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Posted at 08:08 AM ET, 01/17/2012

Rick Santorum endorsement: An evangelical-Catholic truce or marriage of convenience?

Never mind the same-sex marriage debate. If ever a union raised questions, it’s the one between evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics. What once triggered accusations of pipelines to the Papacy has settled into an argument over which Catholic can best represent the anybody-but-Romney slate.

What has changed? Are evangelicals more accepting; has Catholicism become more conservative; do evangelical groups distrust
Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, left, leaves the Faith and Freedom Coalition rally with his wife, Karen, on Jan. 16, in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (David Goldman - AP)
Mormons more than Catholics? All of the above?

After evangelical leaders met in Texas to endorse a suitable GOP presidential hopeful, one to challenge prohibitive favorite Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum got the nod over Newt Gingrich. A lifelong Catholic who speaks openly and fervently about his religious views beat the Catholic convert, and both came out ahead of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the evangelical Christian in the running. (Second-place finisher Gingrich’s supporters quibble with the vote, but Gingrich is disputing quite a bit as he fights for a win in the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21.)

So, on Santorum’s side, count Gary Bauer, the president of American Values, a conservative Christian advocacy group, and Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, while backing Gingrich are California pastor Jim Garlow and Don Wildmon of the American Family Association.

Given American history, you have to ask, “What gives”? It was in Texas – Houston in 1960 – that Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy pledged to skeptical Protestant pastors, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” in order to squeak by Richard Nixon.

Despite the overwhelming praise for Kennedy’s nuanced speech, many Protestant leaders remained unconvinced and were sure that the Vatican would be pulling Kennedy’s strings on foreign and domestic policies. Though many non-Catholic leaders of the time cautioned against any discrimination based on religion, some of the respected forefathers of Perkins and Wildmon — Norman Vincent Peale among them — warned that a Catholic president would change “our culture.”

Today, similar fears about changes in “American” culture surface. But evangelical leaders have spent years working with Catholics on the abortion issue, among others, and Republican outreach to Catholic voters has given Catholic and evangelical leaders plenty of opportunities to get to know and trust one another.

Republican voters have flirted with a list of candidates, in search of perfection and not finding it. Evangelicals spent months doing that, too. But if they remain unsatisfied, it’s with the realization that their voices don’t matter as much as they did in the past.

Conservative Catholic politicians have long forgotten Kennedy-era snubs, realizing the gains to be had in the here and now. Both groups look to political allies where they find them. Evangelicals have found them within a Catholicism that is itself divided, not by basic belief but by emphasis.

Social-justice Catholics – and as a lifelong Catholic, I would place my beliefs in that category – prioritize commitment to justice and the common good; social conservatives hold opposition to abortion and gay marriage paramount as the ways to best strengthen the family.

The debate about how one chooses to practice any faith – or not – is public. While many still see the separation as benefit for both church and state, Santorum has said he judges Kennedy’s speech and his sentiments “appalling,” and he hopes South Carolina voters agree.

When the divide is not just over religious doctrine but also the role of faith itself in government, the alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants isn’t puzzling at all. It makes perfect sense.

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.

By  |  08:08 AM ET, 01/17/2012

 
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