The moment had a surreal quality to it. It happened at Phoenix airport back in March. In transit on my way back to the Washington, D.C., area, I decided to spend some time in the frequent fliers' lounge. The general concourse was flooded with Sunday travelers, and noisy with discussion. But no amount of noise could mask the news of presidential primaries beaming down from overhead television sets that hover knowingly at all terminals like Orwellian characters. I heard snatches of sound: things like "McCain out," "claims Catholic bashing," "Bob Jones not mainstream." The image on the screen always seemed to be McCain.

I entered the lounge, and at first it was quieter. Fewer people but more television images. And wall-long displays of current magazines and newspapers-most of them with John McCain on the cover.

Perhaps because I was so taken with all these things I almost collided with a white-haired gentleman standing near the door. It was the man himself, back from Bora Bora and on his way back to a Senate "welcome." Already I regret not engaging him in discussion, but the situation had some of the awkwardness of conversation at a funeral-so I said nothing. Instead I watched and listened.

I observed that but for two occasions no one spoke with him. In the first conversation a polite comment that in a few years he'd be gearing up for the next presidential run elicited a McCain murmur that this was it for him. Over. And he walked almost invisibly through the concourse, sat alone on the plane, stood apart from aides on the shuttle van at Dulles after the flight-strange since his face and voice kept reappearing on the TV screens.

Now as I write this the scene has shifted dramatically. We are inundated with images of the papal pilgrimage. Of the pope on Mount Nebo, in Bethlehem, dialoging with Jewish and Muslim clerics. We see him rearranging the dynamic in the Middle East, writing history and carving out a niche for himself as a man in quest of a spiritual destiny.

The presidential campaign for 2000 has been many things, and has created many images of defeat and victory. But there could be no two images more defining in the heat and fire of political discussion this season than the discredited John McCain and the much-lauded pope of Rome. And thereby, as they say, hangs a tale.

No event in this election season has been more telling than a desperate last-ditch attack candidate McCain made against his Republican rival, George Bush, for speaking in February this year at fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. McCain shone the public spotlight on the university's hard-line Protestant view of the Papacy and its truly bigoted views on race that masqueraded as theology. He then went further and attacked some leaders of the Christian Right by name as agents of intolerance.

In a moment the mark of Cain was on him for attacking the political base of conservatism . . . and his concession speech quickly followed. Curiously, his exposure of Bob Jones University's anti-Catholicism also took root. Several rather interesting things came out of this.

First the evangelical conservative world was quick to condemn the anti-Catholicism. "Today B.J.U.'s positions are truly marginal," wrote David Van Biema in Time, March 6. "Although some conservative Protestants still refer to 'Christians' and 'Catholics' separately, B.J.U.s hard-core attitude, says University of Akron political science professor John Green, is shared by only 'a tiny, tiny portion of evangelicals."

Then on February 29 a nonbinding resolution was introduced into the Senate, condemning Bob Jones University, not just for racial bigotry but because "officials of Bob Jones routinely disparage those of other religious faiths. . . . likened the pope of the Roman Catholic Church to a 'possessed demon,' and branded Catholicism as a 'satanic system and religion of the anti-Christ.'" You get the picture, I think. Condemned for intemperate hard-core Protestantism with an edge of intolerance.

Evangelical Charles Colson (of the original dirty tricks political team but now a converted Christian) was quick to condemn this intrusion by the state into what is of course a matter of religious belief. "Since when," he asked in a New York Times article of March 2, "do legislators issue official denunciations of anyone's theology?" We might answer, "Since it has become unacceptable to speak out against the world's preeminent religiopolitical power-even in these United States." Colson continued by stating that "this goes to the very core of what the protections of the First Amendment are intended to prevent-federal action condemning particular churches or doctrines."

Then, after this fine defense, he lets the penny drop on why the Bob Jones matter is so pivotal. "In truth," he explains, "the gulf between evangelicals and Roman Catholics, opened by the Reformation, is being bridged. . . ..Today we stand shoulder to shoulder as the most significant religious bloc in America."

Much has changed in the centuries since the Roman Catholic Church dictated to prince and pauper throughout Europe how to worship and exacted a heavy penalty on those who objected. We all see the grotesqueness of that denial of conscience and the rights of the individual-that to a large degree explains the recent papal apology for the Inquisition. Much has changed since the rabid anti-Catholicism of the U.S., which was still quite a factor as late as JFK's election to the presidency. We do need a kinder, gentler world in which differences are allowed and forgiveness tempers our interaction.

Some changes we do not need.

We do not need religion inserted as a power bloc into political dialogue. Calling upon Protestant sensibilities the so-called Christian Right have pushed the envelope beyond what is decorous and right-mistaking their actions for the legitimate way people of faith and principle should respond individually to the challenges of secular life.

We do not need people of any faith, or lack of such, demanding that their worldview be adopted by the whole. Such is the stuff of tyranny. And we should leave in place the constitutional protections against religious intrusion.

I have been saddened at some of the Catholic response to their first candidate being initially passed over for House chaplain. Maybe it was a process tainted by prejudice, though it gives little evidence of such. But there are no rights here and no need to seek a balance of power with other religious factions. Any straining for dominance in the public sphere is wrong and should be halted by all freedom-loving peoples.

These United States have endured this long because of a shared commitment to freedom, tolerance, and a ready acceptance of a pluralistic society. Obviously the tensions are increasing. The Founders never could have imagined the size of our present population; they would have blanched at what sometimes passes for faith, and the cultural diversity would have left them as stunned as any new arrival. But we know, because we know what they intended to guarantee, that they would have us stay the course.

In these increasingly secular United States the memory of church history and how it informs an understanding of secular times has faded. We should know that however forgetful some practitioners may be, the life-and-death issues of centuries long past remain embedded in such things as Protestantism. It was not for fame or election that Martin Luther stood before the Diet of Worms on April 18, 1521 and condemned the overreaching power of the Papacy. It was not a "misunderstanding," as some Lutheran apologists and Vatican negotiators recently proclaimed. The same doctrinal differences remain unresolved-including, curiously, the issuance of indulgences, which has been announced for the jubilee year. Nor was the Reformation in England as simple as the king's need for a divorce. That was at best a burlesque sideshow to the real issue, that involved a groundswell of Bible study and more than a few martyrs.

But enough of church history. Suffice it to say that Bob Jones University was merely repeating the doctrinal axioms of Protestantism. Disagree we may . . . but we must not marginalize it, and we dare not inhibit it for fear of all liberties.

Certainly the Conservative Protestant Coalition has moved in a most unseemly way into the political sphere. We have constitutional checks against such. But this republic would be well advised to treat with caution the winning ways of a resurgent Papacy. Not because of any bigotry against the Roman Catholic Church. Heaven forbid. But simply because of the overtly political nature of the organization. It was such in the Middle Ages, and it is true today. Acting as a state the Vatican cuts across expected lines of religious and national authority. It clearly seeks, to use a cold war term, religious "hegemony" and has political resources to do this. A faint illustration of this was the recent agreement with the PLO at the very moment of the papal visit to Israel and conciliatory language there. In reality the PLO agreement checkmated Israel in its moves to formalize the status of Jerusalem.

Here in the United Stated the principle of the separation of church and state will find a severe test in resisting this dual nature of Catholicism. Maybe we will even end up thanking John McCain for raising the alarm-even if somewhat inadvertently.

Lincoln E. Steed

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."