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America’s Religious Divide

An old religious conflict is leaving town; a new one is moving in.

For hundreds of years, religious differences in Europe between Protestants and Catholics led to persecution and war. That conflict isn’t quite over; in Northern Ireland violence between the two communities still sometimes breaks out. But in a sign of how much things have changed, Catholic and Protestant leaders met this week to sign a formal agreement recognizing the validity of each other’s baptisms. Huffpo has the story:

Catholic leaders [joined] representatives from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Christian Reformed Church in North America, Reformed Church in America and United Church of Christ at the ceremony in Austin, Texas, to sign the agreement, which is called the “Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism.” The event coincide[d] with the national meeting of Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A.

Things didn’t used to be this cozy. Protestant opposition to the idea of Roman Catholic in the White House helped defeat New York Governor Al Smith in 1928, and serious Protestant voices questioned the fitness of John F. Kennedy during the 1960 campaign. (Dean Acheson supposedly vouched for him, saying that “Jack isn’t a very good Catholic.”)

In the 1920s the resurgent Ku Klux Klan targeted Catholics along with Jews and African Americans as enemies of all that in the Klan’s twisted view was “best” in America. In the 19th century religious suspicion sometimes led to violence. New York City’s 1870 and 1871 Orange Riots, for example, saw the death of over 60 Irish laborers.

For its part, the Catholic Church didn’t much like American democracy during much of our history. Pope Pius IX issued a famous encyclical that condemned as heretical ideas like religious freedom, the separation of church and state and the existence of secular public schools. The “heresy” of Americanism was condemned by Pope Leo XIII in 1899 out of the belief that American style individualism and skepticism about authority was infiltrating the American Catholic community. It wasn’t until the Second Vatican Council that the Catholic Church formally endorsed the American understanding of religious freedom.

Church-state tension is still with us today in the United States; on issues of sexual morality and, especially, abortion, the Catholic Church hierarchy is deeply at odds with a modern American secular and liberal Protestant point of view. But this is no longer primarily a sectarian problem; conservative Protestant, Jewish and Islamic groups also share these concerns. At pro-life marches and events, the same Catholics and Protestants whose ancestors rioted against one another in New York and other cities now walk arm in arm. Conservative evangelist Billy Graham was once widely criticized for inviting Catholic priests to his rallies; now interfaith events bringing conservative Catholics and Protestants together are common, and cooperation among liberal Catholics and Protestants is also ho-hum.

These days, the deep fissures in America don’t so much run between Catholics and Protestants as within each community. Conservative evangelical Southern Baptists feel they have more in common with conservative Catholics than they do with liberal Protestants — and many conservative Catholics feel the same way.

What draws conservative Protestants and Catholics together is a concern that liberals and secularists would like to drive religion out of the public square; as AI blogger Peter Berger puts it, to make religion something that consenting adults do together in private. Former religious enemies are drawing closely together at least partly out of fear of what they see as a common foe. The great divide in American religion today is no longer between Protestant and Catholic or even between Christian and Jew; it is between the liberal and the conservative versions of these great historic faiths.

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