Rubio's church life? It's complicated

Three weeks ago, we enjoyed an interesting "Got news?" discussion concerning Florida Sen.-elect Marco Rubio's religious affiliation.

That post delved into questions concerning a Roman Catholic politician who attends -- and contributes tens of thousands of dollars to -- a megachurch affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Regular GetReligion reader and Tennessean religion writer Bob Smietana earned "Quip of the Month" honors (or should have) with this response to that post:

This is the perfect American religion story. Here's a candidate who says he's Catholic but goes to a Baptist church which doesn't have Baptist in its name.

After the GetReligion post, religion reporter David Gibson wrote a compelling piece for Politics Daily. Still, it surprised me that none of the major dead-tree news organizations picked up the story, especially given Rubio's high-profile status as a freshman senator-elect already mentioned as a potential presidential candidate.

Over the weekend, though, New York Times religion writer Mark Oppenheimer stepped into the fray with a "Beliefs" column headlined "Marco Rubio: Catholic or Protestant?" In terms of the key question itself, Oppenheimer's column fails to deliver a definitive answer, instead relying -- out of necessity -- on the now-standard response from Rubio's spokesman:

Marco Rubio, the charismatic senator-elect from Florida, is in many ways similar to other Cuban-American politicians from his home state: conservative, Republican and a "practicing and devout Roman Catholic," in the words of his spokesman, one who "regularly attends Catholic Mass" and "was baptized, confirmed and married in the Roman Catholic Church."

But while Mr. Rubio, 39, presented himself on his Florida Statehouse Web site and in interviews as a Roman Catholic, bloggers and journalists have noted since his election that he regularly worships at an evangelical megachurch whose theology is plainly at odds with Catholic teaching.

While the Times offers no new insight on how Rubio himself views his dual Catholic/Protestant allegiances, the piece does an excellent job of explaining why the distinction is important -- and why it isn't.

Why is it important? Oppenheimer highlights precise reasons and lists specific unanswered questions:

Christ Fellowship, which has five campuses and draws about 6,000 worshipers on a typical weekend, is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and its beliefs include several that are alien to Catholicism.

Southern Baptists practice adult rather than infant baptism, for example. They do not recognize the authority of the pope. And the Christ Fellowship statement of beliefs says the bread and wine of communion are merely "symbolic," thus do not become Christ's body and blood, as Catholics believe.

As for Mr. Rubio's involvement with Catholicism, his spokesman did not respond to questions about whether the senator-elect gives money to the Archdiocese of Miami; whether he agrees with Catholic teachings that suggest Protestants are in error; and whether he belongs to a Catholic parish, as most observant Catholics would.

Why isn't it important? Again, Oppenheimer offers relevant analysis (and for copyright reasons, I'll refrain from copying and pasting all of it, but do be sure to read the whole thing):

Fernand Amandi, whose Florida firm, Bendixen & Amandi, specializes in Hispanic opinion polling, says that among the population, few seem to care that Mr. Rubio is partaking of two religious identities.

"I don't think there is any such consciousness of it at all," Mr. Amandi said. "If he came out as an atheist, there would probably be a huge backlash," but within Christianity "the Hispanic community is respectful enough of diversity that I don't think this matters."

A 2008 study by Trinity College, in Hartford, found that from 1990 to 2008 the proportion of American Hispanics identifying as Catholic fell substantially, to 60 percent from 66 percent. The study also found that the longer a Hispanic has lived in the United States, the less likely he or she is to be Catholic. And the non-Catholics are more likely to identify as Republicans.

Oppenheimer packs a bunch of facts and context into a relatively short space (an 850-word column). Short of the Times snagging an interview with Rubio himself on his faith and religious beliefs, this is a nice step forward in the (until now, scant) mainstream media narrative.

My only qualm with the Times piece: In the final paragraph, Oppenheimer wraps up the issue in an easy little package and ties a bow on it:

It may never be clear whether Mr. Rubio is more Catholic or Protestant. The question itself reduces a complex experience, human religiosity, to simple terms. What may be clear from this story -- call it The Case of the First Catholic Protestant Senator -- is that in America, religious distinctions matter less all the time.

It's a column, so Oppenheimer is entitled to his point of view. But this statement struck me: In America, religious distinctions matter less all the time.

A fair statement? Or wishful thinking? What say ye, GetReligion readers?

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