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Embracing the Pope–Selectively

by John Fea on Apr 15, 2005

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 cheer leading, 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.

John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Grantham, Penna., and is a writer for the History News Service.