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A Great Christian

John Paul II was beloved by Protestants, too, because he was the world's greatest defender of orthodox, Bible-based Christianity.

4:18 PM, Apr 2, 2005 • By FRED BARNES
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EVANGELICAL PROTESTANTS loved Pope John Paul II. Many felt more in harmony with him than with the leaders of their own denomination. I attend an Episcopal church and I certainly preferred the Pope. He was the world's greatest defender of orthodox, Bible-based Christianity. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and possibly a majority of its bishops are among the great diluters of classical Christianity.

The truth is evangelicals could admire the Pope without wanting to convert to Catholicism. Sure, important differences remained between Protestants and Catholics, but John Paul II made them seem small. He was pro-life, pro-family, anti-totalitarian, and quite a lot more that conservative evangelicals identified with. Richard Land, a prominent Southern Baptist leader, once told a Catholic friend that Pope John Paul II was a "Pope who really knows how to pope." I suspect what Land meant in using "pope" as a verb was that John Paul was bold and unswerving in proclaiming salvation through belief in Jesus Christ. He did this all over the world, despite declining health and personal risk.

During John Paul's 27 years as Pope, evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics grew closer together in America's culture wars. There was a kind of "ecumenism of the trenches," said scholar Timothy George. They agreed on the need to protect--or in some cases, to revive--traditional values and to insist on a place for people of faith, particularly Christians, in public life.

After the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in 1973, Catholics provided most of the energy and the troops for the pro-life movement. But by the late 1970s and early 1980s, conservative Protestants were joining in large numbers. They not only were welcomed, but they felt comfortable being allied with Catholics in the era of Pope John Paul II.

Three more things about the Holy Father were especially appealing to Protestant evangelicals: his courage, his anti-communism, and his appeal to young people. He visited Poland, his native country, a year after becoming Pope and his appearances attracted roughly one-third of the population. That's not a third of the Catholic population but a third of Poland's entire population. His message was, "Be not afraid."

He wasn't. Communist agents in Bulgaria, no doubt with the approval of the KGB in the Soviet Union, recruited a Turk to assassinate the Pope. The attack failed in more ways than one. Pope John Paul II wasn't killed, and neither was he deterred. He continued traveling the word with the vigorous message of undiluted Christianity. His message trumped communism's and he was a bigger man than communism's leaders as well.

Along with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, he vanquished Soviet communism. Shortly after his trip to Poland, Solidarity was founded. Chances are, without Pope John Paul II, the labor federation would not have thrived. Its members, indeed dissenters of all kinds, found sanctuary and a place to gather in Catholic churches. Solidarity took on the Communist leaders of Poland and prevailed, and its influence was felt all over eastern Europe.

In more than one sense, Pope John Paul II and Reagan alike, though you might not have guessed it when Reagan dozed off while visiting the Pope in the Vatican. They were men who reached greatness in their later years and, oddly enough, had an amazing attraction to young people. The Pope held youth gatherings all over the world and the turnout was extraordinary. And in the political realm, Reagan instilled conservative principles in millions of young Americans.

So among the mourners for Pope John Paul II there will be many evangelicals. Catholics have lost a great and wonderful leader. And so have evangelicals.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.