“A Bad Catholic, or a Good Protestant?”

“It would be better for you to marry a black Catholic than a white Protestant.” So in 1950, provocatively bucking the racial rules of the time, did an old Ursuline nun instruct shocked female students at Notre Dame convent high school in Manhattan. Her remark generated even more shock among the parents. Few of them felt that miscegenation was what they meant by Catholicism, and they made it known – one particularly influential father demanded, in effect, the offending Ursuline’s wimpled head. Such was the contretemps in that otherwise staid precinct that at least one of the students, my own mother, remembered it – and the lesson it taught – for the rest of her life.

What’s interesting here is not the story’s denouement; the Ursulines simply stood their ground till the storm passed. It’s rather what was going on inside those parents, so recognizable nearly six decades later. Religion was all fine and good in its place; after all, wasn’t that what they were paying the nuns for? But social reality was something else. What could an interracial marriage bring but grief, anyway? Who were these old nuns to suggest that for the sake of marriage and family, religion ought to come first in such a radical way?

I thought of that story often while following Rick Warren’s interviews with our presidential contenders and the subsequent commentary. One star of that show was Warren himself – specifically, his counter-example to the caricature of evangelicals by secularists and progressives. As the respectful treatment of Warren showed, evangelicals continue to get a second look in the secular press these days. Many on the left have been whispering for months that at least some evangelicals might even finally be joining the modern world – i.e., sounding more like Kofi Annan and Bono than Jerry Falwell and Albert Mohler.

Much of that is just wishful thinking blogged large, of course. Nothing could be better news for the Democrats than the implosion of the evangelical voting bloc. Yes, younger evangelicals are greener than older ones, and yes, the Iraq war has changed some from Republicans to independents. But judging by the Pew numbers, especially the enduring ground-zero evangelical opposition to abortion, the truth about any “new politics” is probably not quite what progressives and secularists are hoping. “Less Republican, Still Conservative,” as a 2007 Pew headline summarized, seems more like it.

That’s exactly why the Ursuline and her words keep coming to mind this week. Today nobody, Catholic or otherwise, would make a public fuss about interracial marriage. But that doesn’t mean that putting religion first in marrying raises questions any easier than those in 1950. One way of sharpening the point that I find especially interesting as a mother of teenagers: Which would you rather your son or daughter marry – a bad Catholic, or a good evangelical?

By “good” and “bad” here, I don’t pretend to be peering into souls, simply to distinguish between people who grasp the very ground rules of their religion, and people who don’t. Manifestly, many American Catholics today do not. Some are more ignorant of actual Church teaching in the age of the Internet, than were their ancestors who could not so much as read. As a result, what’s called “Catholicism” now is a cornucopia of beliefs that may not bear much resemblance to the truths of the catechism.

So who is more likely these days to stick closer to the teachings of that book – an evangelical who is not ashamed of Christian beliefs, or a Catholic long schooled in backpedaling on abortion, homosexuality, and divorce? Who is more likely to understand the profound connections between marriage, sexuality, and family – a Catholic raised by parents who taught her to disregard the Church when it’s convenient, as in the matter of birth control; or an evangelical who is wondering – as an increasing number openly are – whether Rome got that one right? Who is more likely to have the spiritual discipline and confidence to resist the especially destructive modern forces of commercialism and pornography – a Catholic used to picking and choosing what he means by the Church, or a Protestant used to asking what Jesus would do?

Many Americans who wear the “cradle” label have in fact rocked themselves far off the reservation of their actual religion. Meanwhile, many other Americans who do not call the Vatican home both walk a lot of the walk and talk a lot of the talk without apology. To some degree it was ever thus, and if the Catholic Church isn’t home to dunderheads and sinners, then nothing is; that’s why we love it so.

But thanks especially to forty years of widespread Catholic disobedience to fundamental teaching – years that have hardened the rebellious hearts and sharpened the rebellious instincts of many people – the divide between the good Protestant and the bad Catholic is starker now in America than ever before.

So what’s it to be for your son or daughter – the bad Catholic, or the good Protestant? I don’t know the answer either. But I’m going to start by asking what that doughty old Ursuline would say now.

Mary Eberstadt

Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute. Her latest book, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, was published by Templeton Press.