Saturday, April 29, 2006
John Wilson, editor of the evangelical book-review magazine Books and Culture (it's excellent -- check it out!), objects to yet another part of Damon Linker's recent attack on his former boss RIchard Neuhaus. Linker's New Republic article managed to insult evangelicals even more than Catholic neocons:
Countless press reports in recent years have noted that much of the religious right's political strength derives from the exertions of millions of anti-liberal evangelical Protestants. Much less widely understood is the more fundamental role of a small group of staunchly conservative Catholic intellectuals in providing traditionalist Christians of any and every denomination with a comprehensive ideology to justify their political ambitions. In the political economy of the religious right, Protestants supply the bulk of the bodies, but it is Catholics who supply the ideas.
There's too much confusion here, as Bob Dylan said; it's hard to know where to begin. In general, the figures most readily identified with the Religious Right—Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Tim LaHaye, et al.— have been negligibly influenced by Catholic thought. Among evangelical intellectuals, Catholicism is much more influential than it was a generation ago, but it is only one stream among many shaping public discourse among evangelical élites, and certainly not on a par with the Reformed tradition represented by thinkers such as Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Mouw, and many others. Hard as it may be for [critics like] Linker to grasp, evangelicals are not entirely dependent on crumbs from the Catholic table.
This is a good point; the media still wrongly tend to see evangelicals, as a Washington Post writer did a numbers of years ago, as "poor, uneducated, and easy to command." Still, at the least, Catholics have had a very powerful influence on evangelicals on those "life" issues -- abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem-cell research -- that are central to evangelical political activism. On these matters, not only did Catholics prod evangelicals to become involved (e.g. the initial evangelical reaction to Roe was pretty ho-hum), but Catholic formulations of human dignity and the "culture of life" have also become the moral vocabulary for many, many evangelicals. Of course, the critique of abortion etc. comes from across the Catholic political spectrum, not just from conservatism: the central recent figure, John Paul II, resists political labeling. (On other issues -- war, the death penalty, government anti-poverty programs -- evangelicals already tended more toward political conservatism. On those they needed no Neuhaus, Novak, or Weigel to give them a lead.)