Beliefs Culture Ethics Institutions Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

What the Pope’s popularity says about American culture

The pope's popularity counters the narrative that American society opposes Christians because of their religion. | Photo credit: Catholic Church England and Wales - (http://bit.ly/1s36629)

As if we needed one more reason to love Pope Francis.

On Monday, the pope said the Catholic Church should “weep and make reparation” for its sexual abuse crimes. In a series of strong comments made at a Mass with abuse victims, he said the church’s actions had taken on the dimensions of a “sacrilegious cult.”

The pope’s actions are only the latest to be praised by both secular and religious journalists and commentators who join the masses of adoring fans around the world. He always seems to be hugging a disabled child, washing the feet of prisoners, embracing a disfigured person, or making uncommonly compassionate comments about a marginalized people group, and scooping up people’s adoration as a result.

A late 2013 CNN poll found that 88 percent of American Catholics approve of Francis’ handling his role. But most notably, three in four Americans said they view him favorably. Even many atheists have expressed their affection for the leader. Not only was the pope the most talked about person on the Internet in 2013, he was also named person of the year by The Advocate, a leading LGBT publication.

What does the pope’s popularity—even among secular populations—say about broader culture? For one thing, it says that American society is actually more open and amenable to Christians and the Christian faith than some assume.

From the military to the halls of institutions of higher education, some Christians claim that they are being derided, marginalized, and flat-out discriminated against. Brietbart’s Austin Ruse—who once tweeted that homosexuality was “intrinsically disordered and abnormal” and has said that liberal college professors “should all be taken out and shot”—has argued “Christians are now in hostile territory at work.” In fact, 71 percent of evangelical Christians said secularism was the greatest threat to religion according to Pew Research in 2011.

The country’s nearly ubiquitous adoration of the pope challenges such assertions. Marvin Olasky, for example, warns of an anti-Christian bias in American news media. How does he make sense of the pro-pope coverage in mainstream outlets? Conservative web site RedState.com claimed that Time magazine was also anti-Christian. Then why would the publication name Pope Francis its 2013 person of the year?

And what about those who claim that Hollywood is rabidly anti-Christian? How do they reconcile this with the blossoming faith-based film boom happening within many major movie studios?

What is happening across culture is, per usual, more complicated than some assume. Americans are not intrinsically allergic to Christians, but rather certain expressions of Christianity. The pope’s popularity helps us understand exactly which types of Christianity people resist.

Americans accept Christians who advocate for the marginalized.
Americans resist Christians who seek power to marginalize others.

Americans accept Christians who want to serve society.
Americans resist Christians who want to be served by society.

Americans accept Christians who are as clear-eyed about the failures of their community as well as others’.
Americans resist Christians who are partisan and tribal.

Americans accept Christians who are compassionate and speak with humility.
Americans resist Christians who are cantankerous and speak with hubris.

This is not a uniquely 21st century trend, of course. Rewind to the 1990s: Mother Teresa vs. Jerry Falwell. The point is that people don’t like mean people and judgmental people and power-hungry people, regardless of their religion. [tweetable]Most people dislike Christian jerks because they are jerks, not because they are Christian.[/tweetable] (According to a 2013 Barna poll, about 51% of self-identified Christians are characterized by having the attitudes and actions that are “Pharisaical” as opposed to “Christlike.”)

But misdiagnosing the impetus for society’s rejection of some Christians is advantageous for those who have a vested interest in the matter. Perpetuating the everybody-hates-Christians narrative allows people to victimize themselves, demonize others, incite fear, and raise truckloads of money.

Some secularists and atheists, of course, despise Christians just for being Christians. But the Richard Dawkins brand of adversary is the outlier and the exception. The far-reaching popularity of the pope proves that there is more at work in the minds of the masses than an intrinsic, irrational hatred of the Christian faith.

Recognizing the complexity of this cultural narrative provides an opportunity for those who call themselves “Christians” to reflect on why they are actually encountering some resistance from some sectors of society. Is any of it deserved? Which opposition can be written off as irrational disdain and which is legitimate defiance to a malformation of the faith? When is the social tension a necessary result of speaking prophetically and when are we paying a price unnecessarily?

American Christians should be asking these questions frequently, but most aren’t. It’s easier to swallow the pill of a simplistic narrative than reflect on the complexities of reality. But living a life of faith demands the latter.

 

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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