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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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Maureen O’Brien

    Oh, come on. If you mean, “people are less likely to ostracize you for having different religious beliefs than their own”, that’s probably true everywhere except New York cocktail parties and university classes. But if you mean, “religious beliefs tell you nothing about a person that their choice of car doesn’t tell you better”, that’s ridiculous. No matter how secular you are, you are bound to learn a lot from knowing a person’s philosophical and religious beliefs (and disbeliefs). If somebody is between religions or seeking something to believe, that tells you something as well. But if somebody can’t define his beliefs, he should at least be open about that. If he is ashamed to reveal his uncertainties, or pretends to believe the same thing as his audience wherever he goes, that speaks very loudly to lack of character.

    A senator or representative is supposed to be someone solid and a known quantity to everyone, not someone who’s simultaneously batting and playing Ghost-Man on second base and afraid to tell anybody what he’s doing. Rubio was afraid to admit his fluidity of belief and trust the electorate, so why should anyone trust him back? His evasion on one of the basics of his life tells us that he’s a slippery slitherer-outer.

  • Jerry

    In America, religious distinctions matter less all the time.

    That is true in my experience. This is not to say that doctrine no longer matters to many, but organizational affiliation matters less and less. Switching from being a Baptist to a Lutheran was a serious matter when I was growing up. Now it seems that distinctions at that level are melting away and being replaced by people who hold similar doctrines and beliefs being part of a church or other group which embodies those beliefs.

    Aside: I started wondering about Disqus and found a page which specifies what html is allowed in posts. is a pointer to that page and we’ll see if I did it correctly depending on what shows up since preview is not a part of the Disqus setup. It would help if there was a left-side GR link to how to use Disgus :-)

    • Bobby

      Thanks, Jerry. The html looks good to me. My understanding is that there is a primer post coming and hopefully a link or other tool to help with this.

    • John Willard

      It strikes me that the real religious divisions in America, at least in Christianity, are not between Lutherans and Baptists as much as between ELCA and Missouri-Synod Lutherans. As a theologically conservative Orthodox Christian, I feel a lot closer to an old-fashioned Lutheran than I do to a theologically liberal co-religionist. I would argue that the divide between liberal and conservative theology is the single most important religious distinction in America.

      As long as we’re talking about it: Maybe it’s just the Traditionalist in me, but like the old comments system better.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    A few points–Politically most conservative Evangelical Protestants are closer to the pope on the current big life issues than many virtually fanatic anti-life very secularized “Catholic” pols.
    Second–it is not surprising that many Hispanics, the latest largely Catholic immigrant group to our shores, are losing their Catholic Faith. We are, after all, a very secularized Protestant culture. And because of this powerful cultural prism through which all Americans view religion (although frequently unaware of such) there was also great attrition from other Catholic immigrant groups in this country.
    Third–God will sort things out in time. My mother was the one most likely to bring me to church services–her parent’s Unitarian-Universalist Church. But my father made me show up for the classes to receive First Holy Communion and Confirmation in the Catholic Church. On my own I took classes and showed up for ordination to the diaconate of the Catholic Church
    All the media should care about Sen. Marco Rubio is his stands and votes on political issues and his publicly expressed political philosophy. It makes no difference if these are all rooted in a Catholic, Protestant, atheist, or mixed background. All the “Catholic” pols that are only too willing to see babies flushed away by their actions (or inactions) proves that one’s religious label doesn’t mean didlysquat

  • Passing By

    Well, Catholics “practice” adult baptism, in the case of adult converts. Baptists, however, don’t accept infant baptism and, in fact, have a completely different baptismal theology.

    Having picked my nit, I have to express some dismay at the ambiguity of Senator-elect Rubio’s position. Of course, Tony Blair attended Mass with his wife and children for years before being received into the Catholic Church, so maybe it’s something like that. These things happen.

    Let me be clear: I don’t care whether the man is Catholic or Baptist (well, I care, but not politically). I do care that he is clear and not religiously muddled, in a political direction opposite from muddled Catholics like Pelosi. For that reason, I found the NYT article less than satisfactory.

    Though it’s probably not the reporters fault.

    And on the old software: the preview function was nice and the easy link function really nice.

    Well, you know how many Episcopalians/Catholics/Baptists/teachers/journalists/liturgists it takes to change a light bulb. One, but you need a crowd to talk about how much better the old light bulb was.

  • Passing By

    Thank goodness I left out the part of my comment about how easy basic formatting was in both software packages. And let’s see if a smiley works.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Perhaps for the general secularist… religious distinctions matter less all the time.

    But for me, absolutely not. Religious distinctions matter. A lot.

  • Martinezfamily

    Being from Miami, there are many Catholics who attend evangelical churches. Most may attend years in a Baptist church never wishing to relinquish fully their Catholic background. Most people don’t care where Senator Rubio goes to church. What is important for Catholics and Southern Baptists alike are the stances both churches take against gay marriage and abortion.

    I applaud Senator Rubio for not caving in to the people who are trying to make a big deal of where he goes to church.

  • Martinezfamily

    Being from Miami, there are many Catholics who attend evangelical churches. Most may attend years in a Baptist church never wishing to relinquish fully their Catholic background. Most people don’t care where Senator Rubio goes to church. What is important for Catholics and Southern Baptists alike are the stances both churches take against gay marriage and abortion.

    I applaud Senator Rubio for not caving in to the people who are trying to make a big deal of where he goes to church.

  • William Harris

    I would think that religious distinctions would become more important were Mr. Rubio to cast his eye nationally. From afar, religious identity or lack of it provides a quick handle of expected beliefs. From the perspective of Miami, perhaps it is no big deal, but elsewhere I would think it gets confusing. Or at the very least, it becomes a little suspicious: is he just pretending to be “Catholic?” After all, there are plenty of such pretend folks already in the political sphere.As to the perspective of the Times and New York, the dominant criteria appears to be the existence of observance. An observant Catholic and observant Evangelical are alike in their religious devotion or practice. This blurring is nothing new, having been around at least from the glory days of Eisenhower’s civil religion.

  • Anti-MTD

    Actually, if you read the survey data in Putnam & Campbell’s “American Grace,” you’ll see that Oppenheimer is factually correct. More and more, we are becoming a nation of Moralistic Therapeutic Deists.

  • Julia

    “Being from Miami, there are many Catholics who attend evangelical churches. Most may attend years in a Baptist church never wishing to relinquish fully their Catholic background. Most people don’t care where Senator Rubio goes to church.”

    Do Cuban-Americans view Catholicism as part of their culture, but not necessarily a belief system to which they adhere?

    My convert mother’s family would go to whichever mainline church was the closest – be it Presbyterian, Congregational, Church of Christ or Baptist, but never Lutheran, Episcopalian or – horrors- Catholic. There is a big difference, not just in beliefs but also in practice.

    Is this similar to the Italian Mafia that continues to flout church morality rules while honoring church rituals for life events like Baptism, Marriage and Burials?

    Strange. “never wishing to relinquish”
    Compartmentalization, thy true home is America.