Mark Chaves, professor of sociology at Duke University and director of the National Congregations Study, has this interesting chart detailing how broadly defined Christian groups engage politically. (Full disclosure: Mark and I went to high school together. In fact, I was briefly a really bad drummer in his really mediocre band.)
A close examination will show that the so-called Religious Right—which is what we associate with white evangelicals generally, no?—is not all that politically active, at least relative to the other groups studied. In fact, “Black Protestant” congregations appear to be the most consistently “political.” But as they would constitute the Religious Left, at least in the thinking of the mainstream media (to the extent that you could call “thinking” what such organs of disinformation usually do), any breaching of the wall of separation between church and state is ostensibly less worrying. (Let’s be frank: if you say you are against the death penalty because Jesus was a “victim” of the death penalty misapplied, how many on the secular left would care? But if you say you are against abortion because Jesus was once a fetus in the womb of an unmarried woman—duck.)
With that said, the real “marchers” in this study are Catholics. (And the issue most likely to get a group marching? You guessed it: abortion.) But will the scandals that have once again co-opted discussion about things Catholic make political engagement more difficult in the long run? Will every discussion of religion in the public square be diverted by angry denunciations, accusations of hypocrisy, and questioning of moral authority? Will Catholics be forced to retreat in the culture wars? And can evangelicals take their place?
Short answer: no.
Why? Catholicism has always provided an alternative culture for its adherents, complete with its own rich history and traditions. When you were on the march as a Catholic, you were confident that you were surrounded by a great cloud of persecution-tested witnesses. Evangelicalism, on the other hand, has fought the culture war by either retreating into an anti-culture consisting of a long string of No’s (no drinking, no dancing, no gambling, no smoking, no theater, no, no, no)—or by co-opting the prevailing culture. But instead of converting it, evangelicalism has too often become indistinguishable from that culture. So six of one, half a dozen of another.
(It should be noted that this was not the case for a long time among British evangelicals, who were often in the forefront of profound social movements: from the institution of child-labor laws and the Factory and Coal-Mines Acts to the end of the slave trade and the birth of the hospice movement.)
Where does that leave us? I can’t say, as this is a family website.
Anthony Sacramone is a freelance writer and the former managing editor of First Things.