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Roman Catholics And Evangelicals Move Apart In Their Political Priorities

May 25, 2018
Originally published on May 25, 2018 2:03 pm

Roman Catholics and evangelicals, two Christian groups that have had overlapping political priorities in the past, find their agendas diverging in the era of President Trump and Pope Francis.

Tensions between the two faith traditions are hardly new. As fierce adversaries, they once cast doubt on each other's legitimacy as heirs to the church of Jesus Christ.

In recent decades, however, their shared opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and their common interest in parochial schools, brought them together. In 1994, with a "Catholics & Evangelicals Together" manifesto, leaders of the two faith groups announced they could collaborate as co-belligerents, allied on some issues while disagreeing on others.

That alliance, however, is again coming under strain, in part over their different reactions to the Trump administration's policy priorities.

Some prominent Catholic leaders worry the country is becoming increasingly divided.

"America has lost her way," said Archbishop José Gomez, whose Los Angeles archdiocese is the largest in the country. "We no longer know who we are or what our national purpose is," he said, in a commencement address at the Catholic University of America.

Two days after Gomez delivered his commencement address, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, had an entirely different message when he offered the opening prayer to God at the dedication of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

"We want to thank you," Jeffress prayed, "for the tremendous leadership of our great president, Donald J. Trump."

Jeffress serves on the president's informal evangelical advisory group. During his campaign, Trump also had Catholic advisers, but since taking office he has consulted far more often with the evangelicals, and their current priorities are not the same.

Catholic leaders famously tangled with the Obama administration over the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, but the political environment has changed in the Trump era.

"The advent of Donald Trump has brought to the surface and exacerbated all kinds of tensions and disagreements among different kinds of Christians who, to the casual observer, once appeared to be in agreement," says Molly Worthen, a historian of American religion at the University of North Carolina.

For the Catholic Church, the welfare of immigrants has risen as a concern. In his commencement address, Gomez spoke of the need for "a new narrative that will define us and hold us together as one people with a common purpose."

"We need to talk about American holiness and heroism," Gomez said. "America is alive in her saints, and we have so many. Mystics and missionaries, martyrs and immigrants, refugees and exiles. They came from everywhere to share their gifts and make this country what she was meant to be."

Though he is generally seen as a conservative voice on social issues, Gomez did not once mention abortion in that address. Perhaps he was following the lead of Francis, who last month said "the situation of migrants" is no less important than "the defense of the unborn."

Indeed, there is some evidence that evangelicals may be replacing Catholics as the base of the anti-abortion movement. Since 2010, the states passing new abortion restrictions generally have had smaller Catholic populations. None of the eight most heavily Catholic states in the country have enacted such laws.

For evangelicals, abortion remains as urgent a concern as ever, and President Trump's conservative judicial appointments are a key factor in keeping white evangelicals in his corner. The Rev. Johnnie Moore, an informal spokesman for Trump's evangelical advisers, told a Washington audience recently that he and other evangelicals spoke with Trump about their concerns once a week during the campaign and that those conversations continue in the White House.

"What has happened is," Moore said, "again and again, we have found there's this strange politician that generally has kept his promises to our community, which is an unusual characteristic for a politician."

Trump's repeated criticism of immigrants, however, has hurt him with Catholic leaders, for whom social justice has long been a core concern.

During Supreme Court arguments over Trump's proposed travel ban, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops filed a brief in opposition to the ban, calling it "repugnant to the Catholic faith."

In addition, no Catholic leader endorsed Trump's decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel, fearing the impact on a peace process.

Trump, however, is not the only catalyst in the divergence of Catholic and evangelical agendas. UNC historian Molly Worthen says distinct Catholic political priorities have also been highlighted by Francis.

"He's become sort of the anti-Trump," Worthen says. "He's become this rallying figure for traumatized liberals who are looking for some kind of figure of existential world historical significance who can counteract what they see as the ugliness of the current administration."

A report this week that Francis told a sexual abuse survivor who is gay that "God made you like this and loves you like this" further highlighted the growing Catholic-evangelical split.

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, one of the more conservative U.S. Catholic leaders, responded approvingly to the pope's reported comments, saying, "Jesus would have said that."

But Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a leading evangelical intellectual, suggested that the pope was misguided if he said what he was reported as saying.

"When it comes to the Catholic Church," Mohler said, "a wink and a nod will be ample permission for many to change their pastoral practice."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right, Evangelical and Catholic communities in America have had a mixed relationship politically. After years of Catholics largely voting for Democrats and white evangelicals for Republicans, opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage united these voters at the ballot box. But the presidency of Donald Trump seems to be exposing divisions between these groups, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: A prominent Catholic bishop and a key evangelical minister each made an important appearance this month. First, the archbishop of Los Angeles, Jose Gomez, gave the commencement address at the Catholic University of America, the official university of the U.S. Catholic Church. His message to the graduates - their country is losing its way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSE GOMEZ: You are entering an American society that is more anxious and more bitterly divided than I have ever seen in my lifetime.

GJELTEN: Two days later, Pastor Robert Jeffress, from the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, prayed at the dedication of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. His message - God is returning America to greatness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT JEFFRESS: We want to thank you for the tremendous leadership of our great president, Donald J. Trump.

GJELTEN: Jeffress serves on the president's informal evangelical advisory group. During his campaign, Trump also had Catholic advisers. But since taking office, he has consulted far more often with the evangelicals. Not entirely surprising, these Christian groups, the largest in the country, have different political agendas at the moment. Catholic leaders famously tangled with the Obama administration over the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. But the political environment has changed in the Trump era. Molly Worthen is a historian of American religion at the University of North Carolina.

MOLLY WORTHEN: The advent of Donald Trump has brought to the surface and exacerbated all kinds of tensions and disagreements among different kinds of Christians who, to the casual observer, once appeared to be in agreement.

GJELTEN: For the Catholic Church, the welfare of immigrants has risen as a priority concern. In his commencement address, Archbishop Gomez spoke of the need to tell a new story about America - highlighting how it is alive in her saints.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOMEZ: Mystics and missionaries, martyrs and immigrants, refugees and exiles - they came from everywhere to share their gifts and make this country what she was meant to be.

GJELTEN: Though he's generally seen as a conservative voice on social issues, Gomez did not once mention abortion. Perhaps he was following the lead of Pope Francis who last month said the situation of migrants is no less important, in his words, than the defense of the unborn. For evangelicals, abortion remains as urgent a concern as ever. And President Trump's conservative judicial appointments are keeping white evangelicals in his corner. Pastor Johnnie Moore told a Washington audience recently that he and other evangelicals are in regular contact with Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNNIE MOORE: And what has happened is, again and again and again, we've found that there's the strange politician that generally has kept his promises to our community, you know, which is an unusual characteristic for a politician.

GJELTEN: Trump's repeated criticism of immigrants however has hurt him with Catholic leaders for whom social justice has long been a core concern. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops filed a Supreme Court brief opposing Trump's travel ban, calling it repugnant to the Catholic faith. And no Catholic leader endorsed Trump's decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel fearing the impact on a peace process. Actually it's not just Trump spurring dissent. Historian Molly Worthen says distinct Catholic political priorities have also been highlighted by Pope Francis.

WORTHEN: He's become sort of the anti-Trump. He's become this rallying figure for traumatized liberals who are looking for some kind of figure of existential world historical significance who can counteract what they see as the ugliness of the current administration.

GJELTEN: Another story of America divided, this time between two faith traditions whose concerns often overlap. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKE FOR FREE'S "PANORAMA SHAMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.