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October 24, 2013 3:30 PM Will Pope Francis Kill the Christian Right?

By Ed Kilgore

After earlier huzzahs for the new spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, culture-war optimists are beginning to seize on the different direction the Vatican seems to be taking under Pope Francis. Here’s Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins in a piece entitled “How the Pope Could Tear Apart the Religious Right” that’s getting a lot of, well, buzz:

In a series of interviews earlier this year, Pope Francis repeatedly signaled a desire for his flock to disengage from the culture wars — complaining that the church had become “obsessed” with issues like marriage and abortion, actively seeking common ground with atheists, and even appearing to flirt with moral relativism. While the new tone coming out of the Vatican has drawn plaudits from progressives, it has also driven a wedge into the powerful political alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians that’s been instrumental in electing hundreds of Republicans over the past four decades.

Coppins then quotes a series of conservative evangelical Christian Right types complaining about Francis—including, interestingly enough, Russell Moore, who according to other culture-war optimists is leading conservative evangelicals out of the Christian Right.

Now I haven’t been slavishly following Francis’ pronouncements, but it would appear that his many gestures towards change are the religious equivalent of a shift in institutional strategy and tactics rather than doctrine. And while he’s encouraged Catholics to think more broadly and lovingly about the mission of the Church in a broken world, it’s not like he’s excommunicating culture-warriors or telling Right to Life groups to suspend their efforts and instead feed and clothe the poor. The idea that a “liberal” Pope will create an immediate sea-change in American Catholic attitudes is no more compelling than earlier assumptions that conservative Popes could immediately convince their flock in this country to stop taking contraceptives or voting for Democrats.

Coppins does admit that Catholics associated with the Christian Right haven’t struck their tents and gone into hiding:

To be clear, conservative Catholics in the U.S. are not exactly laying down their weapons of culture war and withdrawing from the battle en masse. They believe the secular media have blown the pope’s recent remarks out of proportion, and they note that the church’s doctrine has not changed. Matt Smith, president of the conservative organization Catholic Advocate, said there is nothing new in what Francis has been saying. “It’s hate the sin, love the sinner,” he said. “He’s encouraging folks to make sure that we’re still loving the person. In no shape or form is he endorsing same-sex marriage.”

As for the quotes elicited by Coppins from evangelicals questioning Francis’ theology—does that really matter? Yes, there have in recent years been some signs of the beginnings of actual theological convergence between the Protestant and Catholic Right, at least in this country; this was the great project begun by the late Richard John Neuhaus and the late Charles Colson, among others. But cooperation between right-wing elements in the two faith communities has never been contingent on anything other than a detente in formal theology, and that’s all it requires to continue.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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