A Southern Baptist agency head quoted in a national magazine said he shares more common ground with the Catholic pope than with fellow Baptists Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

“I’ve got more in common with Pope John Paul II than I do with Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton,” said Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, in a story in the January 2005 Atlantic Monthly.

The story on religion’s role in the recent elections claims that religious fault lines no longer divide between denominations but now run through them. For much of American history, it observes, Americans were divided not only as Catholics and Jews but as Baptist, Lutheran and Episcopalian. Since the 1970s, however, each of these groups has experienced internal differences over social issues like abortion, homosexuality and religion’s role in public life.

While acknowledging that he has theological differences with Catholics, “these differences are in addition to the basics,” Land is quoted as saying.

“Together we believe in the virgin-born son, who died on the cross and was resurrected on Easter Sunday—really resurrected, like The Washington Post could have reported it,” Land said. “We both say all human life is sacred, that marriage is between a man and a woman, that homosexual behavior is contrary to God’s will.”

All this is just “more relevant” he said, “than whether I’m Catholic or Protestant.”

The writer, Hanna Rosin of the Washington Post, described Land’s feelings of oneness with Catholics as momentous because he comes not from an ecumenical background from a “tradition that has called the papacy the ‘mark of the beast.'”

“It’s no coincidence that in the Left Behind series so beloved by evangelicals, a former American cardinal serves as a lackey to the Antichrist,” she added parenthetically.

Curtis Freeman, director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke University, said he wasn’t surprised by Land’s statement, but it is premature to hail this as a new day in ecumenical relations.

“Anti-Catholicism runs very deep in the South and especially among Southern Baptists, which makes the Evangelical-Catholic alliance an uneasy one,” Freeman said. “It doesn’t extend to capital punishment, which for Catholics is woven into a seamless pro-life. Nor does it apply to social justice issues like poverty, work, economics or peace. It surely doesn’t bring them any closer to Catholics on theological and ecclesiological grounds.”

Another area where Land and the pope disagree is the war in Iraq. The pontiff has criticized both the U.S.-led war and President Bush’s policy on preventive war. On Monday he blasted the “arrogance of power” that he said should be countered with reason and dialogue.

Land, a former Bush appointee to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, meanwhile, defends action in Iraq as meeting “just war” criteria used for centuries to frame issues concerning war and peace.

Land’s comment also stands in contrast to other highly publicized statements by other SBC leaders critical of the Catholic leader.

Seminary President Al Mohler once said on CNN’s “Larry King Live” the Roman Catholic Church is a “false church and teaches a false gospel” and the pope “holds a false and unbiblical office.”

Several years ago Land signed a document called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” that outlined some of the same common ground he described to the Atlantic Monthly. He later removed his endorsement under pressure from critics, however, and the SBC broke off official dialogues with Catholic leaders.

Another moderate leader, meanwhile, suggested the Land quote doesn’t go far enough.

“Land forgot to mention that both he and the pope believe in an earthly, autocratic, hierarchical religious authority that presumes infallibility when interpreting the Bible,” Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists quipped in a weblog.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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