Catholics and Evangelicals: Past, Present, and Future

An interview with Kenneth J. Collins, author of Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism

Kenneth J. Collins, PhD is professor of historical theology and Wesley Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author of several books, including The Theology of John Wesley (Abingdon) and The Evangelical Moment (Baker). His most recent book, Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism (InterVarsity Press, 2012), is a history of American Evangelicalism from the late 19th century to the present day, focusing on the cultural influence and political fortunes of Evangelical Protestants; it also addresses many facets of Catholic-Evangelical relations. Dr. Collins spoke recently with Carl E. Olson, the editor of Catholic World Report, about the history of Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, Catholic and Evangelical relations, and the common challenges facing Christians in the United States today.

CWR: Many Catholics aren’t very familiar with ecumenical relations between Catholics and Evangelicals, or why such relations are important. How would you, as an Evangelical, address the significance of those relations?

Collins: I think there are a lot of ways that Catholics and Evangelicals can work together. I want to strengthen those connections. What we are facing in the days ahead is very important. Catholics are like canaries in a coal mine. We, as Christians, weren’t supposed to bump against a modern liberal democracy; it was supposed to be everyone choosing their own good. But the Catholic Church is bumping up against it, in terms of the contraceptive issue, but also in terms of what Catholic Charities faced in Massachusetts, where the collision between the state government and the Church forced the closure of Catholic Charities, which has had a wonderful history of service to the poor.

CWR: Let’s go back to the beginning, historically. There is a lot of confusion, isn’t there, with the term “Evangelical”? What are the roots of that term in US history?

Collins: What I would say, specifically to Catholics, is: Evangelicalism is a contested concept. It has a long and rich history, some of it going back to the Anglican church and John Wesley and even earlier. But the term was picked up by a group of Fundamentalists in America in the 1940s, and they spoke of “neo-Evangelicalism.” The key thing to understand is that Evangelicalism as it is practiced today comes in two, or perhaps three, basic forms. There is a Reformed, Calvinist understanding of Evangelicalism; that would  embrace Harold Ockenga, Carl F. H. Henry, Billy Graham, and others.

There are also Wesleyan Evangelicals, who are somewhat different from their Reformed cousins, and they are far closer to Catholicism, not simply in terms of social issues, but also in terms of theology. For example, they stress the importance of sanctification, the life of holiness, as Catholics clearly do. I teach a course on classics in Christian spirituality and I use, again and again, Catholic primary sources. And I eagerly do that, because we Wesleyan Evangelicals  underscore the importance of holiness and being holy in our daily lives. Not just the forgiveness of sins, a forensic understanding of redemption as you find in the Reformed tradition and the Lutheran tradition, but we also stress—as do Catholics and Eastern Orthodox—the  necessity of actually being holy, not just positionally or forensically. Real holiness in the warp and woof of life is vital. The contrast between those who love holiness and broader North American culture could hardly be greater. We live in an increasing vulgar society that has forgotten that God is beautiful.

CWR: The Wesleyan tradition does have a remarkably Catholic character in some ways, doesn’t it, when it comes to soteriology?

Collins: Yes, in a lot of ways. And it is very Western. There has been a move in the past 20 years to identify this Wesleyan approach with Eastern Orthodoxy, but I and a few others have been saying that Wesleyanism, like Roman Catholicism, is very Western. It is very Augustianian in its understanding of original sin, as well as in terms of prevenient grace, which is a Western, not Eastern, understanding. Once again sanctification themes run strong in both Catholicism and Wesleyanism.

CWR: The 1930s and 1940s witnessed much stress and tension within Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. And that lead to a significant break and rupture, didn’t it?

Collins: Yes, we talk about the “great reversal.” I think Timothy Smith was the first to use that language, and then David O. Moberg wrote a book with the same name [The Great Reversal: Evangelism Versus Social Concern (1972)]. What happened is quite interesting. In the 19th century, Protestant religion was fairly unified, in terms of a successful Evangelicalism, growing out of the second great awakening and the ongoing revivals of the 19th century. And they did have a measure of cultural power. Bishop Matthew Simpson, a Methodist bishop, was invited, for example, by Lincoln to the White House; the New York Times would actually have positive stories about religion on the front cover. And so they enjoyed cultural power; Protestants were part of the shakers and movers. The neo-Evangelicals did not like the fact that the Fundamentalists retreated from social action. Carl F.H. Henry wrote The Uneasy Conscience of Fundamentalism.

What happened in the period you are talking about—from around 1900 to 1930 and beyond—is fascinating. A worldview is made up of the genius of our faith plus our culture. It’s always an amalgam. We are people of faith, but we are situated in particular cultures and we are affected by those cultures. What happened  by the 1930s is that the cultural change was so rapid and so threatening, especially in terms of the intellectual currents— for example, higher criticism of the Bible and Darwinism—that Fundamentalism emerged. That situation was a prescription for Fundamentalism. In other words, when you have a seriously-held faith facing rapid social and cultural change, Fundamentalism is often the response to it. And we’ve seen that in the great reversal that took place by 1930. Fundamentalism, as Martin Marty, the great American historian, would point out, is not simply indicative of Christian religion; you can have Islamic fundamentalisms, Jewish fundamentalisms, and so forth. I think the best definition of Fundamentalism is a determined response to rapid cultural and social change. And there’s ambiguity here, as George Marsden pointed out. Fundamentalists were alienated from culture and yet they wanted to change it.

What happened with the Evangelicals of the 19th century? You have Charles Finney, a great preacher, who said that everywhere there is revival there must be reform— there must be social reform. And that is what breaks up by the 1930s, and even much earlier. There was the social gospel movement, which was stressing the social—while the Fundamentalists were stressing the personal—and what was held together in the previous century was broken up into two movements: liberal Evangelicals, who eventually become the theological liberals, and the Fundamentalists, who eventually become the neo-Evangelicals or simply “Evangelicals.” The neo-Evangelicals thought that the Fundamentalists were too bellicose, socially irrelevant, and intellectually problematic.

CWR: And what of the relationship of each with the Catholic Church? For example, how about Billy Graham, who started out as a Fundamentalist but then forged ecumenical relationships with Catholics?

Collins: Billy Graham was criticized by both American and British Evangelicals for having Catholics sitting on the platform with him during his crusades. He had an inclusivist understanding of the Gospel, one that was very similar to Wesley in his key sermon, “The Catholic Spirit”; he also wrote one titled, “A Caution Against Bigotry.” Like Billy Graham,  Wesley wanted to avoid religious bigotry; he desired  to acknowledge Catholics as brothers and sisters in faith—it was important  for him to do that. So Graham had Catholics on the stage with him, but Fundamentalists heavily criticized him for it; they would have none of it. They believed they as a community had to be separate from those who associated with Catholics; they would speak of a “second degree of separation.” But, it’s interesting that even someone like Harold Ockenga, who was so instrumental in the establishment of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), had strains of this anti-Catholicism in his thinking. In the founding of NAE, he mentioned the challenges of liberalism and secularism, but he also mentioned the challenge of Catholicism. When I, as a historian, hear that, I try to contextualize it so I can understand it properly. I think what was happening, as I explain in my book, among the Protestants of the 19th and early 20th century, was an attempt to achieve a Christian—read, Protestant—America. That failed, of course, but Ockenga hadn’t yet realized that failure as he should have, and so he was still thinking in terms of the old categories, in which immigration was a threat to the Protestant empire and establishment; he hadn’t taken into account the changing context of American religion. Cultural power is constantly shifting.

Evangelicals, of course, did make those changes later on in many ways, and the tribalism began to go away. The kind of anti-Catholicism that was so rigid in the 19th century, in terms of the Know Nothing Party—much of that goes away in the 20th century. In fact, the big news by 1995 will be the story of Evangelicals and Catholics together. Evangelicals today have enormous respect for Roman Catholics.

CWR: What opened up Catholic-Evangelical relations? What changed? Was there interaction and dialogue prior to Vatican II?

Collins: There was some, but Vatican II is the watershed and has to be understood as such. The Council used the language of “separated brethren” and there was greater openness to dialogue. Protestants began to rethink their relationship with Catholics in the wake of that change. So I really see Vatican II as the key to that change.

CWR: The post-Vatican era brought about two terms you discuss at length in your book: the Moral Majority and the Religious Right. What are those two entities and what role did they play in the shaping of the Evangelical approach to politics?

Collins: The Moral Majority is an important development in terms of assessing this larger question we have been looking at, a question that H. Richard Niebuhr raised in his 1951 book, Christ and Culture. We have to remember that many Fundamentalists, even Jerry Falwell and others, go back to 17th-century traditions, and saw themselves as responsible, in some way, for the good moral order of the nation. That sentiment was clearly expressed in the Moral Majority. In other words, Falwell as a Baptist was very much in favor of separation of church and state. But he also championed a larger voice for the church in the public realm in terms of  a good, sound moral order that would lead to human flourishing. I wish that some in the Moral Majority had made greater connections than they did with Catholicism, especially the rich tradition of natural law theory that is in Catholicism from Aquinas forward, because that would be a helpful way of uniting these voices, both Catholic and Protestant, in the public realm. And I think men like Father Richard John Neuhaus were aware of those possibilities. Natural law relates to all human beings: Christian or not; Catholic or not, Evangelical or not. I think people like Falwell were concerned that, in the wake of Roe v. Wade and of rapid social and cultural change, the social order was going to become increasingly harmful.

CWR: And Falwell was right about that, wasn’t he? His criticisms were on the mark in many ways.

Collins: Yes, I think he was right to a certain extent. What we have here, especially since 1947 and an important Supreme Court judgment—and this is expressed by John Rawls in his work on political philosophy—we have become a nation that is currently offering American democracy as the highest entity, the greatest allegiance. We don’t want to hear the moral language beyond the requisites of a modern, liberal democratic state or what is popular politically. And that leads some people in this society to pursue “goods”  that are, in the end, vicious. Some “lifestyles” celebrated in our culture  will actually lead to chaotic lives, to dissolution, and, in the worst cases, it will lead to death.

The belief, as expressed by the late Richard Rorty and others, is that the essential narrative that we are working with in a society such as the United States is democracy, and everything else is simply instrumental to it. So religion doesn’t have value in and of itself, but is instrumental to the larger script and narrative of modern, liberal democracy. And that, as I call it in the book, is Babylon. When a nation fails to recognize anything greater than itself, you’re living in Babylon.

CWR: It has been nearly 20 years since the Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative was founded by Father Richard John Neuhaus, Charles Colson, and others in 1994. How would you assess its impact?

Collins: Well, personally, I am very pro-Catholic; I have been informed by Wesley, especially through “The Catholic Spirit” and “A Caution Against Bigotry.” I see Catholicism and Evangelicalism as important traditions within the Body of Christ. And I know that Catholics see me as part of a “separated brethren,” and that’s fine, I can understand that; I view Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ. I would therefore like us to work together in mutual recognition that what we can do together, we should not do apart. We are both facing a crisis in terms of  American culture. Catholics know this better than anyone. The culture has turned hostile, not just to religion, but to some of the moral values that will lead to human flourishing, and the Church should not sit by idly while all that is going on. Wesleyan Evangelicals especially respect the courage of the Roman Catholic Church of late.

CWR: You have a chapter in your book on the “Evangelical Left.” What are your main concerns there?

Collins: What I tried to do in that chapter is to show how the Evangelical Left likes to present itself, especially to young people, as cutting edge: “We are avante-garde, we are the way forward!” However, it’s misleading and very problematic. It is simply leftist politics masquerading as “God’s Politics”; what they have done is simply slapped the name of Jesus on top of some very partisan politics and they have called it “the Gospel.”

Mainline denominations have already played this game and we know where it leads. Look at recent events involving Brian McLaren. One can be an exemplary Christian and not be a leftist. This movement seems to forget that. They take what is penultimate and make it ultimate. That’s the real problem here. But the Christian Right has played this game as well.

CWR: The same sort of problem, as you know, exists within the Catholic Church in the United States. The Catholic Left, so to speak, is very deeply entrenched and yet its positions, especially on life issues, are often incoherent.

Collins: They fail to understand, just as the Evangelical Left fails to understand, what challenges a modern liberal democracy poses to a faith like Catholicism and Evangelicalism. We live in a shallow, entertainment culture. Robert Bork really described it well in the title of his book, Slouching Toward Gomorrah. We are so morally lazy, we aren’t even using effort; we are just slouching toward Gomorrah. We aren’t paying attention to some of the leading issues of the day; we are missing the tectonic changes that are taking place right in front of our eyes. We don’t fear sin; we fear social pressure. We respect cultural trends but not the abiding moral law.

Something I see, as a result of writing the book, is a greater appreciation  for the Catholic Church.  We Protestant Evangelicals know that because of the way the Catholic Church is constituted, that it will be here two centuries from now, three centuries from now, five centuries from now. I’m not sure that the Presbyterian Church USA or the Lutheran Church in America or the Episcopal Church will be here two or three centuries from now. They have been so compromised already. There is little that distinguishes them from broader American culture. In many respects they have already lost their gospel voice of holy love, of a church set apart.

CWR: For the more immediate future, the next five to ten years, what do you see happening with the Catholic and Evangelical relationship going forward?

Collins: I think that in the next few years Catholics and Evangelicals are going to continue facing each other and realizing that they have much in common. They have common cause in terms what is happening in the larger life of the nation and what is  occurring in our culture. I see  these communions working together in many ways, not just on issues such as abortion and homosexuality, but on other issues as well, especially poverty in America.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Carl E. Olson 1233 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.