Columnists > Voices

Perfecting a public lexicon

Catholics and Protestants have something each camp could use

Issue: "Space: Dawn of Discovery," Aug. 13, 2005

"When," I asked an adviser to President Bush at the White House last week, "are we likely to get a nominee to the Supreme Court who is an evangelical Protestant?"

My friend knew, I think, that I wasn't complaining about Mr. Bush's nomination of John Roberts, a Roman Catholic, to be the newest justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. I was simply observing that in the current era, Catholics seem to have an inside track for such appointments. After all, the two Supreme Court justices Mr. Bush has long referred to as his favorites-Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas-are both Catholics.

My friend was coy. "The man making the appointments is an evangelical Protestant," he reminded me.

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So let me test a still-unfinished theory with you readers. It suggests that we evangelical Protestants are readier than our Catholic friends to discuss, describe, and explain this thing we call a biblical worldview, a Christian way of looking at things in the public arena. Our Catholic colleagues, meanwhile, keep showing themselves better prepared to put some of those ideas into actual practice.

Each camp suffers from a severe deficiency.

American evangelicals are weakened because worldview thinking is for them a relatively new exercise. After theological liberalism took over the mainline denominations during the first half of the 1900s, evangelicals typically responded with a sometimes otherworldly pietism. Against such retreat, thinkers like Carl F.H. Henry and Francis Schaeffer challenged evangelicals to work out an explicitly biblical ethic for life in the public square.

But it takes a generation or two, at least, to talk things through and decide what works and what doesn't. It takes years to weave such thinking into law-school curricula and the day-to-day thinking of the courts. So finding evangelical Protestant lawmakers ready to spell out with confidence, appeal, and consistency how their biblical faith drives their thinking and acting in the shaping of public policy-well, it just hasn't happened very often.

Catholics, meanwhile, enjoy the benefit of not just one or two generations of such thinking, but many. At the same time, Catholics tend to deprive themselves on another front where evangelicals are rich. By habit and tradition, they don't dive as quickly into the Bible for explicit direction. A well-known Catholic leader commended me several years ago for WORLD's somewhat progressive attitude on immigration policy. "We do that," I explained to him, "because the Bible so often reminds God's people to treat aliens with compassion-with the reminder that we too were once aliens."

"You would know that," my friend said, "because you Protestants read the Bible. We Catholics aren't allowed to, you know." It was tongue-in-cheek overstatement, but we both knew he had a point.

Ironically, then, many conservative evangelicals and many conservative Catholics end up at many virtually identical destinations on public social issues-although getting there by quite different routes.

Yet the distinctiveness of those different routes has a good bit to do with the suitability of any particular individual for public office. The Catholic route, based in "natural law," tends to be more quiet, reflective, implicit, and elusive. The evangelical Protestant route, based in "special revelation," tends to be more noisy, wordy, explicit, and confining. The practical effect is that Catholics in public life by nature tend to leave a less bothersome trail of Bible-flavored words, opinions, and positions than would their evangelical Protestant colleagues-even those holding to basically the same positions.

Or look at it this way, to use a few examples from the U.S. Senate: The natural political constituencies of known evangelicals like Jim Talent (Mo.), John Thune (S.D.), Jim DeMint (S.C.), or Tom Coburn (Okla.) tend to want their favorite sons to wrap their positions in biblical prooftexts-and to cry "compromise" when they don't. Backers of equally conservative stalwart Catholics like Rick Santorum (Pa.) simply don't expect the same explicit language.

Which, I would argue, makes the typical evangelical's path just that much trickier than the typical Catholic's.

As an evangelical Protestant, I wince a little when I consider that most of the careful thinking coming from my general point of view in the highest court of the land is likely, for the next few years, to come from Roman Catholics. I'll be rooting, of course, for the Senate's early confirmation of John Roberts. But I'll also be hoping that an evangelical Protestant will show up soon on the horizon who can persuade the president and his advisers that he or she, while perhaps a bit riskier, still deserves a shot at the next crucial seat.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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