Please ask this basic question: Does Mike Pence sit in an evangelical pew or a Catholic pew?

So the "evangelical Catholic" thing is making a comeback, with Donald Trump's decision to make Gov. Mike Pence his running mate in the White House race.

Before we dig into the roots of this a bit, let me note that the Washington Post "Acts of Faith" feature in the middle of the current discussion ("What it means that Mike Pence called himself an ‘evangelical Catholic’ ") is clearly labeled as "analysis." Thus, veteran reporter Michelle Boorstein has more room to maneuver.

Normally, your GetReligionistas steer away from writing about analysis features, unless we point readers to them as "think pieces" linked to discussions on the Godbeat. In this case, I think it's important to discuss the "evangelical Catholic" term again, because it may surface again in campaign coverage of Pence.

The key, of course, is that "evangelical Catholic" is primarily a political term. However, Boorstein starts her analysis with an attempt to pin down this man's actual religious history, in terms of his faith experiences. Here is a sample of that:

One of the more publicly shared accounts of Pence’s transition from a Catholic youth minister who wanted to be a priest to an evangelical megachurch member came in 1994. That’s when he told the Indianapolis Business Journal about an intense period of religious searching that he underwent in college. “I made a commitment to Christ,” Pence said, speaking of the late 1970s. “I’m a born-again, evangelical Catholic.”
Craig Fehrman, an Indiana freelance journalist who has written about Pence’s faith over the years, said he has questioned the governor and has been met with diminishing specificity. Pence always points to 1978 (his freshman year of college) as the point of his “conversion” to evangelical Christianity, yet after that he still attended Mass, worked as a youth pastor at a Catholic parish, met his wife at Mass and applied to graduate school with the intention of becoming a priest, Fehrman said Friday.
In a 2013 profile of Pence, Fehrman said the then-new governor rebuffed repeated attempts to talk more about how he shifted faith identities.

So what is the key question here? Right: Where does this man go to church these days? To be more specific, is he a practicing Catholic in terms of Confession and receiving Holy Communion? Journalists may even want to "follow the money," seeking information on Pence's support for a congregation or other related ministries.

Ferhman noted that Pence called himself a Catholic in 1994, but in 1995 he told The Indianapolis Star that he was "attending an evangelical megachurch." That's a long, long time ago.

So what is this all about?

You may recall that, back in 2005, the editors of Time magazine published a cover story about "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America." Interestingly enough, the list included the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest. Sen. Rick Santorum also made the list because, as Time noted, he "may be a Catholic, but he's the darling of Protestant Evangelicals."

Also, GetReligion readers may remember that:

... Former New York Times editor Bill Keller memorably twisted the senator's faith, as well, in his essay that sort of compared traditional believers with those who embrace space aliens. The correction dutifully noted: "The essay also erroneously includes Rick Santorum among politicians affiliated with evangelical Christianity. Mr. Santorum is Catholic."

Back in 2005, I called Time to ask about the common denominator here. A publicist said that the magazine knew that Neuhaus and Santorum were Catholics, but that, in the case of the senator, he "voted evangelical." Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.

To further confuse things, it is possible to say -- nod to the public intellectual George Weigel -- that there are traditional Catholics who practice their faith in what some might call an evangelical manner. But the key to that discussion is that these believers are clearly conservative Catholics.

Perhaps the safest thing to say is that "evangelical Catholics" are conservative Catholics who tick off politically liberal Catholics who are not fond of Catholics and evangelicals who keep quoting Catholic doctrines linked to hot-button moral and social issues. As Boorstein explains:

Pollsters and sociologists note that in the 1990s and early 2000s, conservative white Catholics in particular and white evangelicals began making alliances over shared concerns, primarily traditional marriage, abortion and legal religious protections.

I think that final reference is to concerns about religious liberty. If so, that's strange because at that time efforts to protect the First Amendment were backed by a broad coalition of liberals and conservatives, in terms of politics and religion.

To be blunt, religious liberty had not yet turned into "religious liberty," a kind of journalism curse.

Moving on.

Pew Research reported last year that while most religious groups lost market share due to Americans’ switching faith identities, evangelical Protestants did not -- gaining more converts than they lost as people who had grown up evangelical moved on. And among those converts are Catholics, including prominent politicians such as Pence and Marco Rubio, who left Catholicism for Mormonism and the Southern Baptist Convention before ultimately returning to Catholicism.
The actual number of converts -- in both directions -- is small. According to Pew, less than 1 percent of adults who were raised evangelical now identify as Catholic, and about 3 percent of adults who were Catholic are now evangelical. But the connection between conservatives in both communities has fortified, resulting in a religious slang where “evangelical-Catholic” kind of means “we are both conservative Christians who share some views and practices.”

But what about Pence himself? What religious faith is he practicing?

Check out this Indianapolis Star piece: "Strong faith shapes Mike Pence's politics." It contains paragraph after paragraph about his political views and, yes, efforts linked to causes with ties to religious doctrines, such as abortion and marriage issues. But when it comes to the man's faith, there is this:

 In many ways, Pence is an unlikely politician. He was raised in a Catholic family in Columbus, Ind. His parents didn't talk politics over the dinner table. His father was an oil distributor who ran a number of gas stations. Church took a central role. Edward and Nancy Pence had their six children don their Sunday best for Mass, including suits for Mike and his three brothers, who also served as altar boys.
But as a young man growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Pence began to appreciate the transformative efforts of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. He volunteered for the Bartholomew County Democratic Party in 1976 and voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Like many young adults, Pence's views began to change during and just after college. He met his future wife, Karen, at a church in Indianapolis after he graduated from Hanover College. He later became a born-again Christian. Both remain deeply religious.

What about today? Might readers be offered a few essential facts?

Back at the Post, the "On Faith" analysis included this helpful material with an expert speculating about Pence and his motives:

Arthur Farnsley II, associate director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, said Pence’s state has a good-size Catholic population of people who are aligned theologically with evangelicals.
“They are biblically conservative and probably conservative on traditional values -- as he is,” Farnsley said of Pence. While liberal Catholics might not love the term “evangelical Catholic,” many conservative types “wouldn’t flinch,” he said. “Given the alliances between conservative Catholics and evangelicals on abortion, I don’t think people would be moved.”
Pence, Fehrman says, was “pulled between two worlds.” When he called himself an “evangelical Catholic,” Fehrman says, “I think he wasn’t making a fine theological point, but was torn between his family’s faith and background and a new and more exciting faith.”

That makes sense to me. But I still think it's fair to ask factual questions: Where does Pence go to church? What faith is he practicing now? Is he receiving Communion at a Catholic altar?

To sum this up, "evangelical Catholic" appears -- for journalists -- to be, essentially, a political term. After all, politics is public and religion is private. Political votes are real. You can look them up. Apparently, it's harder to ask journalistic questions about the facts of a person's religious practices. Faith facts are not as real as political facts.

Is it hard to ask faith questions? Has anyone actually asked what pew this man sits in on Sunday mornings? Is that a "faith fact" that matters? (Yes, i checked out this Religion News Service: "5 faith facts on Mike Pence: A ‘born-again, evangelical Catholic’.")

If people are going to argue about what Pence means when he calls himself an "evangelical Catholic," and I think that is a topic worth investigation, isn't it important to explore some of the basic facts about his faith?

I realize that newsroom budgets are thin these days. There are fewer reporters around to do this kind of hands-on work. I know that journalists (including me) do not have travel budgets, as in the past. Maybe journalists in Indiana don't have the time to read the name on the sign of the church that Pence attends on Sunday morning. Maybe he has asked them not to ask that question.

But if it's relevant to debate whether he is an "evangelical Catholic" (and I think that it is), then it is relevant to ask whether he is active in an evangelical church or in a Catholic church. Maybe both? Really?

YouTube video: An old "700 Club" feature that is still relevant to this discussion.

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