Evangelicalese 101

A while back, when Harriet Miers was briefly nominated for the Supreme Court, the media (falsely) reported that Miers was a convert to Evangelicalism from the Catholic faith.  During the period everybody was under this impression, Evangelical heavy-hitter Dr. James Dobson puzzled some Catholics when he remarked, “I know the person who brought her to the Lord. I have talked at length to people that know her and have known her for a long time.” This sort of thing irked Catholics because Dobson was speaking, not of Miers’ conversion from atheism or paganism to Christ, but of her (supposed) conversion to evangelical Protestantism from the Catholic faith.  So Catholics naturally asked, “Isn’t he implying that Catholics are not Christian?”

In fact, the answer to this question is “No.”  But it requires us Catholics to learn a bit of Evangelicalese in order to understand why. 

Dobson is actually among the more Catholic-friendly Evangelicals out there.  Indeed, among some of the more Neanderthal Fundamentalist sects Dobson is a favorite target for his allegedly sinister coziness with “Romanism.”  He is attacked by Way of Life Ministries, for instance, for “abominations” like putting Mother Teresa on the cover of Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and for various crimes such as allowing a Catholic priest to speak at Focus on the Family conferences and for speaking respectfully of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  In fact, he horrified and appalled some truly anti-Catholic Fundies when he “praised the Catholic church for its efforts to protect the family and said that while he has some theological differences with the Roman Catholic Church, he often agrees more with the Roman Catholic Church than with other Evangelicals on issues such as abortion, premarital sex and homosexuality” (http://www.wayoflife.org/fbns/dobsonrome.htm).  So Dobson doesn’t do the anti-Catholic thing of declaring all Catholics to be “not real Christians”. What then did he mean in his remarks about Miers?

In Evangelicalese, being a Christian is not (as it is for Catholics) given as a fact of baptism or church membership. To “come to the Lord” or “become a real Christian” is bound up with a conscious choice at some point in life: a decision to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Catholics who show evidence of a conscious decision to be a disciple (such as, for instance, John Paul or Mother Teresa) are generally reckoned as “real Christians” by Evangelicals like Dobson. Conversely, fellow Protestants who are obviously not interested in discipleship as Evangelicals would recognize it are just as likely to be dismissed by Evangelicals as mere ritualists, practitioners of “Churchianity” and so forth. It’s not a denominational thing for most Evangelicals, it’s a perception of serious discipleship.

It should be noted that I cite John Paul II and Mother Teresa, not as examples of standards Catholics must live up to in order to pass muster with Evangelicals, but as obvious, public figures who exemplify “real discipleship”.  At the everyday lived level, things get more complicated.  Evangelicals tend to have a split brain approach to Catholics.  The default assumption is that generic Catholics are mostly the thralls of empty ritualism.  But note: Evangelicals also tend to assume this about most mainline Protestants.  However, Evangelicals also tend to make exceptions for Catholics they actually know. Why?  Because they see such Catholics attempting serious discipleship and that, for them, is what a “real Christian” looks like.  True, they assume this is unusual for Catholics. The Catholic Church is perceived by many Evangelicals as preserving the Faith, yet still clinging to various “traditions of men” (Marian devotion, purgatory, communion of saints, indulgences, Real Presence, whatever else makes Evangelicals nervous) that taint or pollute faith in Jesus and so hinder the well-meaning disciple.  So conversion to a “living faith” is generally thought to be easier in an Evangelical environment.  But there is a growing recognition among Evangelicals that (as it tends to be put), “Many Catholics are Christian too.”  This irks Catholics, but it is, in fact, a vast improvement over typical Evangelical rhetoric even twenty-five years ago. 

And it is an equal opportunity worldview.  For the point is that a perceived life of discipleship is the crucial factor for Dobson and millions of other Evangelicals, not membership in a Church–any Church.  Hillary Clinton and Britney Spears, both self-confessed Protestant Christians, are not “real Christians” as far as most Evangelicals are concerned either.  It has nothing to do with Catholicism per se, but with the perception that such people have no living relationship with Christ.

One more small thing to bear in mind when learning to de-code the jargon of two peoples separated by a common faith, yet engaged in a common struggle with a Culture of Death that would, if possible, destroy them both.

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