A group of prominent evangelical and Catholic theologians and activists released a document 20 years ago articulating common ground between the two groups.
Yet the groundwork laid by the controversial document may have done more for politics than theology.
Spearheading the project in the early 1990s were evangelical Chuck Colson, who founded Prison Fellowship after serving time in prison for his Watergate-related actions as a staffer for President Richard Nixon, and Catholic Richard John Neuhaus, who founded the magazine “First Things” and was close to President George W. Bush.
The dialogue between Catholic and evangelical leaders led to the release of the 1994 statement, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.”
“As Christ is one, so the Christian mission is one,” the statement offered near the start. “That one mission can be and should be advanced in diverse ways. Legitimate diversity, however, should not be confused with existing divisions between Christians that obscure the one Christ and hinder the one mission.”
Nearly two decades later, Southern Baptist pastor-turned-politician Mike Huckabee declared in 2012, “We are all Catholics now.”
Huckabee issued his declaration to a conservative political meeting as he criticized President Barack Obama for the so-called “contraception mandate” in the Affordable Care Act.
Huckabee joined other conservative evangelicals and Catholics in making the contraception issue a part of the 2012 presidential campaign.
The U.S. Supreme Court will issue a decision this month in cases involving businesses—including Hobby Lobby—that sued the government to challenge the “contraception mandate.”
The current union of conservative Catholics and evangelicals that has impacted presidential politics and attracted the attention of the Supreme Court likely includes the Neuhaus-Colson project as part of its foundation.
Signed by numerous theologians and other Christian leaders, the lengthy statement was released in March 1994.
The statement was signed by several established scholars in both traditions, including Bishop Francis George, author Os Guinness, historian Nathan Hatch, philosopher Peter Kreeft, seminary president Richard Mouw, historian Mark Noll, John Cardinal O’Connor, theologian J.I. Packer and author George Weigel.
Many of the participants and endorsers, however, were better known for their political involvement than their theological credentials.
In addition to Colson and Neuhaus, other politically active signatories included Richard Land (who led the Southern Baptist Convention’s then-called Christian Life Commission), Bill Bright (who founded Campus Crusade for Christ), Keith Fournier (who served as the first executive director of Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice) and televangelist Pat Robertson (who founded the Christian Coalition).
Land and another Southern Baptist leader who signed the document, then-Home Mission Board President Larry Lewis, both withdrew their names from the document a year later after criticism from some Southern Baptists uncomfortable with the document’s theological affirmations of the Catholic Church.
The document started by noting important theological areas of unity as well as places of disagreement.
The document then moved to detail some areas where Catholics and evangelicals could agree on “a responsibility for the right ordering of civil society.”
Key issues mentioned included religious liberty (with a focus on the “free exercise” clause of the U.S. Constitution over the “no establishment clause”), problem of abortion, need for morality in public education, problem of pornography, and need for promotion of capitalism and “Western culture.”
In the two decades since the document hit the national stage, Catholics and evangelicals have continued to find ways to come together.
Both tracks of theological dialogue and political cooperation have continued, although not always together.
Several other statements building on the original 1994 declaration came out in later years with varying groups of Catholic and evangelical signers.
For instance, a 2005 statement called “The Call to Holiness” explored issues of discipleship.
A 2006 paper released from the Colson-Neuhaus effort focused on building a “culture of life.”
The statement, titled “That They May Have Life,” went beyond issues of abortion, assisted suicide and embryonic stem-cell research to also prod evangelicals to view birth control more like Catholics.
“[W]hile we are not agreed on the moral permissibility of artificial contraception, we recognize the sad effects of a widespread ‘contraceptive mentality’ that divorces sexual love from procreation and views children as a burden to be avoided rather than as a gift to be cherished,” the statement offers.
Southern Baptists who added their names to the 2006 statement included Colson, David Dockery at Union University, Timothy George at Beeson Divinity School and Rick Warren at Saddleback Church.
Less than a decade later, Colson, Dockery, George and Warren all joined Huckabee in challenging contraception coverage in Obama’s health care reform.
A 2012 statement on “religious liberty” by the Colson-led evangelical-Catholic effort specially cited the issue of contraception to critique the current U.S. administration.
Even before the recent political debates over contraception, the political potential of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” garnered attention.
Following President George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, some commentators suggested his coalition of evangelicals and Catholics may have had its roots in the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” effort from a decade earlier.
Bush, a Methodist, not only won a majority of white evangelical voters but also of Catholics even as he ran against Democrat John Kerry, a Catholic.
Some other efforts to find common ground between evangelicals and Catholics have avoided sounding a partisan “culture wars” tone.
Focusing on theological issues, the Baptist World Alliance representatives met with Vatican representatives for years of dialogue. Their concluding report ignores areas of political action.
In other cases, Catholics and evangelicals have worked together on a pressing moral issue outside of a broader political alignment.
For instance, many Catholics and evangelicals have recently pushed for immigration reform.
The EthicsDaily.com film, “Gospel Without Borders,” has brought Catholics and Baptists together to dialogue about the issue and what should be done.
With the passing of Neuhaus in 2009 and Colson in 2012, their effort to bring evangelicals and Catholics together appears to be sputtering in its official form.
Their initial document cast the Third Millennium as “a time of opportunity—and, if of opportunity, then of responsibility—for Evangelicals and Catholics to be Christians together.”
Fourteen years into that millennium, Catholics and evangelicals are still searching for various ways to work together.
Whether theological dialogue, moral advocacy or partisan politics will dominate the cooperation remains to be seen.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.