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Recent debates involving the Catholic Church have led to an eruption of the kind of legal and cultural vitriol against the faith not seen in this country for some time. So toxic has the climate become that one almost expects to see The Confessions of Maria Monk receive a glowing review in a trendy magazine. But if anything good can come out of this fight, it’s an emerging sense of clarity about our priorities and a refreshed understanding of some of the most basic challenges to Christians struggling to live faithful lives while contending with the political order.

The way the landscape is shifting hasn’t quite registered with everyone yet, though, and that’s understandable to a certain degree. A generation of (now mostly older) Catholics came of age hearing tales of past oppression but believing that the church/state issue had been forever resolved in their favor, and that American society had evolved to the point of shedding its once-virulent anti-Catholic prejudices. An example of this peculiar brand of naive nostalgia is a recent column by Gerald Howard for the New York Times ’ election blog. In it, he offers an intimately personal story of his boyhood in an ethnic enclave in Brooklyn, centering around the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy. The narrative is probably familiar to others of that generation: nuns whispering excitement at the prospect of “one of our own” taking the White House, old-timers still bitter about Al Smith’s drubbing in 1928, and everyone believing that the “last barrier to acceptance [as Americans] was about to fall.”

Which is not the way it turned out, of course. To a large extent, American Catholics had accommodated themselves to society. As a more critical viewing of JFK’s 1960 speech to Protestant ministers in Houston reveals, there was little hesitation about jettisoning more complex or embarrassing aspects of the faith for political expediency. To take two examples: the speech dismisses longstanding Catholic concern about liberal democracy as the product of “foreign prelates” in “other centuries,” while also, in the words of Prof. Michael W. McConnell [.pdf] , privatizing and “[reducing] religious belief . . . to accident of birth.”

Furthermore, anti-Catholic prejudice, a tendency old as the republic, didn’t disappear. It lessened among the kind of people Kennedy spoke to in Houston that day (for many Protestants—at least those of what has come to be known as the evangelical variety—now have no problem backing Catholic candidates like Rick Santorum in overwhelming numbers). But can the same be said of secular elites, for whom Catholicism has become a favored target?

Within the church itself, accommodation to the American political order—the era of Cardinal Spellman and Fulton Sheen and God and Country—no longer seems tenable either. Indeed, it is on this front that many aging “cultural Catholics” fail to comprehend what’s been happening to the church. Many are mystified by or downright fearful of the resurgent orthodoxy that has little interest in appeasing cultural tastemakers and actually wants to challenge much of the status quo.

In his 1960 speech, John F. Kennedy railed against those who suggested their religious beliefs could possibly imply any kind of “divided loyalty” between church and state. But of course that’s precisely what Christianity suggests—asserts, even. It’s not disdain for patriotism but an insight into the nature of reality and a loyalty to our true Lord and ruler which demands that, should earthly authority ever overstep its bounds, the ecclesia comes before the polis . And then there’s the fact that the Church on earth—it’s called the “Church Militant” for a reason—has the goal of making us uncomfortable with ourselves and our fallen world embedded in its mission. There’s nothing objectionable about hobnobbing with with the ruling class, and running for political office can be a noble endeavor. But what the Church needs today—and all indicators show this is what’s happening—is a rediscovery of this elemental division between the two cities. The era of pleasant accommodation and smiling synthesis is long over, and gauzy memories of “the old neighborhood” are poor substitutes for critical engagement with a dramatically altered cultural matrix.

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