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November 2017

We're All Integrists Now

CHRISTOPHER GAWLEY

- Part I -

There is a well-defined world of ecumenical convergence between sectors that are paradoxically competitors [Evangelicals and Catholics] when it comes to confessional belonging … The word “ecumenism” transforms into a paradox, into an “ecumenism of hate.”

- “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism”
by Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa
(Civilta Cattolica, 13 July 2017)

 

There are only a very few times that an article captures the essence of an important issue and becomes “must read” material. Indeed, such articles have the power to transform the discussion and, based upon the power the ideas expressed therein, have the power to change the history of that very issue.

The recent scandalous article by Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa,condemning the ecumenism between Evangelicals and Catholics in the United States, is just such an article.

Even more remarkable is the fact that the article was published in La Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit journal reviewed by the Vatican before publication, which implicitly underscores that the authors have the approval of the Roman Pontiff on this matter. It will be remembered as one of the more important articles written in this century: the phony war within the Catholic Church just became a shooting one.

Generational Change

The thesis of the article is straight-forward enough: American conservative Catholics (so-called “Integralists,” a loaded term if ever there was one) and American Evangelicals have formed a surprising and undesirable type of ecumenism and co-operation that is politically dangerous, and inconsistent with an authentic understanding of Christian teaching.

The bona fides of the article’s condemnation of this co-operation are magnified and “ecumenical,” or so it would seem, because the Spadaro-Figueroa article is co-authored by a Presbyterian minister and a Catholic Priest. 

While the article demonstrates an uneven understanding of contemporary American politics and history and a gross over-simplification of the Evangelical and Catholic movements in the United States, the central factual basis for the grist of the article is true: there is a growing political and cultural convergence between Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States.(1)

It is more than merely the “enemy of my enemy is my friend”; there is a genuine if not guarded respect and co-operation between the two factions. Consider that it is wholly unexceptional now that both factions will campaign and work against their “own” if they believe their own are effectively apostate, and campaign and work for the “other” if they believe the other is faithful.

The denominational bias in favour of one’s own is of little value to this generation of faithful Catholics and Evangelicals — they insist on a core set of political and moral beliefs in exchange for their support. For this reason, Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist, is hugely unpopular with Evangelicals while Antonin Scalia (RIP), a traditional Catholic, was one of their heroes — and the same phenomenon is true among faithful Catholics.

This growing “ecumenism,” forged in the culture wars of the last forty years, has not compromised, however, the militant views regarding the perceived errors, as it were, of the other’s central theology. Proving the point once again that men respect integrity and conviction more than they do vanity and platitudes, these factions are not bothered that the other does not sacrifice its own religious convictions in exchange for that cooperation.

Indeed, alongside this co-operation and mutual respect — the so-called “ecumenism of hate” as described by the authors — exists vibrant missionary movement on both sides towards the other. Catholics and Evangelicals are regularly writing works of apologetics, debating one another and calling the other side to conversion.

Truly, if we can say anything about faithful Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is they are engaging each other in a way that is virtually unprecedented. The days of mutual recriminations stemming from the American Nativist animus towards the Popish hordes are long past. More than simply a détente, we have reached a period of genuine cooperation and dialogue.

One might think, after the 150-year battle for American Catholics to gain acceptance in the United States, that this rapprochement would be something to celebrate — especially in the Vatican.

What’s more, this organic relationship has been built from the bottom up and would seem to have the earmarks of true ecumenism; that is, an ecumenism that refuses the temptations of indifferentism and syncretism and maintains the exclusive truth claims that mark their theologies; while nonetheless engaging in frequent dialogue and concerted social and political action where possible.

As the Spadaro-Figueroa article makes clear, this type of organic ecumenism is not only despised, it must be destroyed because it is a grave threat to the modernist ascendance in the Catholic Church. It is for this reason that the article is short on any notion of fair play and logical reasoning and trades in the most loathsome stereotypes.

Simply put, the authors do not want to “dialogue” on this topic, they want to bury it. Thus, the article reads like an obsessive screed by unbalanced men because that is exactly what it is.

Catholics may be tempted to despair after reading the Spadaro-Figueroa article. After all, in words that could have come directly from the disgraceful Southern Poverty Law Center, we have been reduced to a dangerous rabble of hateful and small-minded bigots — all with the implicit approval of the Holy Father. But we should not lose heart; indeed, I am here to confirm my brethren that we should celebrate this indictment and calumny for two critical reasons:

First, an article like this is only possible if our movement has an increasing traction. It is a testament to the weakness and fear of our enemies that faithful and orthodox Catholics are capturing the hearts of the next generation. That we, a religious anachronism, are still alive — nay, growing — is a horror to those who thought we had been destroyed fifty years ago. While it may not seem like it, the article is in fact a confirmation of a turning tide that we should celebrate.

Second, the Spadaro-Figueroa article brings things squarely out in the open: it reveals who “they” are, what “they” believe and who they think “we” are. This latter point is crucial because Catholics — especially those overtly hostile to Traditional Catholicism — should finally receive the wake-up call that the fight they think they’re having is in fact quite a bit deeper and broader than they imagined. What darkness of intrigue and subterfuge is now clear for all to see: the wolf is showing his fangs, so now is the time to show our resolve and redouble our efforts to fight for the orthodoxy of Holy Mother Church against a faithless generation of Church leaders. 

THE ARTICLE

There is no question that the Spadaro-Figueroa article is a hot mess; as convoluted as it is inaccurate. It begins with the theme that religion has played an important role in the electoral process in the United States; so far so good:

Religion has had a more incisive role in electoral processes and government decisions over recent decades, especially in some US governments. It offers a moral role for identifying what is good and what is bad.

From this rather mundane observation, the authors take us on a journey of anti-religious hysteria

The first specious theme is that the mingling of politics and religion in the United States has taken on “Manichaean” language because it purportedly divides reality between absolute good and evil.

To support this thesis, the thinnest of references are made to Presidents George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump — presumably because they are Republican Presidents who conservative Catholics and Evangelicals supported.

There is a lot to unpack here.

Mani-who?

What do they mean by “Manichaean”?

The Manichaeans were an Eastern sect who competed with early Christianity and put forward the theory of two eternal principles, good and evil. In other words, Manichaeism is a form of religious dualism.

To the extent that Manichaeanism has currency today among Catholics and Protestants alike, it is largely because Saint Augustine, one of the foremost Church fathers in history, wrote a great deal about them.

The continued use throughout the article to tar the Evangelicals and Catholics as “Manichaean” for their religious and political leanings is more than gratuitous — it is used to ostracise them in a seemingly clever way. To borrow a recent coinage, the authors wish to “otherize” faithful Catholics and Evangelicals. They take a simple point — some faithful Catholics and Protestants co-operating in their shared views of political action — and shoehorn it with a tortured and arcane modifier to suggest, without directly saying so, that they are dangerous.

The authors will soon accuse them of heresy — if you can call it that — but they want to prepare the ground by softly introducing “Manichaean”: in a context that makes little sense other than to leave the reader with the vague impression that the people that the authors describe are “not like us.”

Analogously, if I were going to find fault with these writers for failing to defend the unborn from the holocaust of abortion, I might say they lack Christian conviction or courage; or, I might say, for rhetorical purposes, that their failure to defend the unborn is Hitlerian in its eugenic import. I am saying the same thing but I have associated my opponent with the worst ad hominem terms. It is a cheap debating trick: instead of revealing American Catholics and Evangelicals as “Manichaeans,” it puts us on notice that the authors are not interested in a fair contest of ideas.

Like the term Integralist, the use of Manichaean is deployed simply to stigmatise.

It is ironic to suggest that faithful Catholics and Evangelicals are “Manichaean” when they are, as groups, the only ones who care about orthodoxy within their own traditions. Stated more simply, they take their respective creeds seriously and would recoil at the dualist suggestion that evil was somehow equal to that of God and His infinite goodness and almighty power.

It is likewise ironic inasmuch as the authors would very likely endeavour to speak most respectfully and ecumenically with any genuine Manichaeans, if such still existed. In other words, actual heretics or pagans, like Manichaeans, receive lavish treatment at the hands of these authors and their false notions of ecumenism, while so-called crypto-Manichaean Christians are detested.

Why aren’t we treated ecumenically by the authors?

Where is their legendary “tolerance” and “inclusion” as applied to us?

The authors show the most solicitous respect and understanding for militant and exclusionary forms of Islam or Hinduism. Where is the same love for Evangelicals or faithful Catholics despite their exclusionary ideas?

Truly, it is often hard to find the thread that connects the new false ecumenism — other than a deep and abiding hatred for historic Christianity, and its exclusive claims made upon men’s souls. One might surmise that the new ecumenism was designed in Hell to destroy Christianity and only Christianity … hmm.

Another issue that the authors ignore, because it does not support their narrative, is that other groups routinely speak in moral terms about their pet issues in ways that are not qualitatively different from conservative Catholics and Evangelicals.

For example, American liberals regularly carp in the most absolutist terms regarding such themes as “reproductive justice,” homosexual “marriage,” “transgender” rights, global warming, endangered species, affirmative action, and a “living wage.” Are they also “Manichaeans”?

To take one step further, since these authors speak in absolute condemnatory terms regarding faithful Catholics and Evangelicals — are they Manichaean?

Modernism

The authors, move to discredit — in a selective and distorted manner — the history and tenor of American Evangelicalism. If others have used a straw man more wantonly, I would be curious to read it.

Like Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism has been confronted with the challenges of “modernism.”

Modernism is a difficult social and philosophical concept to synthesise but distilled to its essence, it represents a spirit of radical and anthropomorphic emancipation — of science, private conscience, and the State, at the expense of authority, organised religion and traditions. It represents a spirit of constant change with a sweeping form of evolution and progression for the sake of evolution and progression. Fixed and stationary ideas are rejected as static and dead.

Modernism is “ecumenical” to the point of obliteration; elevating paper agreements and superficial externalities over authentic unity and doctrinal truths. It elevates the subjective experience over any notion of an objective reality.

Stated simply, it is the wholesale rejection of the concept of dogma in virtually any form, as if truth were merely a human contrivance. For the modernist, truth is a commodity without any intrinsic value, to be compromised with impunity.

Modernism, as such, has been condemned forcefully as heresy by Pascendi Dominici Gregis (Encyclical of Pope Pius X on the Doctrines of The Modernists). 

Modernism’s challenge to American Protestantism was like that faced by the Catholic Church, and the carnage that ensued was just as great.

Beginning as early as the 1850s, divides began to occur within Protestant circles on issues relating to the reliability and inerrancy of the Bible (heretofore the only doctrine that united Protestants in whole other than their shared opposition to Rome), the literalism of the biblical account of Creation and the miracles of the New Testament, and the necessity of the Christian faith as it relates to the salvation of men.

What is fair is to say that American Protestants responded to modernists from within or without by either eventually accepting and assimilating the modernist critique (see virtually all mainline Protestant churches here and abroad) or rejecting the same with varying degrees of hostility. 

Those Protestants who assimilated modernism — and the American Episcopal Church is the example par excellence — have endured a catastrophic decline in membership and influence.

Leading from the front, the Episcopal Church has quickly accepted every modernist deviation from historic Christian orthodoxy. What started rather meekly as the guarded acceptance of birth control in 1930 at the Seventh Lambeth Conference, was followed by women’s ordinations and then homosexual ordinations. It is not hyperbole to claim that the only dogma of the Episcopal Church is thou shalt not have any dogmas. We are far removed from the days — only sixty years ago — when the Episcopal Church was commonly known as the Republican Party at prayer.

Within a generation, the Episcopal Church will die out altogether, and the other liberal mainline Protestant churches (e.g., the Evangelical Lutheran Church or the Presbyterian Church of American) are not far behind. Even outside of the mainline Protestant Churches, certain “Evangelical” movements continue to hold tenets of modernist thinking. For example, the non-denominational “Emerging Church,” which has many similarities to contemporary Evangelical worship but diverges from Protestant orthodoxy in much the same way as mainline Protestant churches. 

Wretched Protestants

The Protestants who have resisted modernist inroads — collectively, the target of the Spadaro-Figueroa article — are more a loose confederation of Christians than a cohesive movement.

Some are the remnants of old mainline Protestant churches (i.e., the conservative remains of Anglicanism, Presbyterianism and Lutheranism); some are churches that have largely maintained their identity throughout the twentieth century in opposition to modernism (e.g., the Southern Baptist Convention); some are offshoots who cannot reasonably be called Christian but are nonetheless Protestant branches (e.g., the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses); and still others are non-denominational Christians that have coalesced around the views of biblical inerrancy and literalism, traditional morality and, for the lack of a better phrase, Protestant traditions. 

Given Protestantism’s famous penchant for division, this grouping of anti-modernist Protestants has as many differences as it does similarities, which makes drawing broad conclusions about them so problematic. Admittedly, there are conservative Protestants who reject modernism and participate in the American polity accordingly — in whole or in part. But the differences within this grouping are so extensive that to ascribe a common theology other than their opposition to modernism, is too much.

Within the umbrella of “Evangelical” as the authors posit the term, are distinctive strains, among others, of Calvinist, Armenian, Dispensational, or Pentecostal theology. One could argue that the Evangelical movement, so defined, is too complex and too variegated for anyone to be able to speak of “Evangelical theology” as a clearly definable entity. 

Notwithstanding the impossibility of their task, the authors of the Spadaro-Figueroa article want to turn this loose coalition of Evangelicals, beleaguered and harried in American society, into shock troops who have a well-defined, cohesive and shared theology that is deployed in a politically savvy and maniacal way. It evidently never occurred to the authors that these people are simply a segment of the American populace who politically object to a social revolution that has caused the erosion of patriotism, public morals and the family, and the introduction of historically novel concepts such as homosexual “marriage,” abortion on-demand and ubiquitous pornographic consumption — all pushed by American elites who have socialist and globalist tendencies with a strong anti-religious bent.

It is fair to surmise that the authors of the Spadaro-Figueroa article are repulsed by the Evangelical movement, which they describe generally being “composed mainly of whites from the deep American South.” Under the pejorative “theoconservative,” the authors catalogue the views, both political and religious, of the Evangelical movement that the authors despise:

  1. The United States is “a nation blessed by God.”
  2. The American way of life is threatened by modernist movements such as “the black civil rights movement, the hippy movement, communism, feminist movements … [a]nd … migrants and Muslims.”
  3. “[T]he defense of ‘religious liberty’… [is] a direct virtual challenge to the secularity of the state.”
  4. The use of a decontextualised reading of the Old Testament that favours belligerence, conflict and conquest to “demonise” their enemies at the expense of the “full of love, of Jesus in the Gospels,” which leads to “unidirectional reading of the biblical texts [that] can anesthetise consciences or actively support the most atrocious and dramatic portrayals of a world that is living beyond the frontiers of its own ‘promised land.’”
  5. A negative view of the Environmental movement based upon a “dominion” theology that takes the creation account in Genesis seriously and sees man’s dominant role over creation itself and, worse still, sees environmental disasters as an apocalyptical confirmation of the divine condemnation of man’s sinful conduct and rejection of God.
  6. The “‘Prosperity Gospel’ for [Evangelicals] believe God desires his followers to be physically healthy, materially rich and personally happy.”

The rejection of these views is offered axiomatically — as if the mere pointing out that such views are held is worthy of condemnation and ridicule alone.

While not condoning every doctrine that some Evangelicals hold (after all, I am a Catholic), the authors’ implied position by rejecting these positions out-of-hand is that we ought to embrace globalism, modernist movements, secularism and climate change. Still later, they will admonish us to accept open borders and unlimited immigration. Moreover, we must take it on faith that it is medieval for us to dare to believe today that God may choose to punish sin and apostasy by acting in the world today. The notion of the “Flood,” as it were, is evidently the stuff of allegory and cannot be held by the contemporary Christian. How very modern and sophisticated.

But a larger problem for the thesis of the article is that these positions are not consistently held by Evangelicals. To reiterate the point: Evangelicals are not uniform; some view the “Prosperity Gospel” as a heretical innovation; others are sympathetic to the Environmental movement (sans its pantheistic connotations) precisely because they have a high view of the world as God’s creation; and still others talk about little else than the love of Jesus in the Gospels and are scarcely comfortable with the militaristic motifs of the Old Testament.

While some see the United States as “city upon the Hill” and blessed by God, others are more likely to describe it as a new form of Sodom. Moreover, the authors’ point that Evangelicals see modernist movements as threatening to their way of life and country, is tautological; the very definition of “Evangelical” proffered by the article groups them precisely based on their opposition to modernism.

Further, that Evangelicals want to carve out a niche of religious liberty — such that they may remain true to their religious beliefs and convictions in the face of social and political coercion — is hardly unique. Evangelicals are not exceptional among people in their desire to live their lives free from compulsion that violates their consciences.

Finally, despite the vivid portrayal, not all Evangelicals are toothless, ragged and inbred White Southerners in overalls, awaiting Armageddon in dire fear of the “other.” Quite to the contrary, they are normal, hardworking, community-oriented people: some are Ivy League educated, successful in business and “ordinary” in the conventional sense of the word. Many aren’t white.

The depiction of Evangelicals in such a manner is beyond uncharitable (even though it is certainly that); it trades on stereotypes that, once again, are designed to create straw men of the worst kind. It bespeaks an appalling elitism that is ill-suited to religious leaders of any stripe.

Rushdoony Red Herring

The extended treatment by the authors of Pastor Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001) as the father of so-called “Christian reconstructionism” is demonstrative of the inherent problems of the article.  Rushdoony is the perfect foil for the Spadaro-Figueroa article because he in fact embodies everything theologically and politically that the authors despise.

Rushdoony was a prolific writer and philosopher in the Reformed tradition. His opposition to democracy coupled with belief in a type of Christian theocracy and the reinstatement of the Mosaic law's penal sanctions are controversial within Evangelicalism, expressly because of their radicalism.

The followers of “Christian Reconstructionism” are few and they represent an insignificant minority within Evangelicalism. Indeed, Evangelicals are much more likely to revere the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the American Republic and its democratic institutions — almost as if such were God-ordained. Still other Evangelicals adhere to the longstanding Protestant concept of the “free church,” which carries with it an abhorrence of the idea of the intertwining of religion and State. 

Notwithstanding his views, Rushdoony is a red herring in this debate; disingenuously cast by the authors to suggest that he somehow represents the mainstream of Evangelical theology, which he clearly does not. The authors — as if indicting the whole of Evangelicalism — breathlessly warn that:

Rushdoony’s doctrine maintains a theocratic necessity: submit the state to the Bible with a logic that is no different from the one that inspires Islamic fundamentalism. At heart, the narrative of terror shapes the world-views of jihadists and the new crusaders and is imbibed from wells that are not too far apart.

By implication therefore, Evangelicalism is “no different” than Islamic fundamentalism.

This line of reasoning, if one could call it that, robs the article of whatever shred of credibility it might have possessed. Especially for Father Spadaro, the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the respect due to our Protestant “separated brethren” is shown to be a chimera by comparing them — peaceful, democratic and law-abiding Americans — to religious fanatics who murder unbelievers for sport.

Really, the Vatican approved this article?

The suggestion that the influence of Rushdoony’s ideas has somehow seeped into Evangelical political action is also highly suspect. Setting aside the gloss that the authors put on Rushdoony’s work, Evangelical suspicion of a powerful federal government and rootless global institutions, and advocacy for “states’ right,” is not the by-product of Rushdoony’s thought; rather it fits within an American tradition that long predates the notion of Christian Fundamentalism. It even predates the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 if one only takes the time to read the Anti-Federalist Papers.

To place Rushdoony’s theocratic vision as somehow emblematic of Evangelical theology reinforces a narrative that the authors wish to maintain: one, coincidentally, which has little contact with reality.

 

To conclude next month.

 

FOOTNOTES

(1) While I do not typically believe a biographical narrative is necessary or even appropriate in a contest of ideas (and borders on an argument from experiential authority), I know the American Evangelical and conservative Catholic communities well because I belonged to both at different times.  I was a lapsed Catholic who briefly became an Evangelical as my first foray into Christianity in my early twenties.  I reverted to Catholicism a few years later and have over the period of fifteen years become exactly the Integralist that the authors despise.  While not in my community per se, I have regular interactions with bright and engaged Evangelicals.  I have made a public witness with them in Washington, DC, every January in the March for Life. While I am aware of the theological differences between the two groups, I have no hostility towards Evangelicals and, if anything, feel a kinship with them – just as the authors suppose. Stated simply, and excuse the expression, I know these American communities much better than the authors of the Spadaro-Figueroa article.

 

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