It was an extraordinary moment at the Republican convention last month when Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher turned politician, criticized Barack Obama for insisting that people have to “violate their faith and conscience in order to comply with what he calls health care. Friends . . . let me say it as clearly as possible, that the attack on my Catholic brothers and sisters is an attack on me.” The attack to which Huckabee was referring, of course, is that section of President Obama’s health care plan which requires virtually all institutions to provide contraceptives to their employees, even those religious organizations which reject contraception on moral grounds.
But it is unlikely that Huckabee’s fraternal solidarity with Catholics would have been quite so ardently stated a few decades ago. After all, Evangelicals and Catholics, the two largest religious groups in the United States, had never been close Christian companions. On the contrary, they often regarded each other as opponents, with Evangelicals seeing Catholics as captive to strange, unbiblical traditions such as the worship of Mary and the veneration of saints and relics. Catholics, for their part, saw Evangelicals as fundamentalist yahoos, little familiar with the great tradition of theological development through the centuries.
Those attitudes began to change with the establishment of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) by Chuck Colson and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus some twenty years ago. While their first public statement was not released until 1994, the initial meeting on the question of Evangelical-Catholic relations occurred in September 1992, when the issue at hand was the fractious relationship between Protestant and Catholic Christians in Latin America. As Neuhaus and Colson later wrote, they were hoping to avoid “a Belfast of religious warfare” south of the Rio Grande. But how could they speak a useful word to South American Christians if they had not seriously addressed the theological questions of common belief and mission?
Thus began the careful clearing away of prejudices that had developed over decades, with the purpose of showing that Evangelicals and Catholics, for all their differences, still share basic theological premises: a firm belief in the one God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob uniquely revealed in Jesus Christ; a consistent adherence to biblically based morality; and a determined commitment to ordered liberty wherein the church, while respecting the state’s proper sphere of competence, never bows the knee to the government on religious matters.
The work of Evangelicals and Catholics Together has continued unabated over the last twenty years, issuing documents pertaining to theological questions (such as the nature of justification) as well as those affecting the proper ordering of society (such as the rights of the unborn). ECT’s most recent statement, “In Defense of Religious Freedom,” details the infringements on religious liberty that have taken place around the world, as well as those which have emerged in the United States. Not long ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) challenged the “ministerial exemption” traditionally granted to churches so they may choose their ministers according to their own criteria, unhindered by state interference. The arguments advanced by the executive branch of government, in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC , would have significantly reduced those protections. Fortunately, the United States Supreme Court, insisting that religious freedom is the cornerstone of democracy, unanimously supported the traditional exemption.
More recently, as everyone knows, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has sponsored norms that require all institutions to provide contraceptives to their employees. While there is an exemption for religious organizations, the regulations are so narrowly drawn that the conscience protections apply only to those institutions that primarily employ and serve members of their own faith and seek to inculcate religious teaching. This limitation severely constricts the freedom of Christian churches”which have a distinguished record of establishing universities and hospitals for all men and women”in the exercise of their own moral principles. By advancing such a policy, the government has overstepped its bounds, failing to recognize that it has an obligation to foster religious liberty and to allow churches to participate fully in public life according to their own norms.
Richard Neuhaus and Chuck Colson have now gone to God. But the work of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which they started, will not flag. We will continue to examine theological questions patiently. And we will indefatigably insist that while Christians should render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, we will assuredly not render to Caesar what belongs to God.
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama. Thomas G. Guarino is professor of theology at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. They are the co-chairmen of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
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