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Evangelicals and Catholics Together?

Here is an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education,, witten by the distinguished Barnard historian of religion Randall Balmer, on what he would say if invited back to Wheaton College to speak at its convocation. Balmer is a cradle evangelical Protestant, whose anguish at what he perceives to be the hijacking of his religion for Republican political ends permeates the article.

It seems to me that some Catholics feel an analogous anguish.


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It's struck me for some time that on the question of religion and politics, some of the young Turks among the bishops are more evangelical than Catholic, that is, seem to believe in the possibility of moving directly from the Scriptures (or from the Code of Canon Law) to a concrete social or political duty, without making use, they may think, of any mediating reflection or discourse. It's such a departure from Catholic method in our social doctrine.Peter Steinfels article in today's NY Times has a good discussion of the conclusions presented at the recent Bishops' meeting on the matter.

On the subject of Evangelicals and the attitude of the hierarchy towards Catholic politicians there seems to be many 'nuances', a word that Cardinal Levada is fond of using.One sees how Benedict XVI seems to be reaching out to Evangelicals and how Levada, the head of the CDF is seeking a more practical solution on Catholic politicians and church teaching. His resolution of the San Francisco health crisis with reference to gays was admirable.So there are bishops who are "young Turks" and Evangelicals who are "rogues associated with the religious right." I suppose these are the folk who make dialogue difficult. Yet how responsible is Ratzinger and John Paul II for this problem.Richard McBrien, in a response to Timothy Radcliffe, writes that dialogue is impossible in the church because: "Conservative bishops (or what he (Radcliffe) would now refer to as Communion Catholics) hold a disproportionate amount of power that makes real brotherly and sisterly conversation impossible, for all practicalpurposes. And why is their power disproportionately greater than thelaity's and clergy's? Because the pattern of episcopal appointments during John Paul II's pontificate unduly favored candidates of adecidedly conservative frame of mind."Has it gotten to the point where Rome cannot control the vocal minority it created?BTW, I cannot fine the url for Obrien's talk. I think it was given at the LA conference for Corpus. If anyone wants I can send it or somebody can feature it.

Bill, there are two McBrien pieces on the Tidings website that deal with Radcliffes ideas and the issues you identify. I think the original McBrien/Radcliffe exchanges on an earlier version of the Radcliffe talk might also be available in the NCR archives. It is interesting to look at the way McBrien sorts out the situation in the Church in the light of Balmers picture of the situation among the Evangelicals.Demoralization in the Church of Demoralization in the Church

Balmer predicted that the immediate response of conservative Republican Protestants to his article would be prompt and vicious personal attacks. More specifically, he said that "the next approach will be some gratuitous personal attack: that I am a member of the academic elite, spokesman for the Northeastern establishment, misguided liberal, prodigal son, traitor to the faith, or some such." Alas, he is under personal attack also by conservative Republican Catholics. My colleague, Richard Garnett, has categorized Balmer's commentary as a "screed." says Balmer's writing "strikes me as smug, self-indulgent, and superficial. It's standard partisan hackery, top to bottom, but -- convenient for the Chronicle of Higher Education."I must say, I didn't have that impression at all. But read both pieces, and judge the tone of each for yourself .

Garnett's response shows irritation and and chiefly employs abuse. One might be inclined to respond in kind, but that temptation should certainly be resisted. I recall dimly a Monty Python skit about the difference between abuse and argument. But actually the difference is not one of nuance and anyone with a liberal education should not need to be reminded.I only know about "Evangelical Christians" as a quasi political category what I read in the press. I think liberal journalists tend to take a jaundiced view. Then one does hear some strange utterances from Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Billy Graham usually seemed to err in the direction of prudence. In short I know little about the people Balmer speaks of. It does appear that some "conservative" Catholics are easily irritated by disagreement.

I suppose one might be a bit skeptical of about the timing of Balmers piece in The Chronicle. After all, it is frankly offered as an up-front antidote to whatever poisoning of the well he expects from the religious right when his new book comes out. Still, we can judge for ourselves on that point when the reviews come out..But Cathy is right to direct our attention to the note of anguish in Balmers catalogue of woes that might touch a chord with Catholics who feel similarly under siege by conservative co-religionists and most especially an increasingly conservative hierarchy. Balmer seems to have little hope that his well-organized and powerful opponents will see the light any time soon, and yet he insists he is one of their own, isnt about to leave, and refuses to close the book on them. There is something familiar there.By turning the man who wrote the article into Balmer, an evangelical persona being used to add a certain freshness to a hackneyed script, Garnett manages to dismiss his message as just the strikingly uncharitable screed of an evangelical Christian. How exactly Balmers piece is also convenient for The Chronicle, Garnett doesnt say, but this remark seems just to be another way of writing Balmers criticism off because it comes from a tainted source. The really interesting thing here is that Garnett is instinctively following exactly the game plan Balmer predicted his religious right opponents would use.

To be fair there is a liberal contingent that, since the 60s, Barry Goldwater, Vatican Council and all, which has severely looked down on conservatives. If fact even with the conservatives playing catch up, our universities are overwhelmingly, despite Bob Jones and Falwell, liberal.Even Hans kung has pointed out that progressive's failure to be gentle with literal or fundamentalist Christians will cause a backlash. More so, when a liberal intervention starts to arbitrarily destroy some crucial institutions like marriage and the state.When liberals destroy without building they deserve a backlash.So the irony is that many times while liberals may have scholarship behind them they may have gone overboard in dismissing values which may be indispensable to society.The key to dialogue from the liberal perspective is to understand the dread fear of change in the fundamentalist mind. Liberals have to show where the change neither is a threat to faith nor stability.

Just a note on semantics: evangelicals are not the same as fundamentalists.The evangelicals I know are nondenominationals, leery of hierarchical churches in which legalism (fundamentalism) or intermediaries (like priests and popes) stand between the soul and its creator.They may tend toward literal interpretation of Scripture, like fundamentalists, and they may tend toward political conservatism. But they are less politically monolithic than fundamentalists, and less likely to push political agendas.The difference between the evangelicals and fundamentalists I know is this:The evangelicals will happily read Scripture with you and explore themes and possibilities, and will rejoice when you find common ground. Fundamentalists will simply tell you you're wrong.

Jean,Thanks for the helpful distinction. But of course I have a question. Do fundamentalists and evangelicals identify themselves as such according to your definitions? In other words will an evangelical say: I am not a fundamentalist, I am an evangelical, and will a fundamentalist make a comparable assertion and denial?

Joe, that's a good question.The evangelicals and fundamentalists among my in-laws and friends do use these terms.Beliefnet has a snippet from Wendy Zoba's book (she's an evangelical) that outlines how evangelicals split from fundamentalists.

Cathy Kaveny characterizes my reaction to Balmer as a "personal attack." I'm not sure what "personal" means in this context. I said nothing about Balmer. His piece, though, was -- as I said -- a "smug" and "superficial" "screed." I'm comfortable thinking that someone not already committed to the truth of the tendentious and uncharitable claims in Balmer's piece would agree that, as between his piece and mine, his is the more (to use Cathy's word) "vicious."Joe Gannon, quite rightly, reminds us of the distinction between abuse and argument. I would (and did) classify Balmer's essay as the former. Now, Joe is right -- I *was* irritated by Balmer's piece (and said as much), and so did not attempt to hide that irritation in my post. Perhaps I should have. Susan suggests I wrote "instinctively." I like to think that I read Balmer's piece (several times) thought about it, and responded appropriately (if, of course, incompletely).Although I do not agree with my fellow Catholics who say that they are "under seige" by "conservative co-religionists" and an "increasingly conservative hierarchy" -- that is, such statements do not, in my view, accurately describe what's going on in the Church -- I *do* sympathize (and, believe it or not, experience) the anguish of Catholics who are frustrated by the failure of our political landscape to offer a completely comfortable home for Catholics who take seriously the Church's social teachings (all of them). Any fair-minded person who reads Mirror of Justice knows -- and, certainly, Cathy Kaveny knows very well -- that I am deeply engaged in and committed to dialogue with fellow Catholics, whose politics are more to the left than my own, about the challenge of faithful citizenship. In my view, pieces like the one by Professor Balmer are entirely unhelpful to such dialogue, and indicate contempt, not anguish.

Rick Garnett says that any fair minded individual would find his statement the more charitable. I have to say this puts one in a bind, because a simple judgment in favor of Balmer would make one, from Garnetts point of view, not fair-minded! So lets look avoid general judgments, and look at specific language. Surely, criticism has to be acceptable. Its not the point one makes, its the way one makes it. Here, to be concrete, is a list of specific words and phrases that Garnett used about Balmer that I found not to be conducive to good conversation.Paragraph 1smug, self-indulgent, and superficialstandard partisan hackery, top to bottom, but -- convenient for the Chronicle of Higher Educationscreed a "woe is me, I have suffered for my progressive views from intolerant conservatives" complaint. Paragraph 2We're told that on judicial matters, the religious right demands appointees who would diminish individual rights to privacy with respect to abortion. Whatever.Just how ignorant about legal and political realities, one wonders, is Mr. Balmer?Paragraph 3 Balmer has added nothing to our conversation.Paragraph 4 But again, Balmer's piece, and rants like it, are not -- in my view -- consonant with our aims and shared commitments. It is fact that some of us -- who are every bit as engaged, educated, informed, and committed to the Catholic social tradition as any others of us (and certainly as Mr. Balmer)********I found Ricks comments here quite puzzling, since 1) Balmer isnt Catholic and doesnt pretend to be committed to the Catholic tradition.The word vicious comes from Balmer --I should have put it in quotes. I have to sa y that I find this concationation of remarks to count as personally disrepspetful Balmer. I also have to say I found no language comparable language in Professor Balmers piece about evangelicals.

My friend Rick can defend himself, but for what it's worth, I thought that these passages from Balmer were quite "vicious," both in tone and in substance. Perhaps the problem is that we all tend to turn a blind eye to viciousness with which we agree? From Balmer: "The evangelical subculture, which prizes conformity above all else, doesn't suffer rebels gladly, and it is especially intolerant of anyone with the temerity to challenge the shibboleths of the religious right. I understand that. Despite their putative claims to the faith, the leaders of the religious right are vicious toward anyone who refuses to kowtow to their version of orthodoxy, and their machinery of vilification strikes with ruthless, dispassionate efficiency.""Public education is very much imperiled by Republican policies, to the evident satisfaction of the religious right . . . "[Comment: Would it be too much to expect that if a professor offers a highly counterintuitive theory, he should at least venture some sort of explanation? I.e., how is public education "very much imperiled" by the Bush administration, which vastly increased education spending? I'd bet anything that there are some conservative evangelicals who have criticized Bush precisely for doing too much for the public schools.]"Although I didn't really expect that the religious right would climb out of the Republican Party's cozy bed over the torture of human beings, I thought perhaps they might poke out a foot and maybe wiggle a toe or two.""Such rhetoric and policies are a scandal, a reproach to the gospel I honor and to the Jesus I love. ""The coalition with the Republican Party is blasphemy, pure and simple.""Rather than gear up for new competition, as Beecher did in the 19th century, the religious right seeks to use the machinations of government and public policy to impose its vision of a theocratic order.""My evangelical theology assures me that no one, not even Karl Rove or James Dobson, lies beyond the reach of redemption, and that even a people led astray can find their way home." [It's the "not even" that seems vicious. If you can't see it, then imagine Ann Coulter saying, "Even Bill Clinton might somehow escape the flames of hell," or something like that.]

My colleague Cathy is right that I should -- we all should -- try to use language that is "conducive to good conversation." I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on the relative extent to which Balmer and I might have fallen short in this respect, and on the question whether Balmer's essay is well understood as an invitation to good conversation with people whose characterization of certain policies and events might differ from his.In any event, and in case Commonweal readers are interested in the context, here is a longer excerpt from what I wrote, in response to Balmer's essay (which was posted by my friend Michael Perry on Mirror of Justice):". . . To be clear: Yes, Jesus is not a Republican. Yes, Balmer has identified a number of issues on which the current administration could be criticized in good faith by thoughtful, reasonable Christians. Yes, it would be bad if Christianity -- or even the (shudder) 'religious right' -- were to confuse the message of Christ with the platform of the Republican party. But Balmer has added nothing to our conversation.I have been absent from the blog for a week or so, and I regret it that this first post in a while is so obviously shaped by irritation. But there it is. Here at Mirror of Justice, we disagree, from time to time, about the political implications of what I am determined to believe is our shared commitment to the enterprise of seeking, with the help of the Church's social teaching, the truth about the world and about how our lives together ought to be ordered. I continue to believe that, in the vast blogosphere, ours is one of the few sites where a large group of engaged and intelligent people, who have come to very different conclusions about politics, are still able to talk with and learn from one another, all the while growing in friendship. But again, Balmer's piece, and rants like it, are not -- in my view -- consonant with our aims and shared commitments. . . ."

I suppose what disappointed me most about your comment on Balmer, Rick, was that it offered no evidence for the assertion that the piece is top-to-bottom partisan hackery. It's a serious charge because it impugns his intellectual honesty. What definition of partisan are you using here? It's not clear from the post.I'm all for spirited disagreement, but if you're going to call someone's writing "smug" and "self-indulgent," and part of your response to that writing is "whatever," then you shouldn't be surprised when readers seek more explanation.

To paraphrase what I said earlier, what seems to be going on here is that people are simply unable to recognize partisanship where they tend to agree with the partisan positions at issue. The partisan nature of Balmer's screed should be clear in his laundry list of complaints about Republicans. For example, he accuses Republicans of "imperil[ing]" public education [completely unsubstantiated], of treating corporations like "the deity" [a wild exaggeration of what could have been a decent point], of "transforming students into catechumens" [when a school board tries to put a sticker on biology textbook noting that some issues therein are controversial, whatever the advisability of doing so, this does not even remotely amount to "transforming students into catechumens"], referring to the notion of putting a Ten Commandments monument in any public place as "theocratic" [again, whatever the advisability of doing so, it is quite overwrought to describe such an action with the word "theocratic"], or referring to the Bush administration as "jettisoning" the Kyoto Protocol [Balmer is apparently unaware that the Senate had already unanimously rejected the Kyoto Protocol under the Clinton administration]. And so forth. On issue after issue, Balmer puts forth the most tendentious and simplistic framing of the issue. And he always does so in a way paints Republicans as the villains. This cannot be a coincidence. If Balmer was non-partisan in any sense, surely there would be at least one issue where he used something other than standard liberal cliches (e.g., "individual rights to privacy" or "a matter properly left to a woman and her conscience," when referring to abortion).Also, it's odd that Balmer claims that there are 2,000 biblical references to the poor and our duties to the poor. Consider that Balmer elsewhere says this:"Negotiating that dual status can be fraught, but it is incumbent upon responsible citizens of this earthly realm to abide by certain standards of behavior deemed essential for the functioning of the social order. Much as I would like all of my fellow Americans to be Christians or vegetarians or Democrats, I have no right to demand it. The leaders of the religious right have failed to observe even the most basic etiquette of democracy."So, then, much as Balmer would like for the government to satisfy the Christian responsibility to help the poor, he has "no right to demand it." But wait, Balmer doesn't say that at all. To the contrary, he says, "The Bible contains something like 2,000 references to the poor and the believer's responsibility for the poor. Sadly, that obligation seems not to have trickled down into public policy." So Balmer's point, then, boils down this: The religious right shouldn't be allowed to impose their own religious beliefs on society (e.g., abortion). Instead, Balmer should be the one allowed to impose his own religious beliefs (about helping the poor). What a double standard. Plus, the claim about "2000 references" seems to have been copied from Tony Campolo []. Having read through the entire Bible more than a dozen times, I don't see how this claim could even conceivably be true. If you search on for the word "poor" in the New American Standard Bible, there are only 148 results. And that includes quite a few scriptures that have nothing to do with Balmer's point (or that even undermine it). E.g., "blessed are the poor in spirit," or Jesus telling Judas that the "poor will always be with you," or Paul warning the Corinthians that even if he gives "all my possessions to feed the poor . . . but do not have love, it profits me nothing." The Bible does have several verses about feeding the poor, or about not being prejudiced against the poor (the book of James, for example). But it's a bit odd that folks like Balmer (or Campolo) aren't content to make that point straightforwardly, rather than putting forward what seems to be an incredible exaggeration about "2000 references." To be sure, Balmer does have a few good points buried in the article, such as his attempt to get conservative groups to speak out against torture. But on the whole, his article is roughly on the same level that one can expect from Ann Coulter's book "Godless," in which (I'm fairly confident) every issue will be described such that Democratic positions and Democrats themselves are painted as irreligious.

I must admit Stuart, you make a lot of sense. No doubt most liberals might like Balmer's words but Balmer's words can hardly be construed as an invitation to dialogue. And neither does Coulter as you point out.You did put a little effort into the post which helps. Yet I hope you are not saying that the preferential option of Jesus is not for the poor?At any rate I don't know what it means but I found your numbers for the word "poor", fascinating. Which prompted me to use your source to relate the following.War---231 timespeace--331hate---90love--320lowly--9slave 189And the word sex? 0 as in zero. No wonder Catholics don't read the bible.

That raises an interesting point -- the word "sex" might not appear in a particular translation, but the Bible definitely has some things to say about chastity, fornication, adultery, lust, etc. Similarly, maybe Tony Campolo (from whom Balmer was cribbing) was referring to various synonyms for "poor." Still, I'm not sure what those synonyms would be; I'm pretty sure that much of the Bible (genealogies, most of the stories of the Israelite judges and kings, etc., etc.) has absolutely nothing to say about "the poor" one way or the other; and many references to the word "poor" aren't even relevant (see the examples that I mentioned above; also, there are instances where Paul says, "I was poorly clothed," or something like that, which doesn't have anything to do with "the poor"). Anyway -- as for the "preferential option for the poor" -- I said that the Bible does have at least a few verses on this issue.