The coming denominational storm

| Thu Mar. 24, 2005 2:40 PM EST

There's an interesting little article by Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times today on how the Terry Schiavo affair has joined conservative Catholics and evangelicals in a common cause:

The struggle is only the latest indication of a strengthening religious alliance between denominations that were once bitterly divided. Evangelical leaders say they frequently lean on Catholic intellectuals like Robert George at Princeton University and the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the journal First Things, to help them frame political issues theologically.

Read the whole piece, and Goodstein notices an important trend. The days of inter-denominational disputes, at least among conservatives, are very much a thing of the past. As Goodstein reports, the alliances here were forged in the smithy of the "culture wars" over abortion, gay rights, sex, and smut. But left unmentioned in the article is the flip side to all of this: namely, the extent to which these culture war issues are creating fault lines across and within denominations.

Essentially, over the past few decades, religious conservatives of all stripes—Baptists, Jews, Catholics, Lutherans—have begun aligning with each other to spar with their more moderate or progressive co-religionists. A few years ago, for instance, the Jewish Reform movement decided to recognize gay partnerships, earning the wrath of their more Orthodox fellow rabbis. Churches regularly have inter-congregational disputes over these matters, as seen in the Episcopal rift over gay bishops last spring. And Noam Scheiber reported last year for the New Republic on George W. Bush's curious alliance with the Orthodox Jewish community.

Coming back to the Terry Schiavo case, no doubt there is a wide, wide swath of moderate and progressive Catholics and evangelicals among that vast majority of Americans who oppose this whole "culture of life" nonsense. And that split among religious Americans, it seems, could widen in the coming years. Right now, of course, conservative ire is focused on those pesky activist judges and all those godless liberals who supposedly "want" Terry Schiavo dead. But this isn't a secular-religious split; rather, it's a split between religious conservatives of all faiths and everyone else. As usual, the culture wars are not what they seem.