Over the past few years, Christianity has increasingly become known for conservatism. As the members of the religious right have deployed their faith in the service of their political aims, the public image of Christianity has become identified with conservative moral principles and with a particular brand of conservative political ideology. Various mega-church pastors and evangelical leaders have become the poster boys (and, for the most part, they are boys) for what Christianity is allegedly about: strict moral absolutism in the service of “traditional values”; the shaming and vilifying of those who are seen as moving outside this traditional moral paradigm; the insistence that God is both the author and enforcer of this paradigm; a rigid, literalistic reading of sacred texts; the idea of America as a Christian nation (to the point of rewriting American history to correspond to this view); and the baptism of capitalism as the economic system ordained by God.
Certainly, there have always been many Christians and churches who have not signed on to this way of understanding faith. However, these Christians go largely unnoticed by the public. We get no press coverage except when we ordain or marry gay people, and even then there is no interest in exploring the larger conception of faith that makes room for such ordinations and marriages.
The Roman Catholic Church, the largest in the world, has over the years moved more and more into the camp of the religious right. In former days, evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics had little in common, and each group was relatively sure that the other was destined for hell (not an idea I endorse, by the way). Under the reign of Pope John Paul II, however, the Roman church made a move in a decidedly conservative direction, and that movement ultimately led to alliances with the Protestant religious right, coalescing around a substantially shared vision of personal morality and even, from time to time, shared elements of political ideology. Both the rise of the religious right and the right-ward movement of the Roman church have contributed to the currently popular idea that Christianity is naturally conservative (in the modern sense of that word).
Upon this scene has come the highly unexpected Pope Francis. While it is far too early to know what the long-term impact of his papacy will be on the Roman church (and, indeed, the rest of Christianity, given the sheer size of that church), he has certainly made an impression on people in these first months. And, when it comes to the members of the religious right, the impression he has made has not been a good one. He has been criticized as a Marxist for speaking up for the poor and pointing out the ways in which capitalism can lead to great wealth for some and great poverty for others. While he has not changed the moral teaching of Catholicism with respect to abortion and other “hot button” moral issues, he has dared to suggest that the church has perhaps become too focused on them at the expense of other aspects of its proclamation. He has famously suggested that it’s not his place to judge gay people who seek the Lord.
Francis himself has pointed out that he has said nothing contrary to the social teaching of the Roman church of the past several decades. What he has been doing is reminding Catholics of that social teaching, recalling the days when Roman Catholicism stood squarely on the side of the disadvantaged and marginalized. The public has been stunned, and the religious right is not quite sure what has happened.
A recent Facebook post perhaps says it all: “If you like Pope Francis, you’re going to love Jesus.” The truth of the matter is that large numbers of Christians have, over the years, developed the habit of seeing Jesus and reading the gospels through the conservative prism of the religious right. And, in my humble opinion, that prism has robbed Jesus of much of his power. Under the influence of the religious right, we have increasingly come to worship a nice, domesticated, American Jesus who doesn’t challenge us too much. So successfully has Jesus been made over in our own image that a news anchor recently pronounced, in all seriousness, that Jesus was a white man.
Perhaps one of the greatest gifts that Pope Francis is giving not only to the Roman Catholic Church but to all of us is the gift of exposing Jesus for what he was: a Middle Eastern Jew who had some pretty revolutionary things to say — things that might well make comfortable white Americans rather uncomfortable. Jesus was a man who criticized his society not for being insufficiently prosperous but for the people it left out. And it is this same revolutionary Jesus, who was unafraid to criticize the religious and secular power and economic structures of his time, who was proclaimed to be God incarnate. And what Jesus said and did, and what he was proclaimed to be on that basis, has profound implications for us today, in terms of how we are called to be his hands and heart in the world.
I am unafraid to join the Pope Francis fan club, even though I am not Roman Catholic. Because whatever he does or doesn’t ultimately do for the Roman church, I fervently hope that, at the very least, he will cause people to reassess who Jesus was and what he was about. And, that he will cause people to see that the Christian movement does not have to be what the religious right has made it into (and that, for many of us, it never became). In Francis, I find hope and I find courage. In him, I perceive that God is up to something. May we have the grace to figure out what God is up to in all of us.