Beware of fundamentalists bearing incense

Time magazine prompted some snickers last week when it counted Catholics Richard John Neuhaus and Rick Santorum among "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America." This week, a story by Tim Padgett explores how "Bible-Belt Catholics" are "practicing a more conservative Catholicism than their brethren in many other parts of the country."

Padgett turns to the Rev. Jay Scott Newman, a convert from Protestantism, to help explain evangelical Catholics:

Says the Rev. Jay Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church, less than two hours south in Greenville, S.C.: "Here you're not Catholic because your parents came from Italy or Slovakia. It's because you believe what the church teaches you is absolutely true."

Such evangelical Catholicism, as Newman calls it, also lends itself to Southern-fried flavors like more exuberant hymn singing, intense Bible study, spirited preaching and what Evangelicals call witnessing -- personal and public professions of faith usually foreign to the more philosophical, communal and inward Catholic style.

But not all Catholics in the South rejoice with Father Newman. Indeed, one university president worries about the threat of an undefined "evangelical Fundamentalism":

Some church observers say this trend, while ecumenical, could undermine the "intellectual heritage" of the faith, says the Rev. Kevin Wildes, president of Loyola University New Orleans, which in 2002 opened the Center for the Study of Catholics in the South. "The question is whether Catholicism in the South simply becomes another form of evangelical Fundamentalism with incense."

In another piece this week, the wittily titled "Spirits of the Age," James Poniewozik writes about the mini-trend of TV series that include supernatural elements. The range is as diverse as Medium (produced by Glenn Gordon Caron of Moonlighting), Point Pleasant and Revelations.

The latter show includes "an order of nuns, at odds with the Vatican, that believes the Second Coming is imminent." Perhaps Father Wildes and his team will let us know whether this would make the fictional nuns evangelical fundamentalists, fundamental evangelicals or high-church dispensationalists (with incense).

In an otherwise thoughtful and entertaining piece, Poniewozik offers these agonizing generalizations:

There is a kind of vanity in Apocalyptic thinking: people eternally want to believe they are so special, their times so afflicted, that their tribulations outclass any others in history. It is oddly boastful to believe that one's generation has screwed up the world badly enough to prompt the birth of the Antichrist. Ghost stories like Medium too appeal to our egotism. They assume that the dead are concerned above all with giving closure to the living.

But that's what TV has in common with religion: each helps millions of people, sitting down to hear the same message, individually feel special.

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