Back in 1994, a group of conservative theologians and religious leaders met to produce a statement about the common beliefs and responsibilities of Christians in America. Signed by the not typically ecumenical Pat Robertson, Chuck Colson, and Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, the statement was called "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." The title seemed a clear sign that one of the oldest antagonisms in American history was headed for the dustbin.

From the time the Puritans first landed in Massachusetts, America has been an essentially Protestant country characterized by a deep suspicion of Catholic theology and political ambition. The chief reason that Catholic and evangelical leaders joined forces in 1994 was a growing belief that in a culture they perceived as opposed to all serious religious faith and morality, they had more in common than not, particularly on such issues as abortion and sexuality.

So what happened? If you have been reading the press accounts of the battles that have raged since Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush spoke at Bob Jones University on February 2, you'd think that the religious condition of America isn't "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," but "Evangelicals and Catholics at Each Other's Throat." Indeed, in the wake of Tuesday's primaries in Virginia, North Dakota, and Washington, this topic was the only thing newspapers wanted to report on.

What happened to "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" was politics--the typically destructive politics of presidential primaries, combined with a uniquely self-destructive Republican ability to let political backwaters swell into damaging floods. In the long run, the interests of Catholics and evangelicals are probably too close to keep them divided. But in the short run, the political haymaking over Bush's Bob Jones visit started by Bush's Republican opponent John McCain (perhaps in response to evangelical attacks on him), and now gleefully taken up by the Democrats, seems likely to divide Catholics and evangelicals--to the harm of both.

The story began back on February 1, when McCain defeated Bush in New Hampshire. Managing to lure numerous Democrats and independents into marking Republican ballots in the state's "open" (to nonparty members) primary election system, McCain put together a 19-point victory that left Bush's reeling advisers determined to win South Carolina, the next primary, by leaving no stone unturned.

The first stone they turned was Bob Jones University, a small but politically significant ultra-evangelical college in the town of Greenville, South Carolina. Founded in 1927 by a fire-and-brimstone preacher named Bob Jones Sr. (and currently headed by his grandson, Bob Jones III), the school became notorious during the 1970s and '80s when the government decided to withdraw all federal funding from Bob Jones because of its longstanding prohibition against interracial dating. Furthermore, the Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that the dating ban violated federal public policy mandating racial equality and permitted the Internal Revenue Service to revoke Bob Jones' tax-exempt status.

The government's attempt to punish the college by cutting its funding largely backfired. Hardly anyone believed that Bob Jones was actually a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan-style racism. For one thing, a few evangelical blacks actually attend the school. Thus, the result of the federal government's heavy-handedness was to turn this Christian college into a symbol of resistance to what many conservatives perceived as hostility toward religion on the part of Washington bureaucrats and judges.

Back then, the fact that Bob Jones University was anti-Catholic as well seemed almost incidental. The late Bob Jones II was wont to call the Catholic Church "a cult of Satan," and the word "Satanic" still pops up from time to time on the campus Web site in reference to the Church of Rome. But most of Bob Jones' anti-Catholicism seemed to most Catholics as a (more or less) principled assertion of the standard tenets of old-fashioned, hard-line Protestant theology, in which the Catholic Church typically plays the role of the Whore of Babylon.

Thus Bob Jones University became a whistle-stop in the 1990s for conservative candidates of both parties on their way through the South, giving them a chance to blast anti-religious liberals and the bloated Washington bureaucracy. No one ever linked them to anti-Catholicism for doing so. "Ronald Reagan went there; the governor of the state of South Carolina, a Democrat, went there; Jack Kemp went there; Dan Quayle went there; and none of them were criticized for supposedly harboring anti-Catholic views," as Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove, recently observed.

But things have changed in 2000--something that George W. Bush did not seem to realize when he appeared on the Bob Jones campus the day after his New Hampshire defeat to deliver the most strongly conservative speech of his campaign, roaring his support for the return to traditional values and religion. And it worked, bringing out South Carolina's evangelicals in droves to give Bush an 11-point victory on February 19.

Or, rather, it didn't work. McCain used Bob Jones' anti-Catholicism, hitherto ignored by most and forgotten by nearly all, to attack Bush and gain a victory in the Michigan and Arizona primaries the next week. In Michigan especially, McCain operatives called Catholic voters and asserted that Bush had "stayed silent" about Bob Jones' "anti-Catholic bigotry" in order to gain the support of the "Southern fundamentalists" whom McCain has repeatedly denounced since his South Carolina defeat. (McCain first denied, then admitted, approving the calls.)

The damage to Bush has extended well beyond Michigan. Poll results now show that Catholics, once a constituency that Bush could count on, are turning against him. Democrats--particularly Al Gore--have begun to use the Bob Jones issue to mock Republicans in general. On February 27, Bush felt compelled to send an open letter of apology to Cardinal O'Connor, who is America's most prominent Catholic prelate. The letter said, "I should have been more clear in disassociating myself from anti-Catholic sentiments and racial prejudice. It was a missed opportunity causing needless offense, which I deeply regret."

Bill Donohue, the usually slow-to-forgive head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which jumps on nearly all perceived anti-Catholic slurs, has declared that Bush's apology to Cardinal O'Connor was sufficient. There the whole mess ought to end. Indeed, it should never have started. The very existence of documents such as "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" is evidence that antagonism between Catholics and conservative Protestants is rapidly disappearing in America.

But, of course, it won't end there, this being a presidential election year. It is too tempting for Bush's opponents to divide Catholics from the evangelicals who are among some of Bush's strongest supporters by fanning the dying embers of an old American prejudice. For McCain through the rest of the primary season--and for the Democrats in the fall--we can expect the motto to be: The Catholic and evangelical voters whom God has put asunder, let no candidate join together. McCain's manufactured charges of evangelical anti-Catholicism--and the Catholic anti-evangelicalism they are designed to create--probably won't last much longer than the current political season. But they are a sad reminder that the oldest antagonism in American history--a historically Protestant society's suspicion of Catholics--can still wreak political havoc.

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