Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Ecumenism of the Trenches? the Politics of Evangelical-Catholic Alliances

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Ecumenism of the Trenches? the Politics of Evangelical-Catholic Alliances

Article excerpt


For more than 30 years a select group of American Catholics and evangelicals has stood side by side in support for parental choice in education, advocacy of the traditional values of chastity, family, and community, opposition to abortion on demand, and repudiation of pornography--all derived from deeply held religious conviction. Here is an ecumenism of the trenches born out of a common moral struggle to proclaim and embody the gospel of Jesus Christ to a culture in disarray ... For too long, ecumenism has been left to Left-leaning Catholics and mainline Protestants. (1)

Timothy George, senior editor of Christianity Today, wrote these words in an editorial penned shortly after the issuance of "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," a landmark statement coming out of recent efforts in ecumenism conducted not on the terms of Christian liberals but of Christian conservatives. The product of a series of consultations initiated in 1992 by evangelical leader Charles Colson and neoconservative Catholic thinker Richard John Neuhaus, the "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" declaration--which affirmed (limited) areas of doctrinal agreement and urged greater political cooperation--was signed by some thirty prominent evangelicals and Catholics in 1994. The timing was fitting, as the early 1990's were a time of widespread discussion about evangelical-Catholic alliances in America's so-called culture wars. (2)

Not long ago, a pairing of evangelicals and Catholics in any sort of public enterprise would have struck most observers as unlikely. (3) As Daniel J. O'Neil observed, "Evangelicals are the most protestant of the Protestants and Catholicism was what the original Protestants protested against. Consequently, Catholicism and Evangelicalism would seem poles apart and unlikely to engage in dialogue or form alliances." (4)

In a 1994 Christianity Today article Colson explained to fellow evangelicals why Catholics should now be seen as allies. "In today's culture war," Colson argued, "Christians ought to heed von Clausewitz's classic principle: Concentrate your forces... The great divides within Christendom no longer fall along denominational lines but between conservatives and liberals within denominations." (5) That, in a nutshell, is the restructuring or "two-party" model (6) of American religion that has been influential in the social-scientific study of religion. One of the most well known books in this vein is, in fact, titled Culture Wars. (7) The argument is that Christians who share basic doctrinal orthodoxy (the early church creeds) and religious commitment have circled the wagons against common enemies (Christian liberalism and secular humanism)--facilitating ecumenism and cooperation within the circle, while decreasing ecumenism and cooperation with those outside it.

The culture-wars model for understanding contemporary American religion has come in for some criticism on both empirical and normative grounds. (8) My task in this essay will not be to try to settle these disputes. Rather, I will attempt to contribute to the discussion by addressing a lacuna in the literature, namely, the absence of comparative perspectives. Is evangelical-Catholic convergence along the lines suggested by the two-party model a peculiarly American phenomenon, that is, a species of "American exceptionalism," (9) or is the model applicable outside U.S. borders? If the U.S. model does apply elsewhere, is the "fit" of the model complete or only partial? If other models exist, what do they have to teach us?

I will explore such questions by examining the politics of evangelical-Catholic alliances in America's closest neighbor, Canada. I employ original data on Christian organizations (and political leaders in these organizations) in Canada, along with Canadian and U.S.-Canada survey data, to compare the extent of political convergence (across ideological, partisan, and interest group dimensions) among Christian conservatives in the two nations. …

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