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Colson's legacy includes the success of Santorum

April 23, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • Chuck Colson, center, watches as an assistant straightens the tie of Dean Jones, who played Colson in the film "Born Again."
Chuck Colson, center, watches as an assistant straightens the tie of Dean… (Charles Tasnadi / Associated…)

Two themes have loomed large in obituaries for Charles Colson: his career as a Nixon hatchetman, culminating in his prison term for his involvement in the attempt to smear Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, and his post-confinement career as a Christian prison reformer. But Colson played another role whose influence was felt in this year's Republican presidential race. The born-again Christian was one of the strange theological bedfellows who produced a 1994 manifesto called "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." His counterpart was a liberal-turned-neocon, Lutheran-turned-Catholic controversialist, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus.

As I wrote in my 2009 book "A Field Guide to the Culture Wars," "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" was purportedly an exercise in ecumenism, designed to emphasize theological agreement between Catholics and evangelical Protestants. In fact, the document baptized cultural and economic conservatism. It railed against abortion, public schools that neglected the formative influences of Judaism and Christianity, a liberal tolerance that equated "the normative and the deviant," and pornography. It also committed the signatories to contending for "a free society, including a vibrant market economy."

If that litany of issues sounds familiar, it includes the greatest hits of Rick Santorum, the Roman Catholic to whom evangelical voters took a shine.

The evangelical/conservative Catholic convergence was rooted in the opposition of both groups to Roe vs. Wade and legalized abortion. (The manifesto says that abortion is "the leading edge of an encroaching culture of death.") But it also, ironically, depended on the ecumenical movement, whose original impetus came from liberal Catholics and Protestants. That movement allowed conservative Protestants (some of them anyway) to entertain the possibility that papists were fellow Christians -- and vice versa.

Much is made of Protestant anti-Catholicism in American history, but as a baby-boom-cradle Catholic, I can attest to the existence of what can only be called anti-Protestantism among Catholics. One of my favorite books as a student in a Catholic boys school was "The Cardinal," Henry Morton Robinson's 1950 novel about Stephen Fermoyle, an upwardly mobile Irish American priest (supposedly based on the life of Francis Cardinal Spellman, who looked nothing like Tom Tryon, the star of the movie version). In one scene, the protagonist accompanies a Catholic bishop called Timothy Creedon to an interfaith convocation, at which Creedon delivers a "grim benediction" after a smarmy keynote address by an Episcopal divine. Robinson writes: "Stephen could almost hear Tim muttering to himself, 'What in God's name am I doing here among these psalm-singers?' "

That's the way a lot of Catholics felt about Protestants in general and evangelicals in particular in pre-Vatican II days. And even after the council, liberal Catholics retained their distaste for "Bible-thumpers." My own prejudices against evangelicals, initially formed in the Catholic ghetto, were reinforced by liberal Protestant professors.  But for other, younger  Catholics, there has been a cross-pollination with evangelicals that is not your father's ecumenical movement. At my Catholic high school in the 1960s, we were assured that there was no conflict between Darwinism and Catholicism. Today a biology teacher at a Catholic school must be braced for questions about why he isn't giving equal time to intelligent design.  Rick Santorum has raised this very issue.

Conservative ecumenism is a fascinating phenomenon -- and a frustrating one, obviously, for liberals in both the Protestant and Catholic camps.  Chuck Colson's role in that movement is arguably as important as his misspent youth as a political dirty trickster or his edifying career as a prison reformer.

ALSO:

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Evangelical voters let politics trump religious purity

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