just a different set of issues.

Jon Robins - 4/18/2005

I eagerly await the publication of your theological discourse on this matter, wherein you carefully explain how and why "American Protestants" constitute a mass social unit that can be blatantly, ignorantly, and rather venomously, condemned for vague transgressions against "progressive" values.

Until then, shut up!
Or, alternately:

"These phony Saudi Muslims worship war, celebrate oil-driven materialism, praise the destruction of non-Islamic cultural sites, and laud the ignorant rejection of polio vaccines and other demonic Western influences ... if it somehow conveniently served their crooked, power-hungry greed for world domination, they would no doubt 'selectively embrace' the future Pope Ratzinger."

Swap a few words, and you go from snarky, "anti-establishment", likely self-loathing WASP offspring to religious bigot! What a surprise!