By Terry Mattingly, Scripps Howard News Service

Believe it or not, politicians used to be able to assume that when the U.S. Catholic bishops spoke on an issue, that meant that the nation’s Catholics had spoken.

That was so mid-20th century.

Before long, Catholic liberals — backed by Playboy’s Hugh Hefner and others — would dare to create a pro-abortion-rights group called Catholics for Free Choice.

Before long, American Catholics would become so divided that traditionalists felt the need to form a group called Priests for Life.

Catholics were not the only believers rocked by the earthquakes of the 1960s and ’70s. Evangelicals ventured out into the public square, inspired first by a born-again Democrat from Georgia and then by the Hollywood Republican who promised to defeat him. The Protestant mainline declined and then splintered. Pluralism and globalization tested old coalitions and inspired old ones.

All of this caused radical changes in the nation’s capital. The number of organizations engaged in advocacy work linked to religious issues has increased fivefold in four decades — from 37 in 1970 to at least 211 today.

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