Pope Francis's Challenge to the Evangelical-Catholic Coalition

In Rome on Sunday, Pope Francis will preside over Easter Mass. He will address tens of thousands of Catholics gathered in St. Peter’s Square and tens of millions more who will gather around radios, televisions, and computer screens. But in the United States, it remains to be seen how Pope Francis will address an unlikely flock that both conservative Protestant and Catholic leaders have been grooming for political activism over the last two decades: white evangelicals.

From a historical perspective, this is the most improbable of alliances. The nascent Baptist movement was animated by condemnations of the Catholic hierarchy. Take this example from the Second London Confession of 1689, an early Baptist confessional document, which declared that the pope is “that Antichrist, that Man of Sin, that Son of Perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God.” Early Baptist leaders in the U.S., including Roger Williams, John Smyth, and B.H. Carroll (founder of my alma mater, the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), commonly held the position that the Catholic Church was “the whore of Babylon” from the Book of Revelation, a figure associated with the Antichrist and the embodiment of evil in the world. As late as 2000, Southern Baptist Seminary President Al Mohler declared on Larry King Live that the pope holds a false office, leads a false church, and teaches a false gospel.

It is well known that the political winds generated by the end of Jim Crow and the rise of the civil-rights movement transformed the once solidly Democratic South into a bloc of safe red states. But the way the same winds eroded historical evangelical-Catholic antipathies is less understood.

Today, on a range of prominent cultural issues and in Republican primary politics, we often see an ironic result—there is more support for official Roman Catholic Church positions among white evangelical Protestants than among Catholics. For example, nearly seven in 10 (69 percent) white evangelical Protestants oppose same-sex marriage, compared to only 37 percent of rank-and-file Catholics. Moreover, nearly three-quarters (78 percent) of white evangelical Protestants believe sex between two adults of the same gender is sinful, compared to less than half (49 percent) of lay Catholics. The same pattern plays out on abortion. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of white evangelical Protestants say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, compared to less than half (47 percent) of Catholics. Perhaps most surprising is the white evangelical Protestant view on whether employers should be required to provide employees with no-cost contraception coverage. Despite their history of criticizing Catholics for opposing artificial means of birth control, white evangelical Protestants are far more likely than lay Catholics to oppose mandated contraception coverage (58 percent vs. 37 percent).

Support for Rick Santorum, a candidate who consistently embodied the Catholic hierarchy’s positions on prominent cultural issues in the 2012 presidential campaign, shows how the evangelical/Catholic-hierarchy coalition can play out in electoral politics. Following Santorum’s win in the Iowa caucuses, where he outperformed his rivals among white born-again voters, a number of prominent conservative leaders, including James Dobson and Gary Bauer, organized an emergency meeting to coordinate support for Santorum. While this strategy didn’t successfully hand Santorum the Republican nomination, it is notable that most of the 10 states he carried in the primaries had large white evangelical Protestant turnout in the GOP primaries. In fact, in four of the states Santorum won, white born-again voters constituted more than seven in 10 of the Republican primary electorate: Mississippi (80 percent), Alabama (75 percent), Tennessee (73 percent), and Oklahoma (72 percent).

Most revealing is how Santorum performed against Mitt Romney in the swing states of Ohio and Wisconsin. These states each had sizeable constituencies of both white born-again Protestants and Catholics voting in the Republican primaries. In Ohio, Romney edged out Santorum 37.9 percent to 37.1 percent. Among white born-again voters, Santorum held a solid 17-point lead over Romney (47 percent vs. 30 percent). By contrast, Romney won Catholic voters by a 13-point margin (44 percent vs. 31 percent). If Santorum had simply split Catholic voters with Romney, he would have easily taken Ohio. In Wisconsin, Romney posted a larger victory over Santorum (44 percent vs. 37 percent), and Santorum’s weakness among his fellow Catholics played a large role in his defeat. Santorum edged out Romney among white born-again voters (43 percent vs. 40 percent), but Romney won Catholic voters by a decisive 13-point margin over Santorum (48 percent vs. 35 percent).

At first glance, the link between evangelicals and Catholics seems like a political match made in heaven, with the U.S. Bishops cultivating a new evangelical flock to compensate for the loss of lay Catholic support on cultural issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Francis is mindful of this other flock. On March 31, for example, he met with 18 members of the Green family, staunch Southern Baptists and owners of the billion-dollar Hobby Lobby empire that is suing the Obama Administration over the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act. But the pope’s call for economic justice complicates the relationship, because it calls both Catholics and evangelicals to cooperation beyond a narrow band of cultural politics. It remains to be seen whether this evangelical flock will hear in Pope Francis’ broader message the voice of a shepherd they can follow.