Few would bat an eye at recent news of an evangelical pastor and fellow Christian conservatives engaged in a political fight in Iowa. But there’s a twist to this story. The Christian conservatives were fighting each other.
Various news outlets have reported that Rev. Tim Rude, a Des Moines area pastor and supporter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s Republican presidential campaign, sent an email to evangelical pastors who pledged support to rival candidate U.S. Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas in an attempt to siphon away their support.
Huckabee and Brownback, having managed second and third place finishes respectively in the recent Iowa straw poll, are both vying for the much coveted support of evangelical conservatives in the state, the same voting bloc that positioned then Gov. George W. Bush for the Republican nomination in 2000.
Rev. Rude wrote to the fellow pastors: “I know Senator Brownback converted to Roman Catholicism in 2002. Frankly, as a recovering Catholic myself, that is all I need to know about his discernment when compared to the Governor’s.” In contrast, he referred to Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist pastor, as “one of us,” and openly questioned why evangelicals would choose to support a Roman Catholic over a fellow evangelical.
When the email surfaced, the Brownback campaign denounced it as part of an anti-Catholic whisper campaign. Huckabee summarily distanced himself from it, calling Brownback “a Christian brother.” But invoking familial ties does not obscure the obvious family tension that Rev. Rude’s impolitic comments revealed.
Of course, tension is nothing new to the relationship between Protestants and the Catholic Church. Ever since Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door in Wittenberg and the Protestant reformers eschewed their allegiances to Rome, tension has existed.
But the irony here is that, theological tension aside, over the past three decades politics has been the single greatest agent of unity—not division—among Catholics and evangelicals in America. Since the late 1970’s their combined strength has coalesced to form a colossal conservative political force in both state and national politics.
One would think that a politically engaged evangelical such as Rev. Rude would recognize friend from foe.
Politics as an impetus for Catholic and evangelical unity is not only an American phenomenon, nor one without historical precedent. And in fact, sentiments such as Rev. Rude’s are not without precedent either.
In 1891 Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch Calvinist theologian and political leader of the Protestant Antirevolutionary party, faced a similar situation. Kuyper had successfully facilitated a coalition between the Antirevolutionary and Catholic parties that won a majority government four years earlier. But critics of the alliance with the Catholics forced Kuyper to defend the move.
Speaking at his party’s convention, Kuyper said: “our Roman Catholic countrymen confess with us: ‘Whence he will come again to judge the living and the dead.’ … the cry of Maranatha (meaning ‘our Lord is coming’) resounds from their lips as well as from ours and aligns us with them over against all other parties.”
Kuyper did oppose merging the two parties, but the reasons for that were deeply rooted in the complexities of Dutch religious and political history. Nonetheless, his message was clear: theological differences separate our churches but our common Christian faith unites us in politics.
Similarly, an ongoing project among some leading American Catholics and evangelicals called Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) has worked to foster greater understanding and unity between the divided spheres of Christendom.
Unlike Rev. Rude, Kuyper and ECT recognized the proper time and place for disagreement and for unity between Catholics and evangelicals. And both have shown that mutual respect can produce meaningful results.
In today’s politically charged atmosphere, it would serve Catholics and evangelicals well to heed Kuyper’s closing remarks to his 1891 party convention: “Therefore I beg you to abandon all petty calculations. Remove from your midst all that might contribute to dividing God’s people at the ballot box. Show yourself to be on the high level of your calling. Know what your goals are and pursue them in tightly closed ranks, not just asking what the results will be on [Election Day] but what the outcome will be at the time of Maranatha.”
There are issues of great importance facing America, and a vacuum in our national political conversation for principled Christian voices—evangelical and Catholic alike—to fill. Evangelicals and Catholics have worked together in politics before with considerable results. The question now is: are they willing to do it again?