The June 30, 2014 Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision, a decision legalizing religious discrimination, signals a new reality in American religious life: the Roman Catholic Church, long the single largest religious group in America but less influential than Protestantism, has supplanted Protestant evangelicalism as the nation’s dominant expression of faith.
American evangelical Protestant Christianity, largely shunned by the millennial generation, is rapidly fading. Even the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America, has now experienced an unprecedented seven straight years of decline. While the traditionally conservative, evangelical Christian Right remains powerful and visible by virtue of its alliance with the Republican Party, the movement’s Christian nationalist agenda has not staunched the attendance decline in evangelical churches.
Meanwhile, amidst a decade of Protestant evangelical struggles, the Roman Catholic Church slowly, persistently and strategically has grown in stature and importance in American religious life.
The rise of the Catholic Church has not been without friction. As late as 2000, Southern Baptist’s Al Mohler proclaimed on CNN’s Larry King Live that the Roman Catholic Church and the office of the pope are false and unbiblical. The same year, the Vatican reaffirmed that non-Roman Catholic churches are not true churches.
Despite mutually animosity, however, Protestant evangelicals and Roman Catholics shared a common enemy: an increasingly sexually-lenient American culture and society. Evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church were in virtual lockstep in their opposition to divorce, abortion, sex outside of marriage, and homosexuality–issues of which sexuality was front and center. As the 2000’s progressed, evangelicals found it hard to ignore the sex-related commonalities they shared with the Roman Catholic Church. Meanwhile, both evangelicals and the RCC looked to the Republican Party as the vehicle for defeating Democrats and forcing their sexual theology upon American culture and society.
Gradually admitting that working together would yield better results, evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church began putting aside theological differences in order to influence sex in America. The working relationship that developed resulted in a 2009 document entitled, The Manhattan Declaration. Although the 150 authors were primarily prominent evangelicals (ministers and politicians), 50 sitting Roman Catholic bishops, archbishops and cardinals also signed the document.
The 2009 Manhattan Declaration was sexually saturated: billed as a pro-family, pro-life statement, the document declared opposition to abortion, divorce, sex apart from marriage, homosexuality and other sexually-related themes. Finally, the declaration served notice that the newly-expanded Christian Right community would fight for their sexual agenda under the monikor of “freedom of religion”–freedom for themselves, that is, against views they deemed heretical. The statement’s website even now quotes from Pope John Paul II, a conservative pope who followed Vatican teaching in not allowing Catholic individuals freedom of religion in terms of sexuality, including the use of contraceptives.
By the time of the Manhattan Declaration, the essential ingredients were in place to allow the beginning of a shifting of religious influence in America from evangelicals to the Roman Catholic Church, with opposition to contraception serving as a foundational element in the war against sex.
One significant constituency, however, was strangely missing from this alliance: Roman Catholic women. Not only were women missing from the signatories of the Manhattan Declaration–due to the fact that the Roman Catholic Church forbids women from serving as clerics–but surveys had repeatedly shown that as many as 95-98% of Roman Catholic women of child-bearing age use contraceptives. Roman Catholic women, in short (apart from nuns), soundly rejected the Vatican’s teaching on sexuality, paying little to no attention to the edicts of the male leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. In the oddest of ironies, evangelical women were more receptive of the Vatican’s sex edicts that were Roman Catholic women.
Lay opposition to Roman Catholic teachings on sexuality was publicly recognized by the Vatican in 2013. The Vatican conceded that “a vast majority” of Catholics “reject” church teaching on sex and contraception, viewing church dogma as “an encroachment on the autonomy of conscience.”
The acknowledged lack of support from Catholic laity notwithstanding, the Roman Catholic Church, now allied with conservative evangelical Protestants, remains committed to forcing the Vatican’s sexual agenda upon seemingly all of America. Five men have enabled them to do so. Their names are Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas–all conservative Roman Catholics, and all serving on the United States Supreme Court. Appointed by Republican presidents, the five men provide the Roman Catholic Church–and by extension America’s Christian Right–a majority on the nation’s highest court.
On June 30, 2014 the Supreme Court’s conservative, male, Roman Catholic majority did exactly what the Vatican wanted by legalizing religious discrimination against those who disagree with Roman Catholic sexual dogma, while moving contraception front and center in the cultural, social and political debate over sexuality. In the Hobby Lobby decision, the new and radical doctrine of corporate personhood proved to be the vehicle for establishing judicial favoritism and privilege for Roman Catholic contraceptive doctrine.
Standing up in defense of the triumph of Vatican sexuality were Southern Baptist leaders who, forsaking their own faith heritage of church state separation and religious liberty for all and twisting religious liberty to mean religious privilege and favoritism for conservative Protestants and Catholics, celebrated the advent of formal religious discrimination in America.
The Christian Right, now led by Roman Catholics and their evangelical Protestant allies, is jubilant over having circumvented the Baptist-inspired church state separation enshrined in the First Amendment, and in having cracked open the door for business owners to religiously discriminate against their employees in any number of ways.
America has now entered a new era in which Vatican sexuality trumps freedom of conscience, civil rights and religious liberties of those who disagree. Business owners, the powerful and privileged, now have a license to force their religion upon workers, and are eagerly queuing up to do so. The First Amendment is in shambles. Roman Catholic women are left out in the cold. And shamefully, many Baptists, no longer remembering their heritage, are gleeful.
Fortunately, future Supreme Court decisions could undue this travesty. And faithful Baptists can serve as light and leaven during these troubling times by calling for America to return to her founding principles of church state separation and religious liberty equally for all.