By a vote of 168 to 55 with six abstentions, the Conference of Catholic Bishops agreed to draft formal guidelines “on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.” The decision is widely seen as a threat to deny communion to President Biden and other Catholic pro-choice politicians. It is part of a larger movement to weaponize Christianity in the interests of conservative politics going on for four decades.
In 1979 fundamentalist pastor Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority. He called on his white evangelical followers to vote for candidates who would promote a religiously conservative agenda. Falwell departed from his previous emphasis on saving souls and began engaging in politics. The religious right initially mobilized to oppose desegregation, defending the creation of “Christian” academies as alternatives to integrated public schools, but it soon embraced other issues. It opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion and gay rights, and it advocated for school prayer. Falwell boasted that Republicans could not win the presidency without religious conservatives. The Moral Majority helped elect Ronald Reagan, but Falwell also alienated people. In 1985, he called noble laureate Desmond Tutu a “phony,” drawing widespread criticism. Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority in 1989, claiming it had served its purpose.
One group was gone, but evangelicals continued to flex their political muscle. In 1987, Pat Robertson founded the Christian Coalition of America to promote the same conservative political agenda. Robertson asserted that the coalition wanted “a working majority of the Republican Party in the hands of pro-family Christians by 1996.” He did not achieve his goal, but white evangelical Christians were now a force to be reckoned with.
Evangelicals also made common cause with conservative Catholics. In 1994, Watergate felon turned evangelical leader Charles Colson joined Fr. Richard Neuhaus to convene a group of clergy and theologians to draft “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium,” which Robertson endorsed. Their theological statement affirmed the exclusivity of Christianity and its proselytizing mission. It also asserted that individual Christians and their churches had “a responsibility for the right ordering of civil society,” which it defined as “the morality of honesty, law observance, work, caring, chastity, mutual respect between the sexes, and readiness for marriage, parenthood, and family.” The statement acknowledged opposition to abortion as the driving force behind the convergence of evangelicals and conservative Catholics. It also called for “a renewed appreciation of Western culture,” which white supremacists hold as a key tenet.
Although the religious right embraced the Republican Party, the party did not embrace it. That changed in 2004. Concerned at a disappointing turnout among white evangelicals in 2000, George W. Bush’s chief strategist Karl Rove identified them as a key demographic for the president’s reelection campaign. To woo religious conservatives, Bush embraced their latest hot-button issue, gay marriage, even supporting an amendment to ban it. His campaign asked churches to provide membership directories for Republicans to canvas. At the same time, conservative Catholic bishops criticized Democratic candidate John Kerry (a Catholic) for his pro-choice stance and even threatened to deny him communion.
Rove’s strategy worked. Bush’s share of the white evangelical vote increased from 68 percent in 2000 to 78 percent in 2004, while his share of the Catholic vote increased from 47 percent to 52 percent. This level of support remained strong for the next two elections. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBiden falters in pledge to strengthen US alliances 20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home MORE got 73 percent of the white evangelical and 45 percent of the Catholic vote in 2008, and Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGOP senator will 'probably' vote for debt limit increase Five questions and answers about the debt ceiling fight Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE got 79 percent and 48 percent, respectively, in 2012. But support came at a price. Rove had shifted the emphasis of the party from fiscal restraint, small government and free enterprise to social conservatism, which did not concern many traditional Republicans.
The 2016 election posed a dilemma for the religious right. Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump takes shot at new GOP candidate in Ohio over Cleveland nickname GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default MORE showed little interest in religion, and he was dogged by numerous allegations of sexual misconduct. Nonetheless, evangelicals and conservative Catholics rallied to his banner. In 2016, Franklin Graham conducted a 50-state tour urging Christians to vote for candidates who opposed abortion and gay marriage. He endorsed no one, but when Trump won, Graham said “God was behind the election.”
James Dobson, founder of Family Talk, called Trump a “baby Christian,” who had only recently accepted Jesus and asked his followers to cut the candidate “some slack for his past behavior.” Dobson and Graham thus provided the rationale for evangelical voters troubled by Trump’s behavior. As long as the candidate promoted a “Christian” agenda, it did not matter whether he lived a Christian life. In November 2016, 78 percent of white evangelicals and 50 percent of white Catholics voted for Trump. Four turbulent years later, those percentages increased to 80.1 percent and 58.8 percent respectively.
Republicans may benefit from the weaponizing of Christianity, but the religion itself is the big loser. The decline in church attendance, especially among young people, likely stems in large measure from its hypocrisy and failure to address anything but private sexual morality. None of the agenda items debated by the Catholic bishops addressed racism, gun violence, poverty, immigration or climate change. Evangelicals have been equally silent on these pressing issues.
There are, however, signs of hope. The Catholic hierarchy may be overwhelmingly conservative, but the faithful are not. According to a recent survey, 56 percent of Catholics favor legalized abortion, albeit with some restrictions. They would probably oppose denying Biden communion as does Pope Francis, who has repeatedly called on the conference to “de-emphasize culture war issues and expand the scope of its mission to climate change, migration and poverty.” The annual meeting of the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention elected a moderate conservative president committed to racial reconciliation and addressing sexual abuse within its churches. More-Light Presbyterian and Open and Affirming United Church of Christ congregations welcome LGBQT pastors and parishioners. People in the pews are growing tired of seeing their faith perverted by politicians. Moderate and progressive Christians must reclaim their faith by speaking out against those who would abuse it.
Tom Mockaitis is professor of history at DePaul University and author of “Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat."