Evangelicals and Catholics Apart

Today I finished reading Jody Bottum’s An Anxious Age, and it’s a lovely book: smart and beautifully written. But it describes an America that I’m not especially familiar with: an America divided between a theologically-renewed JPII-style Catholicism and a “post-Protestantism” (Jody’s phrase) that’s the gaseous residue of an evaporated mainline Protestantism. The Christian world I know best as (a) a native-and-recently-returned Southerner and (b) a longtime resident in the evangelical mecca of Wheaton, Illinois simply plays no role in Jody’s story. I don’t know whether my puzzlement at that is a result of my limited perspective or Jody’s or both. But in any event the book left me feeling like an anthropologist from Mars, to almost coin a phrase, looking at an America that’s not any America I’ve directly known. I can’t help thinking that if Jody had seriously reckoned with, for example, Mark Noll (whom he cites once), George Marsden (whom he does not cite), or Eugene Genovese (ditto), he’d have produced a more complex book. Maybe not better; but I think more faithful to the richness of America-and-Christianity, an amalgamation that has a different feel when you’re resident in the Southern or evangelical provinces. Still, that could be my provincialism speaking.

Let me announce an interest here: I have spent much of the last quarter-century looking for ways to connect evangelical urgency and Catholic tradition. My Anglicanism is just this, an attempt to be fully catholic and fully reformed — something I tried to express when I contributed to this page for All Souls Anglican, the church I helped to start in Wheaton — see the answer I wrote to the last question on that page. As I commented earlier today on Twitter, in the last twenty years I’ve seen theologically-serious Protestants become more and more respectful of and interested in Catholicism — but I have simultaneously seen many serious Catholics withdraw completely into a purely Catholic world, with little interest in other Christian traditions except to critique them — as, for instance, in Brad Gregory’s much-celebrated but (in my view) absurdly tendentious The Unintended Reformation, which blames almost everything bad in modern society on this vast and amorphous (but somehow unified) thing called “the Reformation.”

(And I love you, Jody, but you use “Protestant” in a similar way in your book.)

Or let me take two different, and differing, examples. My internet friend Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has been writing a series of posts on what he calls the New Distributism — a topic in which I have expressed some interest — but he frames it as a “distinctive Catholic theology of economics,” and I’m not Catholic, at least not of the Roman variety, so I guess I’m not invited to this party.

Or consider this: a manifesto on immigration reform that I, as someone appalled by anti-immigrant hysteria in America, might well sign on to — except that the Catholic authors of the manifesto emphasize that hostility to immigrants is not grounded in (for example) race but in “something deeply protestant and anti-Catholic” in the American mind, and that the corruption of the original American experiment is wholly Protestant: “The United States was founded by anarchic British Protestant immigrants, who oppressed and in many cases killed the local people, with a native claim to this land.” This is followed by an appeal that simply rules out non-Catholics: “May we, as Catholics, guided by the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, stand and pray and even act in a way that gives voice to those who suffer in fear and pointless despair.”

But do we really want to see immigration reform — or economic reform (hearkening back to PEG’s posts) — as distinctively Catholic issues? It seems to me that these are issues on which all Christians might benefit from thinking together. But not if Catholics persist in seeing soi-disant “Protestants” as their chief adversaries. Late in his book Jody writes that by the 2012 election “the ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ project had failed.” No kidding.