Save me, Jesus!
Getting along with your born-again neighbor
HE OWNS THE SPRINGFIELD LEFTORIUM, a store that sells left-handed products at the mall. Although 60 years old, he looks young and buff for his age and, as a widowed father, is particularly devoted to his young sons, Rod and Todd. Some say his constant references to everything as "okily dokily" is annoying, others call it a charming eccentricity.
But beyond these traits, Ned Flanders is perhaps the nation's most well-known evangelical, as every week (and daily, through television reruns) he drives Homer Simpson, his oafish neighbor on The Simpsons, into mad rages in response to his good nature and strong Christian faith.
Ned is, of course, literally a cartoon character, a stereotype of evangelicals. Still, his persona is embraced by clubs of college evangelicals in the United States and evangelical Christians in Britain who have gathered at mini-festivals in his honor. One of Ned's fans is Rowan Williams, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury.
As American evangelicals assert themselves in the public square—they have been credited (or blamed) for exerting political control over the White House and Congress—the genial, apolitical Ned has become someone with whom nearly everyone can identify. The question for those of us who are not evangelical is how do we respond to the Flanderses in our midst, whether across the backyard fence or in the workplace?
Evangelical Christians number an estimated 60 million in the United States, although others say that evangelicals who are actively involved in their faith roughly equal the number of active Catholics at 25 to 28 million. And they are as diverse as Catholics. There are social justice-minded evangelicals who tirelessly support programs to assist the poor, like the Sojourners community based in Washington. There are
African American groups, led by dynamic preachers such as T.?D. Jakes. There are the "establishment" evangelicals, such as the Rev. Billy Graham. And there are the religious right of the Christian Coalition and Pat Robertson, politically-minded partisans. They also include "megachurches"—large, nondenominational congregations such as Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago.
Getting to know them
The evangelical movement has a long and complicated history in America. Well before it was identified with the religious right, it led movements for abolition of slavery and the rights of women, although it's hard to imagine most evangelicals today in the forefront of the women's movement.
The very definition of evangelical poses problems. The Encyclopedia of Religion and Society (AltaMira) says that evangelicals are essentially nondenominational Protestants steeped in the Puritan-Calvinist tradition. They focus on bare essentials of faith. They are noninstitutional and nonhierarchical (a quality that makes them look aghast at Catholics). They tend toward an exclusionary theology, meaning they believe that only through Christ can people find God and salvation. (When polls indicate that a growing number of evangelicals believe that their non-Christian neighbors can achieve salvation, it's no wonder that some traditionalists are troubled.) So a zealous evangelical believes he is simply doing you a favor when he proselytizes.
Evangelicals tend to rely solely on the authority of scripture, but how that is defined is often cause for serious argument. There is no pope to appeal to on arguments about doctrine. Evangelicals can be part of independent congregations or larger denominations such as the Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, or Methodists.
Some are biblical fundamentalists, others are not. (Arguments about biblical inerrancy in evangelical circles can become vicious.) They are united in the belief that Christianity requires a conversion to Christ in a personal, heartfelt way. They believe—unlike Catholics, who often refer to a 2,000-year-old tradition and church teaching—that the Bible provides the sole legitimate guidance on doctrine and other concerns. An evangelical service routinely focuses on preaching the Word and songs of praise, rarely on the Eucharist. They believe that salvation comes from a personal belief in Jesus as Savior.
Knowledgeable Catholics, often a target for zealous evangelicals who frequently see the church's tradition as overly stuffy, nonscriptural, and not conversion-oriented, find the fuming Homer Simpson approach doesn't work very well with aggressive evangelicals.
Mary Pat Campbell of Queens, New York says knowing about one's own Catholic faith helps. She finds it necessary to have some knowledge of old Reformation arguments. "We don't still sell indulgences," she says, pointing out an old canard often raised by evangelical proselytizers.
When Time magazine published its "Top 50" American evangelical leaders last year, a surprise lurked in the list.
Among those evangelicals was Father Richard John Neuhaus, a writer, political activist, and Catholic priest. It was an indication of how traditional Catholics and evangelicals have transformed the nation's political landscape.
Four decades after Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy was forced to ward off attacks from evangelical Christians that he was in the pocket of the Vatican, Catholic presidential candidate John Kerry had to answer evangelical arguments that he wasn't more supportive of Catholic teachings on issues such as abortion.
Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, consciously crafted a strategy bringing evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics into a winning political coalition. That coalition has taken credit—or blame—for capturing the executive branch and for the Republican takeover of Congress. The Supreme Court now has five Catholics, all appointed by Republican presidents.
Neuhaus, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and editor of the conservative journal First Things, helped craft this coalition with his friend, evangelical preacher and former Nixon aide Chuck Colson. In 1994 they pulled together a group that wrote Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a kind of Magna Carta for how traditional Catholics and conservative evangelicals can work together on issues such as abortion, gay rights, and other cultural concerns.
Franklin Foer, writing in The New Republic, notes that in this coalition, "evangelicals supply the political energy, Catholics the intellectual heft." The Catholic natural law tradition, he notes, provides a framework that allows conservative evangelicals the "rhetoric that relies more heavily on morality than on biblical quotations." Conservative Catholic judges, he noted, have risen up the ranks through this approach.
It's not uncommon for politicians from evangelical backgrounds—including President Bush—to recite Catholic social teaching jargon, such as Pope John Paul II's "culture of life" and Vatican II's references to "the common good." Bill Donohue, the firebrand leader of the Catholic League, was a featured speaker at two "Justice Sunday" events held at evangelical megachurches and broadcast around the country to lobby for Supreme Court appointments favorable to overturning legal abortion and laws protecting gay rights. The Catholic League frequently joins in alliances with evangelical groups, such as a recent flap when retail giant Wal-Mart agreed to replace "holidays" with "Christmas" in its promotions.
Neuhaus says that evangelicals and traditional Catholics differ on theology but share a common stance in the nation's culture wars. Many evangelicals are attacked, he says, for maintaining that there is objective right and wrong, particularly in the area of sexual behavior. "Most people want to do what they want to do," he says. "We live in a libertine and licentious culture, all in the name of freedom."—Peter Feuerherd
A lawyer from Ohio who wants to remain anonymous to maintain family peace has had religious clashes with an evangelical brother-in-law.
"It comes across as a bit of an affront to hear that someone is praying you will find Christ," he says, noting that the rest of his Catholic family will not discuss religion with his brother-in-law, who is quick to hand out tracts and argue that the church fosters idol worship in its devotion to Mary and the saints.
The attorney has taken their religious argument to e-mail and away from the family get-togethers. The end result: a respectful impasse, the attorney believing that the friendly Jesus promoted by most evangelicals is largely uninspiring and his brother-in-law believing that salvation cannot be found in the Catholic Church.
These day-to-day encounters in the United States reflect a universal concern. The Catholic Church continues a worldwide struggle with evangelicals, tempered in some cases with alliances on cultural issues such as sexual morality and abortion.
Pope Benedict XVI has disparaged what he describes as "sects," which most knowledgeable observers note is a reference to the growth of evangelicalism in what used to be a monolithically Catholic Latin America. Just weeks after he was elected pope, a million evangelicals participated in a massive street festival in Brazil, a nation long thought of as securely in the Catholic column.
If evangelicals were content to keep their beliefs to themselves, they would be a mild curiosity among nonevangelicals. But an essential evangelical element—based upon Jesus' teachings—is that the gospel should go out to all the world, even when that is uncomfortable, annoying, or embarrassing. For some evangelicals, it is legitimate to proselytize among Catholics and other Christians who don't share their doctrinal beliefs.
One nonevangelical sometimes taken aback by evangelical proselytizing is Rick Zimmer of Anchorage, Alaska, a commercial airline pilot who is often on the receiving end of religious discussions instigated at work by coworkers with evangelical outlooks.
"I frequently fly with guys who pull out their Bibles and spend their free hours highlighting the significant passages," he says.
Zimmer, a Unitarian who was raised Catholic, occasionally enjoys a good religion argument. All in all, he's gained respect for evangelical faith, although he sometimes wonders if that same respect is accorded his beliefs.
"I've met people who were evangelical Christian who just radiated happiness and contentment. In truth, I don't want to win my arguments with those guys and unmoor them from the rock they have based their life on. I would feel terrible. I really don't care what they believe, but I find their certainty and those intolerant of other faiths to be annoying and dangerous and I cannot understand it," he says.
Love 'em or hate 'em
Those with a more devout Catholic background find that aggressive evangelicals can cause them to explore their own faith more deeply.
"I definitely like them," says Rich Leonardi, a writer from Cincinnati, Ohio. "As opposed to many if not most Catholics, evangelicals keep Christ central to their family lives. I recall one evangelical coworker telling me how much he and his young son enjoyed spending Christmas Eve participating in a 'Meals on Wheels' program his community sponsored. He was clearly witnessing but also clearly happy to share his story."
Catholics who encounter evangelicals need to have more than a passing familiarity with the Bible, says Leonardi. They also should not be afraid to be publicly pious.
At first many evangelical acquaintances are dismissive when they discover he is a Catholic, "but once they learn that at least a few of these ritualistic Catholics actually read the Bible and can say the word Jesus without looking embarrassed, they give the matter additional consideration," he says.
Others prefer the more combative Homer Simpson-type approach.
Larry, a Queens, New York electrician, regularly encounters a proselytizing evangelical at his job. A self-described "very reformed" Jew married to a Catholic, Larry has allied with his Jewish and Catholic coworkers to create a combative, religiously-charged atmosphere. The proselytizing evangelical has created resentment on the worksite. (That's why Larry wants to be known only by his first name here).
According to Larry's evangelical colleague, Catholic people aren't quite religious enough, and Jews won't even have a chance to get to heaven. Larry and his coworkers will deliberately rile up their evangelical coworker for earlymorning coffee amusement.
"We occasionally make believe to get him all intense," he says, noting that they ask him loaded theological questions such as why God allows deadly hurricanes. His evangelical colleague doesn't understand that they are joking. "Like toothpaste out of the tube, you can't shut him up," says Larry.
Bridging the divide
Few Catholic clergy have as much experience in dealing with evangelicals as Glenmary Father John Rausch, coordinator of the Peace and Justice Office for the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky. Rausch is a member of a religious community devoted to Catholic ministry in the Bible Belt. He believes there is a third way between downgrading evangelical beliefs and high-toned theological discussions with them.
Many Catholics, he says, need to get used to evangelical language and tone. They use phrases such as "Praise God" regularly and ask, "Are you saved?" with the world easily divided between those who can say yes to that question and everyone else.
When asked if he is saved, Father Rausch responds: "We Catholics really don't use that phrase. We feel that we constantly grow in our devotion to God. For us, conversion is a step, rather than a one-time moment."
His advice to Catholics, and others dealing with evangelicals, is something he learned from tennis: "Never slug with a slugger." In other words, there is little use in getting involved in large theological discussions, particularly those based on rote recitations of biblical passages. The Catholic tradition, which combines faith in the scriptures, tradition, and human reason, is at variance with a zealous evangelical view that relies on scripture alone, he says.
When it comes to arguing scriptural "proof texts," says Rausch, "Catholics will be at a loss." But that doesn't mean that Catholics and evangelicals can't talk and work together, he emphasizes.
Evangelical leaders such as Sojourners' Jim Wallis and Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life (Zondervan), are now rediscovering that tradition's social gospel, galvanizing the movement to become concerned about poverty in America and overseas. (Warren has worked with social justice activist and Irish rock star Bono on African relief issues). Consensus is growing among Christians of all stripes, says Rausch, that the gospels clearly indicate that Jesus stood with the poor and that that is the obligation of all his followers. Evangelicals and Catholics, he says, can find common ground through "works of charity and works of justice."
The Rev. Sean Quinlan, youth minister at Calvary Baptist Church in New York, says his own Irish Catholic background continues to shape his evangelical Christian beliefs.
Quinlan knows—he's felt it in his own family—that Catholics can be uncomfortable around evangelicals who believe the only ones who can be called Christians are those who have undergone a born-again experience.
He uses the metaphor of marriage to explain the born-again experience to nonevangelicals. "If you say you are married, you are. It happens when you go to the altar and say, 'I do,' " he says. Evangelicals believe in that personal experience of an adult faith galvanized by a commitment to follow Jesus. "It's more than just anyone going to a house of worship that's not a synagogue or a mosque," says Quinlan.
In true evangelical fashion, he is quite particular about his own conversion. It has a date, Oct. 24, 1979, when he made his own altar call. But the roots of that call, he says, go back to his own Catholic upbringing.
As a little boy, he recalls, a nun at St. Anne's School in Garden City, New York had her second graders close their eyes and imagine themselves at Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified. Quinlan remembers it as an intense religious experience, surpassing his own participation in the sacraments and other religious observances.
"She painted the picture," he recalls. "She said, 'He's done this for you.' She made it personal."
Quinlan still considers himself shaped in many ways by his background and credits the Catholic Church for its ongoing and strong stand against abortion. He reflects a growing political/cultural consensus between evangelicals and conservative Catholics (see sidebar). During the arguments in the early '90s over a public school curriculum in New York City's public schools that included a positive discussion of homosexuality, Quinlan joined a coalition that brought together evangelicals and Catholics and successfully opposed it.
"They were like my uncles," he says about much of the leadership of the coalition. While evangelical pastors were in the forefront, they were joined by Catholics imbued with a traditional sense of morality. That cultural reticence about what is appropriate in sexual matters creates a deep bond between tradition-minded Catholics and evangelicals, particularly those like Quinlan who have lived in both worlds.
Getting along with Ned
But without this connection through social action, if there is a Ned Flanders lurking behind the backyard fence or in the next cubicle, it can still be awkward for Catholics unsure of the theological minefields they can encounter with evangelicals.
Catholics sympathetic to evangelical devotion to scripture and the seriousness of their faith point out that perhaps Ned Flanders—and his evangelical friends—are not so bad after all.
"That dear old Ned is being portrayed here as some kind of villain is terribly unfair to him. His bubbly optimism and consistent Christian forgiveness make him one of the most admirable characters on television. Hasn't he suffered enough, with the tragic death of his wife and the numerous indignities that Homer and his son have visited upon him?" says Simpsons fan Father Brian Stanley, pastor of St. Charles Church in Coldwater, Michigan.
Some devout Catholics argue that it's widespread secularism, not Ned Flanders, that provides the greatest challenge to faithful people. Noted one California Catholic: "Maybe it's because I'm out in Los Angeles where coming across an openly committed Christian is an anomaly itself—not saying there aren't many good Christians out here, just you tend to come across many more bitter, angry secularists. All the evangelicals I've met out here realize there are many good Catholics."
Still, there are some who, like Homer, prefer their religion in tidy one-hour Sunday segments and who are wary of those who bring Jesus to the public square. As in one episode, when Ned brings his neighbor doughnuts from the church, Homer responds testily: "It's always gotta be about church with you, doesn't it? Flanders, for the last time, I am not interested in your evangelical doughnuts." It is the only time Homer turns down his favorite food.
Perhaps it is an indication that the world could use an attitude adjustment on both sides of the Homer/Flanders divide. Evangelicals could learn to appreciate the value of tolerance and pluralism, while the rest of us could grow in appreciation of a segment of our culture that takes Christianity seriously. It wouldn't kill anyone to partake in an occasional evangelical doughnut—eaten, of course, in moderation.
Peter Feuerherd is a New York-based freelance writer and author of Holy Land U.S.A.: A Catholic Ride Through America's Evangelical Landscape (Crossroad), to be published this fall. This article appeared in the May 2006 (Volume 71, Number 5; pages 12-17 issue of U.S. Catholic.All active news articles