The Evangelical Shift or Political Maneuvering?

pope & graham

In his book, Sacred Ground, author Eboo Patel suggests contemporary Muslims in the United States are facing a current integration challenge. As a case-study of this challenge, his work highlights the Cordoba House issue near the former World Trade Centers. However, the Muslim-Catholic comparison is not new (see here). And, I agree that the comparisons are extremely similar, which should give current Muslims distress for the time being as they seek acceptance by Americans and future Muslims hope that they will eventually be accepted by the majority of Americans.

Immediately following the chapter regarding the Catholic/Muslim comparison, Patel suggests that Evangelicals have “shifted” their opinions regarding Catholics which has led to a seemingly quick acceptance of Catholics in the American context. As a case in point, he notes the Evangelical suspicion when JFK ran for President versus the whole-hearted embracing of Rick Santorum (a Catholic) by many Evangelicals. Patel finds hope in this short (only 50-60 years) transition that Evangelicals have made.

I, however, would suggest a more nuanced (and less hopeful) interpretation of the “Evangelical shift” (as Patel refers to it). The Evangelical acceptance of Rick Santorum (and other current conservative Catholics) represents less of an Evangelical shift and more of a Catholic shift. I would argue that as Catholics have assimilated into American culture (which is more of a 200 year integration) and had opportunities of upward mobility, Catholics are the ones who have adopted conservative stances on political issues, namely culture war issues. The Catholic shift on political issues has found a welcome home within Evangelical circles.

But, as Catholics have found acceptance in political partnerships, I know many Evangelicals (Fundamentalists, and conservative Christians) who still perceive Catholics with suspicion at best. I have heard several conservative Christians still refer to the Pope as the Anti-Christ and Catholics as authoritarian Papists who would willingly sacrifice American freedom for Papal control.

Now are there Evangelicals who are embracing Catholics (as well as others of various faith traditions) in an every diversifying American context? Yes. But overall are Evangelicals accepting people of the Catholic tradition or those outside of the Christian circle? I am afraid not. Specifically, I would assert that the American south still has years to achieve Catholic tolerance and years from that to any kind of minor Islamic acceptance.

I really do not want to be pessimistic. Personally, I see great promise in interfaith cooperation for everyone in the American democracy. I truly believe that interfaith collaboration is a great first step to overcoming disconnectedness within cities and states across the country. But, as one who interviews Evangelicals, I see no shift. I propose that Evangelicals have not shifted, but have politically maneuvered whenever advantageous.


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