Culture wars

Let's face it: 2016 felt like the start of a cultural civil war, right?

Let's face it: 2016 felt like the start of a cultural civil war, right?

It's been nearly a quarter of a century since foreign correspondent David Aikman wrote a novel about a second American Civil War, with a government led by urban socialists going to war with heartland conservatives.

Alas, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

About a year ago, the bitter events unfolding on cable-TV political news made it rather clear that it was time for a new edition of that post-Cold War thriller, "When the Almond Tree Blossoms."

"No matter who wins … there are people out there who think we are headed toward some kind of civil war," said Aikman, in an interview just before Election Day.

"It's disappointing that our nation really hasn't come to terms with all of its internal problems. Right now, it feels like it would take a miracle -- some kind of divine intervention -- to heal the divisions we see in American life today."

Aikman was born in Surrey, England, and came to America in the 1960s to do a doctorate in Russian and Chinese history, after his studies at Oxford's Worcester College. After contemplating a career in diplomacy -- he speaks German, French, Chinese and Russian -- he moved into journalism and became senior foreign correspondent at Time magazine. Among his many adventures, Aikman witnessed the 1989 massacre in China's Tiananmen Square and introduced readers to a Russian politico named Boris Yeltsin.

Ironically, Aikman wrote "When the Almond Tree Blossoms" -- the title is rebel code drawn from Ecclesiastes -- while preparing to become a naturalized United States citizen in 1993. In the novel, the liberal "People's Movement" -- backed by Russia -- rules the East and West coast power centers, as well as the industrial Midwest. The "Constitutionalists" control most of the Bible Belt and have dug into the Rocky Mountain West. But who will the pragmatic Chinese support?

Jail a new church-state option for bishops?

No one is surprised that the man who will soon lead the Archdiocese of Glascow opposes Scotland's plans to legalize same-sex marriage. Still, Archbishop-designate Philip Tartaglia raised eyebrows with his prediction of dire consequences if he kept defending church teachings on marriage and sex after the legislation went into effect.

"I could see myself going to jail possibly at some point over the next 15 years, if God spares me, if I speak out," the 61-year-old bishop told STV News.

The key, Tartaglia said later, is that the government could crack down on believers who try to publicly defend, or even follow, traditional religious doctrines that clash with doctrines approved by state authorities. "I am deeply concerned that today, defending the traditional meaning of marriage is almost considered 'hate speech' and branded intolerant," he told the Catholic News Agency.

Religious traditionalists in America will soon face similar issues on another issue, depending on what happens in courts. August 1 was the start date for the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including the so-called "morning-after pills." Some religious organizations qualify for a one-year grace period before they must follow the policy or pay steep fines.

The key is that the HHS mandate only recognizes the conscience rights of an employer if it's a nonprofit that has the "inculcation of religious values as its purpose," primarily employs "persons who share its religious tenets" and primarily "serves persons who share its religious tenets." Critics say this means the government is protecting mere "freedom of worship," not the "free exercise of religion" found in the First Amendment.

"Consider Blessed Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity reaching out to the poorest of the poor without regard for their religious affiliation," said Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lorio this June, during the American bishops' Fortnight For Freedom campaign. "The church seeks to affirm the dignity of those we serve not because they are Catholic but because we are Catholic. The faith we profess, including its moral teachings, impels us to reach out -- just as Jesus did -- to those in need and to help build a more just and peaceful society."

Meanwhile, the American bishops and other religious leaders will have to weigh their options, seeking ways to live out their faith convictions to as high a degree as possible while the HHS regulations are enforced. That was the subject addressed in the conservative Catholic journal "Voices" by Julianne Loesch Wiley, a veteran Catholic activist who has worked with a wide variety of causes, including Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, Pax (Peace) Center and "Prolifers for Survival," which opposed abortion and the nuclear arms race. The options include:

* Obey the mandate, while continuing to fight it. Wiley quipped: "I doubt that the American Cancer Society would pay to subsidize monthly cartons of Marlboros for their employees, EVEN UNDER PROTEST."

* Stop offering insurance and pay the resulting fines. This would require ministries to be scaled back or eliminated, while the government gained funds to provide the very services the church considers immoral. This is, she said, another name for "collaboration and submission."

* Avoid the conflict by shutting down, selling off or secularizing church-related hospitals, schools and charities that the government does not consider "religious employers" and, thus, worthy of exemptions. This amounts to "preemptive surrender" and gives the government "effective control of all human services, caring professions and charities."

* Refuse to cooperate, refuse to pay the fines and await "overt, forcible political repression." In other words, prepare for some bishops and their supporters to go to jail. Wiley argued that this is the only "tactically sound," "logically sound" and "morally sound" response. If this results in jail time, then that is a consequence believers in other eras have willing faced, she concluded. "Rejoice and be glad. Historically, prison has always been an excellent pulpit and a school of saints."

It's hard to imagine this standoff reaching such a dramatic conclusion, said Wiley, when asked to look ahead. If deprived of protection by the U.S. courts, it's likely some Catholic institutions will be willing to compromise and, thus, will cut church ties. Others will lose their licenses to operate or will be "broken on the wheel" of financial penalties and further regulations.

But no matter what happens, she said, history shows that something "faithfully Catholic" will survive.

"The smallest living thing," she said, "is more powerful than the most powerful dying thing."

Super Bowl holy wars -- 2011

The ill-fated "Feed Your Flock" ad is, without a doubt, the most famous 30 seconds of video that no one will see during Super Bowl XLV. For the few who didn't catch it online, the ad features a worried pastor -- in a clerical collar -- who has empty pews and too many unpaid bills. Thus, he prays for inspiration and God responds with the sound of crunching chips and fizzing soda.

Soon hungry souls -- Jewish, Amish and Hare Krishna included -- are lining up in church for Doritos and Pepsi MAX in a way that suggests Holy Communion.

The brands are no surprise, since Media Wave Productions of Philadelphia produced "Feed Your Flock" for PepsiCo's annual "Crash the Super Bowl" contest, in which flocks of folks hope to win $1 million if their creation finishes No. 1 in USA Today's Ad Meter rankings. The chips-and-soda communion entry didn't qualify for a Super Bowl airing and has since vanished from YouTube and other sites after waves of protests by Catholics and others.

"It's hard to imagine such an ad being created only a few decades ago," noted Shane Rosenthal of the White Horse Inn weblog. "The trivialization of the sacred in this piece is nothing less than astounding. And that's just it. There isn't anything sacred anymore. Everything's a joke."

This offering, however, wasn't the only attempt at a Super Bowl ad built on religion or politics or both. Controversies of this kind have increased in recent years, with video activists on the cultural right and left doing their share of poking and protesting.

If professional football has become a form of religion, then it isn't surprising that America's Christmas Wars over faith in the public square are now followed by Super Bowl Culture Wars in the marketplace.

This year, "Feed Your Flock" wasn't even the only "Crash the Super Bowl" entry that used a dash of sacrilege. In "Party Crashers," another entry now on YouTube, God and Jesus make a scene at a party by eating all the Doritos. They are asked to leave and, with a snap, Jesus miraculously refills the empty snack bag. "Let's go, Dad," he says.

Several other ads rejected by the Fox Sports Media Group this year featured religious and political content that was too hot to be allowed into the Super Bowl ad wars with the heavyweights like Bud Light, GoDaddy.com and Snickers.

* In one, two curious football fans turn to the Bible after spotting "John 3:16" written in the black patches under a star player's eyes. The network said the Fixed Point Foundation video contained too much "religious doctrine."

* Self-proclaimed "conservative comedian" Richard Belfry also failed in an attempt to air a commercial for his "Jesus Hates Obama" online store that sells T-shirts and other items with his trademark slogan. Belfry said a circle of private investors agreed to purchase a 30-second Super Bowl slot -- which usually sell for about $3 million.

* Anti-abortion activist Randall Terry is attempting a novel approach, going so far as to register as a Democratic Party candidate for the White House so that he could insist that networks air his graphic video because of a campaign advertising loophole in existing FCC regulations. Few other opponents of abortion have taken his side.

This is not a new story. Before the 2009 Super Bowl, CatholicVoter.com failed in an attempt to air "Imagine," an ad featuring a sonogram video of an unborn child matched with text offering thanks that the difficult family circumstances surrounding the young Barack Obama did not prevent his birth. Last year, Focus on the Family was successful with "Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life," an ad focused on missionary Pam Tebow and her decision to endure a risky pregnancy before giving birth to Tim, the future Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.

These media conflicts are not connected with the tough Constitutional issues that drive the church-state conflicts that have become so common in recent decades, noted J. Brent Walker, head of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Nevertheless, these faith-based controversies about Super Bowl advertisements -- whether silly, satirical or dead serious -- seem to be stirring similar public emotions.

"If we lived in a culture in which no one cared much about religion," he said, "then people wouldn't get so passionate about these things. But that wouldn't be America, would it?"

Hallelujah, saith the masses

As millions of YouTube viewers know, the "Hallelujah Chorus" is even hotter than usual this year. The wave started with a flash-mob performance by the Opera Company of Philadelphia and hundreds of local choristers. Dressed as shoppers, they sang the best-known anthem from George F. Handel's "Messiah" oratorio at noon in the downtown Philadelphia Macy's, which was already decked out for the holidays on Oct. 30th.

Then came the Nov. 13th performance that sent this viral-video trend into overdrive, when 100 vocalists -- led by a young woman singing the opening hallelujahs into her cellphone -- shocked a food-court crowd in a Welland, Ontario, shopping mall.

There are online reports and rumors about similar "Hallelujah Chorus" sneak attacks in the marketplace. The key is that many onlookers know this classic by heart and can sing along without missing many beats.

These are strange scenes, but they would not surprise anyone who has studied the history of Handel's masterwork and its stunning popularity, especially among American believers, said Calvin R. Stapert, a retired music professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is the author of the new book, "Handel's Messiah: Comfort for God's People."

The Macy's performance was spectacular and the food-court performance was just as fascinating in its own way, he said.

"One part of me says, 'Wonderful!' It's thrilling. ... Then I look at the comments that people keep writing" at YouTube.com as they respond to the videos, said Stapert. "Some of them are so deeply moved that this anthem to their Savior is being sung in such a secular environment. Then there are others who make it clear that, for them, this is nothing more than ... a novel way of saluting a cornerstone of Western musical culture."

No one knows why "Messiah" has become so popular, noted Stapert, in his book. The work's omnipresence -- with performances in churches, civic centers and elite concert halls -- is probably the result of "musical, textual, social, religious and psychological factors that will never be completely unraveled." There is no precedent in music history for this phenomenon.

For starters, Handel is an unlikely hero for today's musical masses. He was a "reluctant eighteenth-century German Lutheran composer who would have preferred to continue writing Italian operas in Protestant England, a country that had no oratorio tradition until he 'invented' it. The rest, as they say, is history," wrote Stapert.

This musical form -- the oratorio -- was also a unique and at times controversial kind of art. Handel composed "Messiah" and many of his greatest works in a cultural no man's land between the music common in sacred sanctuaries and the lively, entertaining, operatic works that were popular in theaters and concert halls. Nevertheless, most oratorios were based on the lives of biblical heroes and early Christian saints.

Then there was "Messiah: A Sacred Oratorio," which was composed in 24 days and performed for the first time in Dublin in 1742 and a year later in London. The libretto covered the drama of the full Christian liturgical year, yet the work was never intended for church performances. Handel originally composed the work for approximately 24 skilled singers and 24 instrumentalists.

Today, "Messiah" is often performed with choruses consisting of 100 singers or more and orchestras of every imaginable size and composition. In many performances, amateur performers are forced to cut the tempos of Handel's mercurial, dancing choruses until they resemble lumbering musical stampedes.

To state the matter bluntly, noted Stapert, no complex work of classical music "has survived, let alone thrived, on so many performances, good, bad, and indifferent, by and for so many people year after year for such a long time."

Now, the most famous anthem from this Christian masterpiece has reached the true public square of our age, in the same mix as "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

"You have to ask," noted Stapert, "if many people are really listening to the words. After all, who is this 'King of Kinds and Lord of Lords'? ... You have to think that the cultural police would be out in a matter of minutes to shut this down if people were paying attention to this profoundly Christian work that is being sung right out in the open, in a mall. Has the 'Hallelujah Chorus' become so familiar that people cannot hear what it's saying?"

When did Baptists stop making news?

The Southern Baptist Convention has passed scores of blunt resolutions in recent decades urging America's leaders to reject the sexual revolution and defend marriage as the sacred union of one man and one woman. But something different happened during this summer's convention. In a jolting statement on the divorce crisis, leaders from America's largest non-Catholic flock looked in the mirror and decided that their own sins were just as bad as everyone else's sins.

"Studies have indicated that conservative Protestants ... are divorcing at the same rate, if not at higher rates, than the general population," stated the resolution, which passed unanimously. Other studies indicate that areas in which "Southern Baptist churches predominate in number often have higher divorce rates than areas we would define as 'unchurched.' "

In other words, Southern Baptists have "been prophetic in confronting assaults in the outside culture on God's design for marriage while rarely speaking with the same alarm and force to a scandal that has become all too commonplace in our own churches."

The convention urged its churches to walk their conservative talk by offering improved premarital counseling, by uniting in marriage "only those who are biblically qualified to be married" and by intensifying efforts to heal broken unions.

Press coverage of this text was next to nonexistent. Media coverage was light of a strong SBC statement on corporate sin and the environment, in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The convention also approved, after some emotional debates, a sweeping program to change key elements of its national structure and finances.

This is the stuff of national news, noted religion-beat veteran Jeffrey Weiss, writing for Politics Daily. The question is why this SBC gathering received so little attention, while gatherings in the 1980s and '90s created waves of ink.

Back then, he noted, the "pressroom would be packed by wire service reporters, writers from large and not-so-large newspapers from across the South, and from most of the top 10 largest papers not in the South. This time, I can find evidence of exactly five representatives of the secular media in attendance. ...

"Which leads to this question: Did the SBC get too much attention back in the day, or is it getting too little attention now? My answer to both: Probably so."

Of course, the troubled state of the news business played a role. There are fewer journalists on the religion beat and there are fewer travel dollars to invest in covering subjects other than those most editors consider holy, such as politics and sports.

At the same time, the era of intense coverage of Southern Baptist life coincided with what journalists perceived as a major change in American politics -- the growth of the religious right. Journalists took note when the nation's largest Protestant body spoke out on abortion, gay rights, the ordination of women, Hollywood's influence on families and the need for evangelism around the world, including among Jewish believers.

Hot buttons were being pushed, year after year.

"Atop those reader-friendly news hooks, we had the 25-year internal battle between what we always called 'conservatives' and 'moderates.' That fight ended with the conservatives in firm control of the denominational leadership and the moderates purged at about the same time the Republican Party was becoming increasingly defined by a publicly political conservative Christian base," noted Weiss.

In other words, more politics.

These days, the SBC is primarily wrestling with issues of theology and polity, especially the culture's slide into a post-denominational age in which people are increasingly moving into congregations that strive to avoid putting a brand name -- think "Southern Baptist" -- on their signs. People are drifting back and forth across hazy doctrinal lines that used to be clearly defined.

This is a giant story and, in part, is what that reorganization plan is about -- granting more independence to churches, clergy and donors in an attempt to pull the old Southern Baptist tent a bit closer to contemporary megachurch realities.

Consider, noted Weiss, the news value of this dramatic plan to restructure "its organization and the way it funds missionaries -- which was the main reason the SBC was formed in the first place. How dramatic? Imagine if your city decided it would let people send some of their tax money to those programs they particularly liked."

Imagine that. That's would be news, wouldn't it?

Culture wars 2008

If you could erase one moment from Sen. Barack Obama's White House campaign, which would you choose?

That's an easy question for evangelicals, Catholics and other religious believers who back Obama. Most would happily erase all evidence of his speech last spring to a circle of insiders behind closed doors in San Francisco. For those who have ignored national news in 2008, Obama talked about meeting voters in rural Pennsylvania, where hard times have crushed hopes and fueled resentments.

"So it's not surprising then that they get bitter," he said, that "they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them ... to explain their frustrations."

Welcome back to the "culture wars," all you politicos who hoped and prayed that talk about "values voters" and "pew gaps" would disappear. Instead, Republicans have been chanting this mantra -- "bitter," "cling," "God" and "guns" -- for months.

"In small towns, we don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren't listening," said Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, as she hit the national stage. "We tend to prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco."

It's crucial to know that this kind of cultural warfare has evolved throughout American history, said Todd Gitlin, who teaches journalism and sociology at Columbia University in New York City. The issues change from campaign to campaign, along with the fierceness of the fighting. But cultural and religious issues always matter.

"The culture wars always matter because Americans vote not simply, and not even necessarily first, for what they want but for whom they want. And whom they want is a function, in part, of who they are and how they ... want to think of themselves. In a word, what kind of culture they embody," said Gitlin, during a pre-election forum sponsored the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

These battles over symbols and substance are rooted in the fact that America was created "as the fruit of an ideology, not a nationality." Thus, he stressed, "America is a way of life, in other words, a culture. So culture wars are as American as egg foo yung and tacos."

But what are these "culture wars" really about? From Gitlin's point of view, the fighting is not a simple standoff between "religion and irreligion," because there are religious voices on both sides. Most would agree, he said, that these clashes pit "forces of modernization" against "forces of tradition." Often, this seems to pit small-town values against cosmopolitan culture, or red-zip-code preachers against blue-zip-code professors.

From his perspective on the left, he said, all of this looks like an "ongoing fight ... between the Enlightenment and its enemies." Seriously, he said, "American has to outgrow this childish negation of reason."

For Americans on the other side of the "culture wars," that kind of talk sounds rather condescending, said Yuval Levin, who leads the Bioethics and American Democracy Project at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.

From the right, this cultural warfare resembles a "war of two populisms, what we might call in very broad terms, cultural populism and economic populism," said Levin.

As a rule, the American left has been effective when it comes to appealing to the economic passions and resentments of average Americans. The right, meanwhile, has been stronger -- especially since the earthquake that was the 1960s -- when appealing to old-fashioned values of faith, family and unashamed patriotism.

In this election, economic fears may certainly triumph over concerns about traditional "culture wars" issues such as abortion, gay rights, the role of religion in public life and the moral content of popular entertainment.

Nevertheless, stressed Levin, Obama's "bitter" speech proved that cultural questions are always lurking in the background. The candidate said, right out loud, what heartland conservatives truly believe San Francisco liberals think about them.

That mistake may not matter this year, but it isn't a wise long-term strategy for a president.

"In America, unlike in Europe, cultural populism has generally been a lot more powerful than economic populism," said Levin. "Americans don't resent success. They don't assume that corruption is the only way to the top, but they do resent arrogance and especially intellectual arrogance."

PG or not PG?

When it comes to "Facing the Giants," the one thing the players in Hollywood and the Bible Belt agree on is that this Christian indie flick deserves a PG rating.

That PG rating isn't what has ticked off talk radio, Christian bloggers and some Capitol Hill conservatives. They want to know if the Motion Picture Association of America thinks the "P" in PG stands for " proselytizing" and the "G" for "Gospel."

The bottom line: Salvation can be as offensive as sex and swearing.

"We're seeing something new with this movie," said Kris Fuhr, vice president for marketing at Provident Films, which is owned by Sony BMG. "People who work in this business have always thought that the MPAA based its ratings on actions, on what people actually did in a movie. If you did certain things or said certain words, then you got a certain rating.

"Now it seems like the board is rating a movie on the basis of the ideas that are in it and whether it thinks those ideas are going to offend people."

"Facing the Giants" tells the story of a depressed high-school coach named Grant Taylor whose life takes a miraculous turn for the better. It includes explicit scenes of prayer and Bible reading, along with several strategic acts of God on and off the football field. The producers have not challenged the PG rating.

The movie was created by Alex and Stephen Kendrick, two brothers who are "media pastors" at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. Working with a $100,000 budget, they used volunteers as actors, extras and technicians, assisted by a few professionals behind the cameras. Provident plans to open the film in about 400 theaters nationwide this fall, with the help of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Headlines about the PG rating for "Facing the Giants" created a buzz that quickly reached Washington, D.C.

"This incident raises the disquieting possibility that the MPAA considers exposure to Christian themes more dangerous to children that exposure to gratuitous sex and mindless violence," said Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the third-ranking House Republican. He suggested that Congress might want to look into this issue, along with reports that "ratings creep" is increasing the amount of sex and violence in movies.

This drew a quick letter from MPAA chairman Glickman, a veteran Democrat who served in Congress and on President Bill Clinton's cabinet.

"Any strong or mature discussion of any subject material results in at least a PG rating," he said. "This movie had a mature discussion about pregnancy, for example. It also had other mature discussions that some parents might want to be aware of before taking their kids to this movie.

"Roy, I assure you that religion was not the reason this movie got a PG rating."

This raised another question: What about those "other mature discussions" in the movie? What were they about?

The MPAA board works in total secrecy and, other than its leader, members are anonymous. However, chairwoman Joan Graves granted a rare interview to discuss the "Facing the Giants" case -- after receiving thousands of calls and emails.

"If we see someone on the screen practicing their faith and indicating that they have a faith, that's not something we PG," she told the Los Angeles Times.

This was an interesting choice of words, since hardly anyone had claimed that the movie was rated PG simply because it contained religious characters and expressions of faith. The key issue was whether its evangelistic content was offensive. Instead of merely showing faith, "Facing the Giants" dared to include scenes that made a case for conversion to Christianity.

Thus, another MPAA official noted that -- in addition to discussions of pregnancy and infertility -- the movie included some proselytizing. "Parents might want to know" when a movie openly advocates one religion over other religions, John Feehery, the board's executive vice president of external affairs, told The Hill newspaper.

So it is acceptable for movie characters to practice a religious faith, as long as they don't try to convert others.

Proselytism is a bad idea.

"I guess it's OK," said Fuhr, "if the MPAA warns people about some of the ideas that they will run into at the movies. ... The problem is that there are all kinds of ideas in movies that tend to offend different kinds of people. Will the board be consistent?"

Catholic college culture wars

Anyone trying to understand the Catholic college culture wars can start with last spring's commencement address by Cardinal Francis Arinze at Georgetown University.

Media coverage was guaranteed, since many list the Nigerian prelate as a top contender to succeed Pope John Paul II. Who knew he would dare to mention sex and marriage?

"The family is under siege," said Arinze. "It is opposed by an anti-life mentality as seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. It is scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions and cut in two by divorce."

A theology professor walked out, as did some outraged students. Seventy faculty members signed a letter of protest. But traditional Catholics began asking a burning question: Why was it shocking for a cardinal to defend Catholic doctrines on a Catholic campus?

These fires are still smoldering as students return to America's 223 Catholic colleges and universities. The Arinze controversy also reinforced some controversial statistics suggesting that four years on most Catholic campuses may actually harm young Catholic souls.

"What we are seeing is a battle between orthodox Christian beliefs and the moral relativism that is becoming more powerful in many religious groups," said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a fiercely pro-Vatican educational network.

"Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, you name it.

Goodbye, Democrats. Hello, what?

It was sometime during the hearings into whether Judge Priscilla Owen was fit to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals that Father John F. Kavanaugh faced a hard question.

All 10 Democrats on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee voted against her and killed her recent nomination, even though the Texas Supreme Court Justice received the American Bar Association's highest ranking. The problem was that she favored restraints on abortion rights, including parental-notification laws.

"This was the first time in history that someone with her qualifications had been rejected in committee," said the nationally known Jesuit writer. "I couldn't believe it. ... That was when I had to ask: Why am I still a registered Democrat?"

Kavanaugh poured his feelings into a column in which he argued that it's time for Catholics to cut the political ties that bind and register as independent voters. While the priest stressed that he believes Catholic Republicans may also need to declare their freedom, he entitled his provocative piece "Goodbye, Democrats."

It helps to know that Kavanaugh is an old-school progressive, the author of books with titles such as "Following Christ in a Consumer Culture," "Faces of Poverty, Faces of Christ" and "Who Counts as Persons? Human Identity and the Ethics of Killing." This is one Jesuit who would never "wrap a rosary" around a conservative agenda.

Kavanaugh said he remains firmly opposed GOP doctrine on tax cuts, labor laws, welfare reform, the death penalty and a host of other issues. In the past decade, he noted, Democrats have compromised on all of those issues. But there is one issue on which his old party has steadfastly refused any compromise.

"One thing the Democrats really stand for, however, is abortion -- abortion on demand, abortion without restraint, abortion paid for by all of us, abortion for the poor of the earth," wrote Kavanaugh. "I am not a one-issue voter, but they have become a one-issue party. ... If traditional Democrats who are disillusioned with the selling out of the working poor and the unborn simply became registered Independent voters, would not more attention be paid?"

In recent national elections, researchers have been watching for any signs that America's 60 million Catholics are changing their voting habits.

For generations, Frost Belt Catholics have been a crucial part of all Democratic coalitions. Today, Catholic trends are crucial in an era when Hispanic voters are gaining clout in Sunbelt politics. Thus, it matters that nearly three-fifths of the Catholics who said they frequently went to Mass voted for George W. Bush in 2000.

The question is whether this change is part of a fundamental realignment in the role that faith plays in American politics, according to two political scientists at Baruch College in the City University of New York.

Once, Southern evangelicals and northern Catholics were loyal Democrats. Once, the mainline Protestant churches were the heart of the Republican Party. But everything has changed. Today, liberal Protestants have joined a rising tide of "secularists" and "anti-fundamentalists" as the most loyal members of the Democratic establishment.

"The importance of evangelicals to the ascendancy of the Republican Party since the 1980s has been pointed out ad nauseam," noted Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio, in a paper presented to the Southern Political Science Association. "But if the GOP can be labeled the party of religious conservatives, the Democrats, with equal validity, can be called the secularist party."

And, they added, any list of nonnegotiable issues for secularists and leaders of the religious left would begin with abortion rights.

At some point, said Kavanaugh, Catholics must find a way to be active in politics without writing off the poor, the weak, the defenseless and the unborn. This is what their faith teaches. Right now, he believes that this means letting the political world see visible evidence that Catholics are no longer tied to one party.

"It's not just the unfettered worship of 'choice' that we see in the Democratic Party today, which some would even call a form of libertarianism," he said. "There has also been a capitulation to the power of money. ... It's painful to say this, but right now I see as much hard-heartedness in the Democrats as I do in the Republicans."