by Jason A. Hentschel
Jason A. Hentschel has a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Dayton, and is currently senior pastor at Wyoming Baptist Church (Wyoming, OH). His research focuses on the intersection of evangelicalism and modern American culture. He has contributed chapters to The Bible in American Life and The Handbook of the Bible in America, both of which were published by Oxford University Press in 2017. He is currently revising his book manuscript, “Inerrancy and the Evangelical Quest for Certainty,” for publication.
White evangelicals converting to Catholicism is a thing. Scott Hahn once called it, rather endearingly, Rome Sweet Home. Christian Smith, on the other hand, went with a bit more snark: How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-five Difficult Steps. Whatever their differences, both Hahn and Smith found it important that they offer explanations for their conversions. Come to find out, there’s an awful lot at stake, and it’s something much different than anything that resembles trusting Jesus or becoming part of a community of faith. It’s much more about their desire for certainty and where they can find it.
I graduated college after the landmark ecumenical statement, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” had just entered its second decade. Even in those years, quite a few of my classmates had already begun to walk through the doors that statement opened. While I never took the plunge myself – though I did graduate work at an unapologetically Catholic university – I largely shared the same spirit. To be sure, most of us weren’t your typical disaffected evangelicals. The left never really attracted us. Instead, what did was a more traditional, indeed, a more hierarchically authoritative right. Call it a strange twist on the liturgical movement, we yearned for more theological regulation in the midst of what we were taught to be believe was a wildly escalating cultural relativism. We harbored a deep desire for a more stable authority, a desire born out of frustration with the democratization of American Christianity and the pervasive interpretive pluralism intrinsic to the standard evangelical approaches to the Bible upon which we cut our teeth. In the end, this desire for certainty led many of my friends to trade a singular dependence upon the Bible for what, to all appearances, was a more stable and certain authority in the Roman Magisterium.
Though of a different generation entirely, Hahn’s story is typical of many (not all) converts I know. By and large, it’s an account of one evangelical who thought himself into the Roman Church. Once a staunch anti-Catholic polemicist, Hahn did not so much convert as conclude, after years of earnest reading and intellectual debate, that it was the Catholics who got the Bible right after all. As a case in point, Hahn tells us that he became increasingly dissatisfied with the traditional Protestant position that what we have in the Bible is, as he puts it, “a fallible collection of infallible documents.” What he needed was to be “certain,” certain that it really was God’s infallible Word that he was reading. That desire for certainty is key. By his own admission, Hahn was after what he believed to be the sole objective truth – that one correct interpretation of the Bible upon which he could hang his hat in the midst of the cacophony of voices that was then late twentieth-century America.
In some ways, Christian Smith’s story stands in stark contrast to Hahn’s. He comes right out and rejects the desire for certainty that had earlier set Hahn and others on the road to Rome, and he rails against exchanging the evangelical doctrine of biblical inerrancy for a similarly misguided view of a supposedly equally infallible Magisterium. And yet, while the Catholic Church might not offer the certainty that some evangelicals want, Smith admits that it provides “well-warranted claims about the truth of things,” so that we “can believe with great confidence that what the Church teaches as true really is true.” Exactly how different is this “great confidence” of Smith’s from the “certainty” discovered by Hahn? In practice, it would seem, not very much at all.
And that’s the revelatory thing about this particular wave of conservative evangelical conversions to Catholicism – what is sought and gained is a renewed sense that what we know to be true is really true. When casting votes or in other ways grappling with Western pluralism, Smith’s confidence and Hahn’s certainty come to look very much the same. Where else are we seeing this better played out than on the battlefield of American politics today? In a world of hyper-partisanship and watertight binaries where all that really matters is overturning Roe v. Wade and where the President can rally his supporters with the threat that the very survival of their religion is on the line, there is simply no room left for any genuine discussion and debate, much less the recognition of legitimate differences of opinion or – God forbid – doubt. In a world where right makes might, we had better figure out what is right.