History is full of great quotations that people never said. One of the best lines comes from Vladimir Lenin. He described Russian progressives, social democrats, and other fellow travelers as “useful idiots” – naïve allies in revolution whom the Bolsheviks promptly crushed when they took power.
Or so the legend goes. In fact, there’s no evidence Lenin actually spoke those words, at least in public. But no one seems to care. It’s a compelling line, and in its own way, entirely true. The naïve and imprudent can very easily end up as useful tools in a larger conflict; or to frame it more generously, as useful innocents. The result is usually the same. They’re discarded.
History is also full of unfortunate comments that really were said – as found, for example, in a recent Rome-based journal article that many have already rightly criticized. The article in question, La Civiltà Cattolica’s “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism,” is an exercise in dumbing down and inadequately presenting the nature of Catholic/evangelical cooperation on religious freedom and other key issues.
Catholics and other Christians who see themselves as progressive tend to be wary of the religious liberty debate. Some distrust it as a smokescreen for conservative politics. Some see it as a distraction from other urgent issues. Some are made uneasy by the cooperation of many Catholics and evangelicals, as well as Mormons and many Orthodox, to push back against abortion on demand, to defend marriage and the family, and to resist LGBT efforts to weaken religious freedom protections through coercive SOGI (sexual orientation/gender identity) “anti-discrimination” laws.
But working for religious freedom has never precluded service to the poor. The opposite is true. In America, the liberty of religious communities has always been a seedbed of social action and ministry to those in need.
The divide between Catholic and other faith communities has often run deep. Only real and present danger could draw them together. The cooperation of Catholics and evangelicals was quite rare when I was a young priest. Their current mutual aid, the ecumenism that seems to so worry La Civilta Cattolica, is a function of shared concerns and principles, not ambition for political power.
As an evangelical friend once said, the whole idea of Baptist faith cuts against the integration of Church and state. Foreign observers who want to criticize the United States and its religious landscape – and yes, there’s always plenty to criticize — should note that fact. It’s rather basic.
Dismissing today’s attacks on religious liberty as a “narrative of fear” — as the La Civiltà Cattolica author curiously describes it — might have made some sense 25 years ago. Now it sounds willfully ignorant. It also ignores the fact that America’s culture wars weren’t wanted, and weren’t started, by people faithful to constant Christian belief.
So it’s an especially odd kind of surprise when believers are attacked by their co-religionists merely for fighting for what their Churches have always held to be true.
Earlier this month, one of the main architects and financiers of today’s LGBT activism said publicly what should have been obvious all along: The goal of at least some gay activism is not simply to assure equality for the same-sex attracted, but to “punish the wicked” – in other words, to punish those who oppose the LGBT cultural agenda.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out whom that might include. Today’s conflicts over sexual freedom and identity involve an almost perfect inversion of what we once meant by right and wrong.
Catholics are called to treat all persons with charity and justice. That includes those who hate what we believe. It demands a conversion of heart. It demands patience, courage and humility. We need to shed any self-righteousness. But charity and justice can’t be severed from truth. For Christians, Scripture is the Word of God, the revelation of God’s truth – and there’s no way to soften or detour around the substance of Romans 1:18-32, or any of the other biblical calls to sexual integrity and virtuous conduct.
Trying to do so demeans what Christians have always claimed to believe. It reduces us to useful tools of those who would smother the faith that so many other Christians have suffered, and are now suffering, to fully witness.
This is why groups that fight for religious liberty in our courts, legislatures, and in the public square – distinguished groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom and Becket (formerly the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty) – are heroes, not “haters.”
And if their efforts draw Catholics, evangelicals and other people of good will together in common cause, we should thank God for the unity it brings.