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Eyeing gay marriage case, evangelicals and Catholics rally around battling poverty

President Obama waves as he arrives to take part in the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty at Georgetown University in Washington on Tuesday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
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Conservative evangelicals and Catholics are clear on their theological divisions. In recent years, though, they have been coming together increasingly to support one another in a shared cause: fear of the impact of same-sex marriage.

Although it’s unclear what legal — and financial — impact the full legalization of same-sex marriage could have on faith-based groups’ work and on government funding, religious Christian conservatives are worried about things like whether they could lose their tax-exempt status.

Faith-based groups and the government (at all levels) partner extensively on social service issues like homelessness and prison education, among other issues.

This week, Washington saw a high-profile example of another new way conservative evangelicals and Catholics are teaming up in public more — a summit around poverty.

Some conservative leaders say that while they have long worked on poverty, such programs were primarily focused on reducing poverty by supporting traditional marriage and sexual mores. Evangelical and Catholic leaders at the Georgetown University summit discussed the minimum wage, job training and income tax credits, and some leaders said the effort was deliberate.

Many religious leaders like Focus on the Family president Jim Daly are concerned over expected fallout for faith-based institutions if the Supreme Court rules in favor of gay marriage in June.

“Somebody has to lose. Unfortunately, it’s a zero-sum game when it comes to whose rights prevail,” Daly said. “Once that’s decided, we’re going to have to figure out how to behave in the culture.”

Rallying/dividing points

President Obama appealed to religious groups during a panel on Tuesday, asking them to speak in a “forceful fashion.”

[Obama tackles poverty on a panel in front of Catholic and evangelical leaders]

By focusing on poverty, more conservative religious leaders appear willing to bridge a gap with Democrats and progressives, whom they have often been at odds with on culture war issues. But some religious leaders are deeply concerned over how gay rights might impact religious involvement in issues like social services going forward.

For instance, should religious social service agencies be required to place children for adoption with same-sex couples? Catholic Charities in Illinois, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia have closed their adoption units because of same-sex marriage.

“They’re saying faith-based groups, you can participate, but we don’t want to hear from you. We want your manpower, we want your hours and your cash, but don’t bring anything else into the equation,” Daly said.

Leaders of religious institutions, including colleges, hospitals and nonprofits, are waiting to see how the case might affect issues like accreditation, government funding and tax exemption. Organizations have worked on issues related to poverty for the past 50 to 100 years, including Catholic Charities and World Vision, receive government aid for their services, aid that some fear could be challenged under gay rights.

John Inazu of Washington University School of Law noted several possible tensions between gay rights and religious freedom on May 4 at the Faith Angle Forum, a gathering of journalists and academics in Florida.

During oral arguments on April 28, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito asked about the “Bob Jones Question,” referring Bob Jones University in South Carolina whose leaders barred interracial dating or marriage until 2000, costing the university its tax-exempt status in a decision that went to the Supreme Court.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical campus ministry, which has corralled hundreds of thousands of students to work on issues such as poverty, was denied recognition on several California campuses because of it did not sign a nondiscrimination statement.

“Setting aside the overblown rhetoric in all directions, there does seem to be a real difference for the framing of ‘religious liberty and the American culture wars’ when the battle lines move from issues like school prayer and vouchers — or even cake bakers and florists — to questions of whether religious student groups can be on public university campuses, whether religious colleges should be accredited, and whether local school systems should accept volunteer support from churches and ministries,” Inazu said.

Old allies

A coalition between Catholics and evangelicals formed in the 1970s around issues like abortion and saw a resurgence with the emergence of same-sex marriage and stem-cell research in the early 2000s.

With renewed enthusiasm, evangelicals and Catholics have expressed a collective appreciation for Pope Francis’s emphasis on evangelism and his distaste for fancier benefits of the papacy. And they have collaborated on high-profile political issues.

While the U.S. Catholic bishops led the public opposition to a contraception mandate included in President Obama’s health-care law, the evangelical owners of the Hobby Lobby chain took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The bishops also filed an amicus brief in a religious liberty case involving Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church, The annual March for Life has more recently begun to include some non-Catholic speakers. And the two groups have teamed up at the state level to pass abortion restrictions.

The partnerships between Catholics and evangelicals are broader and deeper than they have been before on the issue of poverty, said John Carr, a former top official with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and one of the conveners of this conference.

Groups represented at the Georgetown gathering included groups from Catholic and evangelical camps, including right-leaning Opus Dei and Focus on the Family to left-leaning Nuns on the Bus and Sojourners.

“The range here is unbelievable,” he said. “If you wanted to stereotype the two communities, Catholics have been more open to governmental action, evangelicals have been better at private action.”

Differences to overcome

Evangelicals and Catholics have been historically divided on several theological issues, such as papal infallibility, the veneration of the Virgin Mary, the nature of the sacraments, the doctrine of the church and views of salvation.

“They can teach us the Bible and we can teach them encyclicals,” Carr said jokingly. “Pope Francis is telling us this is the center of ecclesial life, but we don’t act like that, and this will help us act like we believe it.”

But a 2009 Pew Research Center survey, 49 percent of white evangelicals said they view Catholicism as “very” or “somewhat” similar to their own religion. Among Catholics, 60 percent said they view Protestantism as similar to their religion.

However, beyond networking and building relationships, the specifics of how the two groups will work together on poverty was immediately unclear.

For next steps, Carr pointed to the Circle of Protection, a group of more than 100 Christian leaders, which is asking every presidential candidate to give us a three-minute video of his or her plan to lift people out of poverty. Carr says they plan to share the videos with religious congregations connected to the group.

As evangelicals and Catholics represent nearly half of the American population, Harvard University’s Robert Putnam believes the two largest faith communities in America could create real impact.

“I think America can change its mind if these two faith communities represented here seriously put this at the top of their agenda for public witness and put pressure on our national institutions,” Putnam said. “This is not rocket science.”

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