In case you missed it, Part 1 can be found here.
Robert Novak’s conversion to Catholicism disturbed something inside me.
Like many young people I became politically aware in college. Unlike many my age, I latched onto Reagan conservatism just as The Great Communicator was leaving office. In Alabama even the college liberals were comparatively conservative, but being a Rush Limbaugh Republican gave me a point of differentiation that served as my identity while I began figuring out how to navigate adulthood.
I consumed conservative media with a voracious appetite. I also had a foolish youthful desire to upset people who disagreed with me politically. In my chosen profession, I was usually the most conservative person in my peer group, which gave me endless opportunity to annoy people with my views.
Robert Novak was one of my favorite entertainers. From his chair as one of the hosts of CNN’s groundbreaking show Crossfire, he helped usher in the era of politics as a shouting match. Each weeknight he and a liberal co-host would deliver cutting remarks and talk over each other as they debated the topic of the day. I ate it up.
Robert Novak was called the Prince of Darkness by some in the establishment media, as much for his dark wit as for his hardline conservatism. His onscreen image was that of a callous true believer, and he relished the role. His black-and-white worldview appealed to my combative nature. If you didn’t agree with me politically, you were simply wrong, and needed to be won over to my point of view.
When I read that the Jewish Novak had converted to Catholicism, it affected me more than it should have, given my upbringing.
To my knowledge I had never met either a Jew or a Catholic until I was out of high school. In my small world, everyone was either some flavor of Baptist, or possibly one of the Pentecostal variations about which I had heard weird tales involving snakes.
In discussing his conversion, Novak spoke of finally joining the one true faith, and this caused a rippling in my soul. Denominations were a part of everything I understood about Christianity. People were Methodist or Baptist or Church of Christ the same way they were Irish or German. It was just a way of telling someone what tribe you belonged to.
I had never even considered the possibility that there was One True Church. But if there was, which was was it?
All my knowledge of Catholicism came from the inside of my own church. The tales of a papal Antichrist were accepted as prophecy, and the ornamentation and iconography of the Romans was judged as gaudy self-aggrandizement from inside our austere walls. Even the stained glass windows were smears of color and not images of saints, as though the very panes were apologizing for their lack of taste.
As my world expanded with my age and experiences, I sometimes wondered how we had gotten from Jesus’ twelve apostles to the doctrine of the Southern Baptist Convention. Surely Peter and John were not the brown-suited, cigarette smoking deacons that bowed in prayer before our pulpit before passing out tiny crackers and cups of grape juice, their somber figures framing a table in front of the altar etched with the words of Christ:
DO THIS IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME
I later learned that Catholics thought they were drinking actual blood and eating actual flesh, in contradiction of all physical evidence. I also heard tales of Mary being worshipped as some sort of demi-Christ. Unlike Robert Novak, Catholicism would be a bridge too far for me.
I began to consider the possibility of evangelism not only to the unsaved, but of winning over people of other denominations, and even other faiths. And if there was one thing I knew how to do, it was argue my point of view.
I would start with the Catholics.
Part 3 of my story, which you can read here, is my attempt at the Protestant-Catholic debate.