WHILE THE Roman Catholic Church has long been regarded as a conservative institution, Catholics have been a progressive force in America. Yet a once-marginal version of extremely conservative Catholicism has lately come into its own by linking up with far right-wing evangelical Protestantism, creating a powerful new political movement. Right-wing Catholics are in the thick of the culture war — and the Republican presidential campaign.
Recently, Rick Santorum received the backing of CatholicVote.org, a conservative Catholic lobbying group. This was not surprising, for Santorum has emphasized his staunchly conservative Catholicism. More noteworthy was when, last week, Mitt Romney drew the endorsement of five prominent Catholic conservatives - all former US ambassadors to the Vatican - who shunned fellow Catholics Santorum and Newt Gingrich. With that, Romney’s credentials were reinforced as a reliable defender of, as the ambassadors put it, “the importance of family and traditional values in American life.’’ That a Catholic endorsement could possibly help the candidate overcome anti-Mormon prejudice of Christian fundamentalists suggests how the landscape of bigotry has changed.
The “culture war’’ (an idea originating in the German Protestant kulturkampf against Catholics in the late 19th century) has redefined itself, as Rick Santorum shows better than anyone. In a speech delivered in Houston in September 2010, Santorum marked the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s epochal speech to Protestant ministers in the same place by launching a withering attack on - of all things - Kennedy’s speech. Instead of seeing JFK’s declaration as a major defusing of the old Catholic-Protestant animosity, Santorum accused Kennedy of laying “the foundation for attacks on religious freedom and freedom of speech by the secular left.’’ Kennedy supposedly did this by sealing “off informed moral wisdom into a realm of non-rational beliefs that have no legitimate role in political discourse.’’ Kennedy “chose to expel faith’’ from American politics.
Of course, Kennedy did no such thing. Instead, he located the religious test of a politician’s duty exactly where it belongs, which is neither in church pronouncements nor state policies, but in the interior realm of individual conscience — the leader’s and the citizen’s.
As a Catholic, Kennedy’s conscience was formed by the teachings of his church, but his own conscience was his touchstone — as his church says it should be. In the public realm, it is the magistrate’s duty to protect the conscience of every citizen, which is why the magistrate must, in all public matters, be religiously neutral. Far from expelling faith, Kennedy elevated it when he said, “If I face a conflict between my conscience and my public duty, I will resign.’’
Kennedy here articulated a core American idea, but his vision drew on a core Catholic idea, too, reflecting what he himself had learned from Cardinal Richard Cushing and Father John Courtney Murray - to whom Ted Sorensen read the Houston speech in advance.
In his own speech, though, Santorum tries to use Murray against Kennedy, by defining him as one of the church’s “foremost American advocates of religious liberty.’’ It is a favored myth of the religious right that, as Santorum suggests, “religious freedom’’ is under assault from the “secular left.’’ (Note that last week’s unanimous Supreme Court decision protecting traditional church hiring exemptions included the “secular’’ liberals.)
In fact, religious zealotry has the advantage, since tolerating the intolerant is a principle of secular liberalism. But only as a hyper-defensive culture warrior, obsessed with sex and ignoring Catholic social teaching, does Santorum have any hope of advancing his candidacy. His achievement is in showing that a Roman Catholic can be as narrowly intolerant as the most puritanical of fundamentalists. That Santorum condemns Kennedy precisely for calling a truce in the culture war back then shows his own interest in escalating the culture war today.
The mention of Murray points to what’s missing in all this. Fifty years ago, mainstream moderate religious voices had wide influence in public discourse - figures like Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Robert McAfee Brown, and numerous others. They were adept at drawing sophisticated links between the religious and political cultures. They were fundamentalists neither in religion nor patriotism. People of faith could feel represented in public, not reduced to caricature.
Culture war, like all wars, lays waste the thoughtful middle ground, which is good reason to call a truce again. Such believers are quiet now, but still abound. They should rescue the faith, not only for religion’s sake, but for the nation’s.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.