Q: My grandmother used to tell us that in the town where she grew up, people had to pay to go to one of the churches. How does that make sense?

A: My hunch is that your grandmother's hometown had a church of the refined Protestant variety, like Episcopal or Presbyterian, that levied a rental on the pew you sat in. If it wasn't called pay-per-pew, then it should have been.

Here you had a blending of Christianity and the principle of private property--hardly an unusual alliance in the history of the faith, but in this case a particularly vivid one. Like opera patrons, prominent families put up hard cash for the right to occupy a spot. Not all space was so reserved, making free access possible for the rabble, but the choice seats, in terms of visibility and confirmation of social and economic status, were clustered around the front. Trespassers could be escorted out.

This was not a place for those who were ignorant of the Social Register. Most churches gave up pew rents long ago. Some of these congregations have declined so much that these days, they might actually pay people to occupy some of those empty spaces.

One remnant of that white-glove tradition: A tasteful Manhattan Episcopal parish that only recently abandoned pew rents harbors a delicious legend. As the story goes, Mark Twain once entered the church, wandered down the aisle, and took a seat in an empty pew. When the occupant of that pew arrived, the family crowded in with Twain. Soon Twain received a note from the head of the household. "Do you know how much I paid for this pew?" the man had written, with the figure in bold numbers. "You paid too damned much," Twain shot back.

Q: How come some people think one kind of Christianity is better than another? I was raised Roman Catholic, and my girlfriend is an evangelical Protestant. I consider myself a born-again Christian. To me, both of our religions are equally Christian, but not everyone I know agrees.

A: You couldn't put together any two traditions more sure of their approaches to salvation. Two heavyweights full of self-confidence.

Until recently, Catholicism referred to itself boldly as the "one true church." Since the Second Vatican Council, the church has acknowledged that other churches have at least a piece of the truth, if falling short of the whole package. Evangelicals have been no slouches either. There is an air of certainty about an approach that stresses One Way Through Christ. Other Protestants look confused by comparison.

Each of these Christian movements has something the other needs. Catholics embrace a rich practice of the sacraments that evangelicals generally lack. Evangelicals espouse a Bible-centered life and personal commitment to Christ that Catholics could benefit from.

So far as I'm concerned, both are Christian, and both, sometimes grudgingly, admit that the other is authentic, at least to some degree.

The term "born again" comes from the Bible; to be born again means to be converted--to have faith turn your life around. For evangelicals, it indicates a highly personal encounter with Jesus Christ, a reliance on the Bible, and a desire to convert others.

Catholicism is more communal and less individual, relying as much on sacraments as on Scripture to receive the grace that builds faith. So Catholics don't much use the term, though nothing in Catholicism opposes personal conversion.

But I hear a note of doubt in your question--perhaps a lingering notion from your Catholic background that suggests you shouldn't leave that fold to join a born-again-style church that's Protestant evangelical. You need not, of course. Take your time to sort these things out, and trust that they will, as long as you're honest and open.

Q: I heard a quote from Abe Lincoln where he said God must have loved the common people because He made so many of them. How'd he figure that? So many like me are either starving to death or have no decent place to live or no health plan.

A: Of course, the colossal Abe was, among other things, a kidder, and you couldn't always be sure he wasn't pulling your leg. And he was, beneath that far-removed look, a danged smart politician.

Saying something like God Almighty loves voters like you (leaving unsaid the implication that He would be mighty pleased if you voted for Honest Abe) sure sounds like good politics, whether it was intended that way or not. It beats multimillion-dollar ad campaigns by sleazeball candidates that basically beg us to hate their opponents.

In Abe's day, there were several billion fewer common folk than there are today, so, in actual numbers, there are more of them who live in deplorable conditions now than there were back then.

Lincoln no doubt had in mind the sturdy stock that made things tick in his day--legendary yeomen of the plains, one-room schoolmarms, blacksmiths, cobblers, mill hands, and the like. He was an idealist and a romantic who saw the potential of democracy resting on the promise of equal worth. It was to him, and to many before and after, a promise that could come only from God and be expressed through Everyman and Everywoman.

Lincoln was also tapping into a conviction that arises in the New Testament, that God cares especially for the poor and that the poor are more likely to speak God's wisdom than are those on top of society's ladder.

That is not to say that poverty is a blessed state. Deprivation results largely from choices that societies make on how to treat the least fortunate. Nobody must go hungry or homeless or untreated. We can provide the necessities if we want to. It doesn't lessen God's love for poor people to give them bread. I think Abe's huge heart understood that well.

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