Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md.

Meet the 'evangelical' Catholics who are remaking the GOP

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore

Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md. Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) How many voters know that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is a Roman Catholic? Or that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is a Southern Baptist, not a Latino Catholic? Or that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio worships at both a Catholic parish and an evangelical church?

More importantly, does it matter?

Actually, it does in today's Republican Party, where a number of factors have forged a new religious identity that supersedes familiar old categories.

These prominent Republicans are emblematic of the new religious amalgam that, in many instances, has helped refashion denominational differences that were once almost insurmountable. Look no further than the stunning Virginia primary victory of Dave Brat, a Catholic with degrees from a Reformed Protestant college in Michigan and Princeton Theological Seminary, who took down House Majority Leader Eric Cantor last week.

Running in a conservative district in the Richmond suburbs, Brat is described as both a Catholic and Calvinist, labels that would be considered incompatible in almost any realm. He's a champion of a resurgent movement among Catholic intellectuals that seeks to marry Catholic social teaching with free-market economic libertarianism.

Recent presidential elections have elevated several evangelicals, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. But heading into the 2014 midterm elections, several of the Republican Party’s emerging leaders are Catholic, including some who maintain evangelical backgrounds or tendencies.

The challenge for Catholic politicians might be finding the balancing act between a Catholic and an evangelical appeal, said Amy E. Black, a political science professor at Wheaton College in Illinois.

“While the Catholic faith used to be a liability, it might even be an asset now,” Black said. "Evangelicals are a solid voting bloc in the Republican Party, whereas Catholics are likely to be swing voters. Republican presidential candidates know they need to appeal to evangelical voters, and they want to win over as many Catholic voters as they can."

Evangelicals have been relatively predictable in the past few elections, while Catholics have been less so. Although Catholic voters have historically tended to be Democratic, recent elections have shown them to be the ultimate swing vote. They backed Al Gore in 2000 (50 percent), George W. Bush in 2004 (52 percent), Barack Obama in 2008 (54 percent) and again in 2012 (50 percent), according to the Pew Research Center.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, have been much more consistently Republican -- 79 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012, 73 percent for John McCain in 2008 and 79 percent for Bush in 2004.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush addressed the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush addressed the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md.

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The newfound Catholic appeal among the GOP can be seen in the number of high-profile conversions to Rome. Jeb Bush, who comes from a classic blue-blood Episcopal family dynasty, converted to Roman Catholicism years ago. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was raised Hindu but converted to Catholicism. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback converted to Catholicism, but his wife and family still attend evangelical churches. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was a Southern Baptist for most of his life, converted to his third wife’s Roman Catholicism in 2009.

More than 50 years after John F. Kennedy's Catholicism stirred fears that he would be more loyal to the pope than to the people, Catholicism isn't nearly the political liability it once was.

“Growing up, the fact that someone was Catholic would give someone pause,” said veteran GOP strategist Ralph Reed, whose "Road to Majority" conference this week will feature a keynote address from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Catholic. “Now, there are a lot of evangelicals who greatly admired Pope John Paul II and some would look to Pope Francis for leadership.”

What changed? For one, leading Catholics and evangelicals decided they could do more together than working against each other. Twenty years ago, former Nixon aide Charles Colson and the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, founder of the ecumenical magazine First Things, started the group Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and the cross-pollination it promoted is having practical effects.

“The alliance forged in the trenches between evangelical Protestants and faithful Catholics in the struggle to defend human life and marriage has blossomed into much greater than a mere marriage of convenience,” said Princeton University's Robert P. George, the de facto leader of the Catholic intellectual political movement. “What has emerged is a spiritual fellowship that I think was not anticipated at the beginning by anybody.”

Catholics have a lot to learn from evangelicals, George said, pointing to a book by George Weigel, another Catholic intellectual heavyweight at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, arguing for a more evangelical Catholicism.

The challenge, he said, is for Catholic Republicans to speak in authentic ways to a largely evangelical base. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a Catholic, has figured it out, while others, like 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, struggled. “I’m so goofy with that stuff,” Ryan told Buzzfeed after a service where he sang with extended hands. “It’s just not my thing. I’m Catholic!”

“Ryan’s Catholicism runs pretty deep,” said Stephen Schneck, a longtime Democratic activist and professor at the Catholic University of America. “I’m not sure how he squares it with his libertarianism, but I don’t think he really has the same evangelical style as others.”

Like Brat’s surprise win last week in Virginia, Ryan’s rise within the GOP reflects the rise of the Tea Party within the party and a redirected focus among some conservatives from social issues to economics. As the The Washington Post reported, Brat, an economist at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., is part of a bigger movement in recent years of overtly religious economists.

The central challenge for Catholic Republicans, said Wheaton College's Black, is twofold: Not alienating fellow Catholics who say Brat-style economics is anathema to Catholic social teaching, and appealing to the evangelical base in a way that's authentic.

 “Any successful Republican presidential candidate needs to connect with evangelicals,” Black said. “It doesn’t mean a successful candidate has to be an evangelical, but they have to be able to connect with them. They need to be able to talk about their faith in a personal way.”



  1. Religion and politics. The whore and the beast.

  2. Dear Sarah Pulliam Bailey,

    This is a wonderful article. It is a nice primer on religion’s influence on the GOP and the GOP’s influence on religion; all in an effort to leverage power.

    But rather than being ready to lead people
    to a greater country with new technologies and big visions for a better country
    the GOP looks poised to pander to and defend the creationist, anti-science religionistas with their heads and hearts firmly planted in the past.

    The Democrats by comparison seem to have no convincing way to play the religion card. But that may turn out for their benefit in a country which may be showing signs of exhaustion on matters of religion.

  3. So basically the conservative Catholics and the GOP decided it would be easier for them to discriminate against women and gays if they worked together instead of arguing if Jesus literally is a loaf of bread or only symbolically.

  4. As a Catholic I would prefer it if the word “Evangelical” was left to Protestants. I am not from the US, but I know the combination of the two words originated there, and I do not like it.

    Also, Jeb Bush is a Catholic; he is a Latin Rite Catholic.

  5. The term “evangelical catholic” has long been used as a more apt label for Lutheran Christians. Luther thought that Lutheran was a terrible name for people of faith–but it stuck anyway. Lutheran theology has the gospel of grace at its core while at the same time embracing catholic identity and tradition. Remember that Luther wanted to reform the church, not replace it with something different. As evangelical catholics, Lutherans are committed to the faith expressed in the creeds and the historic liturgy of the western church, while at the same time celebrating the evangelical freedom of the gospel.

  6. I was raised Catholic and became involved in Catholic Charismatic Renewal in 1974 at the College of Steubenville, now known as Franciscan University. The synthesis of Roman Catholics and Evangelicals may have several roots, but I am fairly certain that the crossover of Protestant Pentecostalism into Catholicism in 1967 at Duquesne University (creating Catholic Charismatic Renewal) played a major role.

    In the late 60s and early 70s, freshly “baptized in the Holy Spirit” Catholics were trying to reconcile their ‘born again’ experiences with their Catholic faith and so sought out the major leaders of Protestant Charismatic Renewal. The Catholic Church was trying to keep a foothold in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal at the time via Leon Joseph Cardinal Suenens. But they were in part thwarted by the leaders of their own Renewal Movement (Steven B Clark, Ralph Martin, Paul DeCelles and Kevin Ranaghan – all Catholics) and an alliance with the 5 brothers of Christian Growth Ministries out of Ft. Lauderdale, Fl.

    This Council decided to keep it’s meetings and activities “secret.”

    These 9 + other men steered the two Charismatic movements on a parallel course, even attempting to ‘Covenant’ themselves to one another. A brief synopsis of their time together was documented in their, “Meeting Minutes of The Council” which have been documented in several places, including here:

    A notable Catholic involved in this movement has been Deacon Keith Fournier, Editor-In-Chief at Catholic Online. His initial book, “Catholic Evangelicals” (Nelson, 1990) was written as he exited his position at Franciscan University Dean of Student Life and entered the employ of Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law And Justice as it’s initial CEO. He then elaborated on his ideas in the book, “A House United? Evangelicals and Catholics Together: A Winning Alliance for the 21st Century,” (1995)

    Fournier’s personal experience in the melding of Catholic and Protestant lifestyles however is far more revealing. I have documented two of his letters to the Christian Community he ‘pastored’ in the decade of the 80s here:

    John Flaherty
    Grand Island, NE

  7. Agree. Jeb Bush doesn’t belong with this group.

  8. As an Evangelical I would also like the term to be left to Protestants — especially since, from what I can tell, they really mean “evangelistic.” “Evangelical” implies a sola scriptura approach to doctrine, which Catholics do not embrace. “Evangelistic” (as applied to Catholics) would mean trying to retain those born Catholic and getting serious about gaining new members.

  9. I know that Evangelicals can separate politics from faith; just look at how well we supported Romney, despite our prevailing belief that Mormonism is a cult. I think the Catholics can see past religion too. Their problem may be that they’re not really sure if they want to be conservatives.

  10. The only thing Romney proved is that partisan politics are more important to conservatives than sectarian differences. Evangelicals may despise Mormons and Catholics*, but their political stances are nearly identical.

    *I sincerely doubt Catholics and Mormons really pay attention to the hostility thrown their way by other sects at a church level.

  11. Oh, I think everyone pays attention. The Mormons though, you have to hand it to them. If you thrash a pro-Mormon book on Amazon, you won’t see any flame wars from them. And they have been quite long-suffering with all this “Book of Mormon” stuff on Broadway.

  12. Mekka lekka hi mekka hahnee ho,
    Mekka lekka hi mekka CHANNEE ho!

  13. For the last 2 or 3 decades the Catholic Left has been mostly underground. With Francis, they are starting to emerge, bringing with them the insights and energy of Vatican 2. I suspect that they will profoundly add to and influence the American political conversation.

  14. Since the fourth century Christianity has been tied to power and empire. We should stop giving money to churches. Maybe enough to take care of maintenance. Let these preachers work for a living. Right now they are hired hands responding to whoever gives them the most money. Dives has taken over and the poor go away empty

  15. Yes, Jay, false religion (the harlot ) is doomed to fall by way of politics (Revelation 18:1-24), her paramour; and politics (the beast) is doomed to fall by way of God’s kingdom or heavenly government (Daniel 2:44; Revelation 16:16). Then it will be “heaven on earth”….. 😀

  16. I am a liberal Catholic Democrat. Brat’s ”economics” to me are both bad policy and an anathema to Catholic social teaching.

  17. Revelation 16:14 specifies that Armageddon is a war between all the rulers of the earth and God. God will, of course, be the victor!

  18. The LDS has a cordial relationship with the South Park guys. More often than not, Parker and Stone show Mormons in a positive light. Even the play does that.

    They did not condemn Book of Mormon on Broadway in any way, shape or form. They gave a deadpan response which stated that it “would entertain one for an evening”. No protests, no calls for a ban, no “suffering” or even complaints. Just a little wink, nod and a hotlink to their scripture. Evangelicals would never react with such restraint or media-savvy.

    But you see a lot of bile thrown at the Catholic church by various Protestant sects, especially Seven Day Adventists. But the Catholic Church being so much larger, never bothers to even acknowledge the existence of the barbs hurled by them.

  19. Professor Farnsworth: This is my Universal Translator. It could have been my greatest invention, but it translates everything into an incomprehensible dead language

    Cubert Farnsworth: [into the translator’s microphone] Hello.

    Universal Translator: Bonjour!

    Professor Farnsworth: See? Lousy gibberish

  20. Here’s the problem: in a free market there are some “goods” that have negative prices: you have to pay somebody to take them off your hands.

    They’re called pollutants, or externalities, or just plain garbage, and cheap-ass free marketers like to overcharge for them: they life to give them away for nothing — which is waaa-ay higher than the free market price.

    What do we do about this? We enforce real prices. In some places, that is. We have municipal governments take away the garbage, and we have courts that charge for some damages.

    We still aren’t charging people for using the atmosphere as a dumping gound for their CO2, and we’re only half way toward catching people who like to give bad stuff away free by dumping it in the river.

    Who are these people paying for the garbage, and the courts, and trying to get the CO2 and the water pollution under control?

    It’s us, and when we do all that stuff we call ourselves “government.”

    People who are against all government are against all of us — and there’s usually a reason for it: they want to keep on giving their bad goods for free, instead of paying the free market price to take care of it.

    Put differently, when they say they believe in free markets, they’re lying.


  21. Not sure how creationists are anti-science. If you are referring to evolution—evolution isn’t science–its a worldview. But science and religion are compatible. Apparently your worldview and Scripture isn’t.

  22. I know—why don’t we let bitter, God hating atheists have their way on everything in implementing their worldview. Then we can all believe we are beasts of the field and degenerate into as much perversity and violence as we want.

  23. Because in the end, we are nicer than you. 🙂

    We also don’t use ancient myth and legends as an excuse to ignore a century of accumulated scientific knowledge.

  24. @dvd,

    I’m angry yes…
    that you were cheated of an intelligent, decent education thanks to the fearful, scared grown ups in your life.

    You are obviously terrified of science and knowledge and your life will be cheaper for it and your grandchildren will laugh at you because of it – all of this happened to because of religion.

    Religion is garbage. Worse it denies access to truth.

    You should be ashamed to not understand evolution in this age of the Internet.
    Shame on you.

  25. “Brat is described as both a Catholic and Calvinist, labels that would be considered incompatible in almost any realm.”

    That may be the perception but Calvin got much of his doctrine from Augustine, so it really isn’t much of a stretch.

  26. Yep. The vastly bigger but totally ignored issue is, How well and how long can people with totally contradictory gospels *really* get along with each other? Assuming (a big assumption, yeah) they are intellectually honest enough to admit they can’t both be right, and so one or the other of them is destined to the Lake of Fire, I don’t see any such alliance lasting any amount of time. In any case, God will not honor it because it’s based on a denial of His truth.

  27. Thats-a nice-a. I’m making buskeddi for de belli.

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