Richard Neuhaus's Death and the Catholic–Evangelical Tension in Politics

Neuhaus helped forge a close bond between evangelicals and Catholics.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

The foot soldiers in the American Christian right have always been evangelical, but the movement's intellectual armature is undeniably Roman Catholic, a dynamic personified by the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, the Catholic theologian and polemicist who died yesterday at 72.

In a 2004 session with faith-based media, George W. Bush cited Neuhaus more than any other living authority: "Father Richard helps me articulate these [religious] things."

For Neuhaus, forging that kind of close bond between previously antagonistic evangelical and Catholic constituencies was a decades-long project. The New York Times reports in today's obit:

With Charles Colson, the former Watergate felon who became a born-again leader of American evangelicals, Father Neuhaus convened a group that in 1994 produced " Evangelicals and Catholics Together." It was a widely distributed manifesto that initially came under fire by critics, who accused the two men of diluting theological differences for political expediency. But the document was ultimately credited with helping to cement the alliance, which has reshaped American politics.

That's true. But Neuhaus's death also reminds us that Catholics remain the brains of a conservative movement built on evangelical brawn. This played out during the Bush years in Supreme Court nominations. John Roberts, Bush's first Supreme Court appointment, was embraced by conservative evangelicals, largely because his Catholicism assured them that he was a pro-lifer at heart, despite his thin judicial record.

Bush's second nomination, Harriet Miers, was initially backed by evangelicals because of her evangelical Christian faith, but nearly every other constituency on the right, including many conservative Catholics, rejected her as an intellectual lightweight. Many conservative Catholics were appalled at the way conservative evangelical leaders like Focus on the Family's James Dobson appeared to rely on her faith background as the sole basis for their support. The moment threw a light on the split between the social conservative movement's Catholic head and evangelical heart.

After Miers withdrew, Bush faced the dual task of appealing to mainstream conservatives who were distressed over the Miers pick and satisfying evangelicals who'd lost face over initially supporting her. Bush checked both boxes by selecting another Catholic, Samuel Alito.

Yes, the Catholic-evangelical alliance that Neuhaus helped broker has created a mighty political force. It has been one of the seminal political developments of the past 30 years. Let's just not forget that that marriage has some tensions that are also worth watching. After all, the split between evangelicals, who voted for John McCain by 3 to 1, and Catholics, who broke for Barack Obama after supporting Bush in 2004, is one reason Obama is the president-elect.