Minutes before a formal dinner in a spacious Arlington hotel room, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, had one question for the master of ceremonies:
"Is this an evangelical [Christian] or a Roman Catholic event?" Cardinal Dolan asked.
Eric Metaxas, the emcee and best-selling author of “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” replied that it would be highly evangelical, as in “dry” — no wine or beer, the latter being one of Cardinal Dolan’s preferred refreshments.
Everyone in the anteroom laughed, recognizing the sly reference to Jesus' miracle at the wedding feast at Cana, recorded in the second chapter of John's Gospel.
The affable cardinal further endeared himself to the overwhelmingly evangelical Protestant crowd at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview's 2013 Wilberforce Awards dinner April 27, by pointing out a table where some of his fellow Catholic priests and seminarians were sitting.
"It's nice to see a Catholic table over there," he said. "It's the one with the bingo cards and swizzle sticks."
The blossoming alliance between Roman Catholics and many evangelical Protestants might surprise some. Not that long ago, Protestants and Roman Catholics weren't the best of friends, with each side distrustful of the other. But growing secularism in American society seems to have eased the distrust between the two groups.
Evangelical scholar Timothy George, dean of the Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., said Catholics and evangelicals have "discovered one another as brothers and sisters in Jesus," calling Cardinal Dolan "the most recognized and beloved figure in American Christianity" today.
And while evangelicals, by and large, differ from the Catholic Church's stance on contraception, defending the Catholic Church's right not to provide contraception via health insurance to employees rests on a principle, Mr. George said: "Unless we stand together on the principle of conscience, there will be no one left to stand."
For Cardinal Dolan, who has authored two books on Catholic history as well as several on doctrinal subjects, the church has had to adjust its opinion on the idea of keeping church and state separate.
"We learned the hard way that religious freedom is essential," the cardinal, who also is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a conversation before the Wilberforce event. "We used to be the premier supporter of the 'union of throne and altar.' We used to say that we're all for religious freedom, as long as it's in a Catholic-dominated state."
Catholics have since learned, Cardinal Dolan said, "that that's not only bad for human rights, that's bad for religion, because religion needs to be the freest of any human enterprise. And once we try to enforce it, once we try to have government regulating it, it's destructive, not only for the faith, but [also] for freedom and for government and for culture."
While Catholic leaders in Europe and the Vatican were at first puzzled by the American experiment, the cardinal said they eventually came around.
"America then became a light to the world, and that finally captured the imagination of the rest of the Catholic world, and it was enshrined as part of the [teaching] of the Second Vatican Council in the decree on religious freedom," he said.
Asked about the new Pope Francis' stance on religious liberty, Cardinal Dolan replied, "I don't have any personal sense, but I think I could bet [Sunday's] collection on the fact that he would be a staunch defender of religious freedom. He's a man who has given enthusiastic support to the renewal of the Second Vatican Council, a cornerstone of which has been religious liberty. He himself has been a defender of religious freedom in Argentina. He has been particularly close to the evangelicals and the Jewish community, so he certainly extols a world, a culture, where religions exist in amity and where the freedoms of all are protected."
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.