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)

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. Most people dislike Christian jerks because they are jerks, not because they are Christian. (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.

 

45 Comments

  1. While I definately agree there is a broad anti-christian bias in american media…the claim that they are “pro pope Francis” rings hollow for me.

    They would report on him anyway, whether he is good or bad. He just happens to be really, really good and thus any positive reporting following him positive actions is interpreted here as “pro”.

  2. Its not an irrational hatred of the christian faith. They claim sole possession of rational thought. Therefore, it can only be viewed as a rationally based hatred.

    That is why a mutual narrative between religious people and atheist people is impossible. The atheists and dawkins crowd are conditioned now to believe their argument is superior as it alone is exclusively rational. They are told the religious argument can never be rational and therefore the instance of a religious worldview is never valid. And since they alone are self proclaimed as superior, the descendants of monkeys alone get to make rules.

    See, the conversation between the two sides cannot take place. Its set up that way purposefully. And the idea that in america you are free to choose and live a religion? Thats just patriotic marketing now. There will he no life but the secular life, because no other argument will be accepted. Oh sure, you can be religious…but if you vote that way its not valid. The result? The impossability of a validly religious life.

    • The article itself is a representation of anti-Christian bias. In essence, the author was carefully saying “America loves progressive Christians, and hates those evil Evangelicals” Look at how cleverly phrased this stuff is:

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

      What Christians seek power and marginalization of others? Of course this is dog whistle stuff, supposedly conservative Christians are all about power and marginalizing others, while the author and his buddies are the “true Christians” how arrogant.

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

      Huh? So Americans resist those who are on welfare (“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.”

      Has he ever read the National Catholic Reporter” or RNS? Talk about tribal people. Talk about partisan people whose only goal seems to be to knock other Christians who don’t agree with them.

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

      That’s just dumb. Who doesn’t dislike those who are cantankerous and speak with hubris. People on both sides do that.

      - See more at: http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/07/11/popes-popularity-says-american-culture/#sthash.XViwjMSl.dpuf

  3. There are a few issues at play here. The pope is mostly embraced for his “actions” which are of course motivated by his belief in an “absolute truth” of the gospel. The whole world loves the actions part but it is the truth of the gospel part that they refuse, ignore, and often lash out against. There is certainly an endless list of reasons why the population and largely the media don’t like Christians – (this is really indisputable despite the popularity of the pope). They are often fueled by the “jerk” aspect and the images of Westboro at funerals but most often the Christian community is despised because of the demand that there is an “absolute truth”. The two must be linked. Without the truth of Jesus, the actions, albeit great, worthwhile, necessary, – are just good works.

  4. As I think about the many reasons we continue to write and sing songs about an “amazing grace” and not about an “amazing judgment,” I have come to believe that anyone who claims to have experienced such an amazing grace and then chooses a lifestyle that does not center on gifting grace has not, in fact, understood the very gift they have been given. Sadly, they are still “blind” and do not “see.”

    If a people who proclaim the free gift of grace from God would simply gift grace away themselves to others, it would truly prove such a gift of grace to be amazing. And, grace is the only thing that can change everything.

    • Chaplain Martin

      John,
      We should take to heart “Amazing Grace” written by John Newton, a slave ship captain, who as he realized the terribleness of slavery when on to openly oppose slavery the rest of his life. He worked with Wilberforce to end slave trade in England.
      How can a person who has truly received the Grace of God attempt to refuse it to others?
      A side note: With a friend I do a worship service at a home with dementia residents. They may hardly remember their names or where they are but when we sing Amazing Grace it’s like a beautiful choir.
      They remember each verse and they don’t forget God.

      • Chaplain Martin, I took what I posted here from a longer microblog I call “Thursday Theology” I wrote this week on my Facebook page that focussed on what Newton penned. Please take a min to read the whole microblog post, if you have time. Peace.

  5. The Great God Pan

    “Americans resist Christians who seek power to marginalize others”
    “Americans resist Christians who want to be served by society.”
    “Americans resist Christians who are partisan and tribal.”
    “Americans reject Christians who are cantankerous and speak with hubris.”

    Really? Then where exactly do all the Christians who act that way come from? How do you explain the continued existence of the Republican party, whose platform you pretty much just outlined?

    • Many churches, especially in the United States, have skewed the Gospel in such a way that they do indeed act cantankerous, speak with hubris, partisan, etc., and these actions are just truly not the message of Jesus. Christians are to serve, not be served. We are called to humble ourselves and serve those who are lesser than we are. Choosing to take all Christians and put them in a category with those who use the religion to gain power and control or as an excuse to look down on others is just as rational as me categorizing all anti-theists as rude, obnoxious, hateful people, which is just truly not the case. There are people in every walk of life who use their beliefs to make themselves feel better about treating others wrongly, and that does not make the entire group that way. As you mentioned the Republican Party, they use the platform of a “modern, reformed” Christianity that does not reflect the true message of the Gospel, but sadly, most Americans who identify as Christians are being led and taught to believe this message by their own churches, and therefore support those beliefs when they are displayed in politics. Even if they may not exactly agree with everything a candidate says, sometimes it is merely the lesser of two evils of the candidates, and many times the Republican candidate reflects their beliefs on issues more accurately than the Democratic candidate, so they are given the choice of either voting for him as just a “better choice” or risking that their refusal to vote will cause the other candidate, the one that they disagree with more, to win. A political vote does not always mean that you support that candidate 100%

        • I cannot tell if you’re being sarcastic, so allow me to rephrase. We are called to serve those who have less than we do, or even those who have more than we do. Basically we are called to serve regardless of who they are. This doesn’t make them “lesser”, as we are all equal, all sinful, all in need of salvation. Much of American church culture teaches this, but with a rather empty approach to the topic, and a minority percentage of the church actually follows through with applying the true Gospel to their daily lives.

      • Actually…if Christians put their hope in anything but Jesus…such as electing politicians to make “America a christian nation” is just another form of idolatry. I don’t say that as a jerk…especially being a former evangelical…but calling things the way they really are in America.

    • See. It’s all about bashing others who disagree with you as less than Christians, meanwhile the author arrogantly holds himself up as the real Christian.

  6. Chaplain Martin

    Great column Jonathan. I am so glad you are writing for RNS. I believe that you are in just the right place at this time and your writing is spot on. Having served away from the traditional church setting for nearly all of my ministry, coming back to sit in a pew, it’s like being a stranger in a strange land. I have to remember all the good I see around me as church members serve the poor, welcome the stranger( foreign), visit those in prison and help women in a job corp. These are just people in my Sunday School class. When the church does good to society, it is being the church.

  7. Well, now that we all know how we’re supposed to act as Christians so as to be accepted by the world, I feel better.
    Speaking and living the truth as the gospels dictate is most certainly going to tick people off…especially those who aren’t. Jesus made it pretty clear that the world was going to HATE us, just as it hated Him. The problem these days seems to be that people who say they are Christian can’t stand to be hated. In our gross emotional dysfunction and lack of teaching; other than social justice of course, the Church seems to be training us to be spineless friends with the world. Wasn’t it said that any friend of the world is an enemy of God?
    There is far too much worry about the world’s opinion of the Church. Truth is truth. If you’re really living the gospel, plan on being rejected and ridiculed and keep in mind that all the apostles but one were martyred. Any good Christian is already serving others. There’s no need to have our alms and good deeds included in a poll. God knows what they are, which is truly the only One who needs to know.

  8. His Holiness, does “nice” things and secular culture loves him for that, but that is no surprise, they loved John Paul because he too did nice things in an overt manner, especially if you think back before his Parkinson’s disease crippled his body. In fact, although he was much more shy and private, if anyone was paying attention, Benedict also, in a much less flashy way, did public acts of kindness. Overt acts of niceness are a powerful teaching tool, although in their overtness they perhaps say less about a man’s character than those “done in secret” (for “your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you”), however what our culture really likes about Francis is that he has not, in any systematic way, reiterated the teachings of the Church about any major subject. This might be because his two predecessor were such luminaries of Catholic though and said almost everything that needs to be said to the modern world, or perhaps its because he realizes that the secular world has simply chosen not to listen any more, and so he is trying to get their attention. Whatever his reasons may be, if we are take the Pope at His word, that he is a faithful son of the Church, then he holds (as from time to time he indicates) the same ODIOUS beliefs that both Benedict and John Paul held, which is to say Christianity.

    So the fact that they like him for his niceness, and the fact that he doesn’t talk too much about the tenets of the faith that really challenge the secular world, does not mean they like Christianity. If anything it means that they like Christianity in a nice gift wrapped box, out of sight and looking festive.

  9. What the Pope’s popularity says about American culture is that when it comes to Americans’ assessment of influential public figures what they care about is image and niceness rather than the policies these policy-makers promote. So the large body of Americans who were, ostensibly, on the left voted for the vacuous, center-right Obama because he was young and cool. And now Americans like this pope, even though, when you get down to brass tacks his policies are as conservative as his predecessors’. He’s announced that the door is closed to women’s ordination, he opposes the legalization of marijuana, and even though he makes nice noises about being nice to gays he hasn’t repudiated the Church’s position on sexuality.

    As for anti-Christian bias, it’s alive and growing, especially in the media. The pope is news because he’s a living man-bites-dog story: incredibly, here is a Christian who isn’t perfectly awful! Christians are certainly derided and marginalized, especially in the mainstream media which is dominated by secularists. They, and the growing body of “Nones” and spiritual-but-not-religious Americans don’t make fine distinctions between Episcopalians and Holy Rollers: they assume all non-Catholic Christians are Evangelicals. So when Atheist-in-Chief Obama and his team try to make nice to those of us they call, which smarmy condescension, ‘People of Faith,’ they look to the likes of Rick Warren.

  10. I could have saved you a lot of virtual ink. Someone says something the unregenerate world loves to here. That unregenerate world loves him for it and will continue to as long as he keeps saying stuff they like. That hasn’t been news for 2000 years.

  11. Wow, the author is naive about media dialectics and maximizing divisions. Indeed, every act of religiosity must be framed as a PRO- or a CON- so that this item and that item can serve as entertainment to the masses rather than as an erudite and subtle articulation of issues. The fact popularity polls are constantly alluded to (which have zero validity on any empirical basis) is proof that an author is merely writing to the middle of the pile with an entertaining twist. Piffle.

  12. Paul Frantizek

    “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.”

    In other words, liberal secular humanists prefer ‘Christians’ who espouse liberal secular humanism with a ‘spiritual’ veneer.

    Before secular humanists start seeing a kindred spirit in Pope Francis, they ought to do a search on ‘libertine atheism’ and the writing of Alberto Methol Ferré. Very good stuff to be found there.

  13. Americans (and especially American politicians) love Francis because they can take his off-the-cuff, casual remarks and use them to justify their own political views, and their lazy ideas as to what constitutes an authentic Christianity.

    His now (in)famous “who am I to judge?” remark regarding homosexuals is routinely trotted out to attack anyone who actually uses critical moral thinking. Of course, they conveniently neglect to mention the context of Francis’ quote.

    I have no doubt that when Francis’ papacy ends, he’ll be thrashed for all the big, bold things he “failed” to do, i.e., stripping Catholicism of all the teachings that make it Catholic.

    The differing reactions to Benedict vs. Francis is very telling. Americans revealed that they (a.) swallow any cartoon characterization of the pope that the media feeds them (Benedict the traditionalist meanie! Francis the modern cool guy!), and (b.) value style over substance, or worse, believe style is substance.

  14. No, what the Pope’s popularity says about American culture is that American culture loves “have your cake and eat it too” theology. The Pope is not unlike the lady of whom it was once said, she knew what perfection was but was too polite to insist upon it.

    The Pope is an expert at the superficial photo-op. The Pope, if the media are to be believed, lives in a closet in the basement of the Apostolic palace. He drives a small car, hates the Pope-mobile, and carries his own suitcase.

    Wow!! As if this stuff mattered – and the American public laps it up.

    His Holiness sounds not so much like the leader of a 2,000 year institution with a deeply complex theology so much as a combination of a New Age guru and a politico bending with the trendy way the winds are blowing. The alarm, then, that the Pope is raising among some Catholics is that he is saying that all the rules are still in place but that we just won’t talk about them. This is a recipe for confusion, disappointment and relativism.

    What does all this say about American culture? Well for starters, that it does not mind faith, so long as faith does not too much impinge on what people want to do. It likes a Church that does not demand too much of its adherents, beyond maybe a sort of languid “I’m okay, you’re okay” ethic. It also demonstrates is preference for warm and cuddly images instead of serious thought, philosophical complexity, and a rigorous moral code, and it demonstrates an addiction to the symbolic and the superficial.

    Not unlike the Pope it so admires.

  15. Francis’ popularity among the secular and marginally religious is due to the fact that he preaches a message of low expectations. He avoids Jesus’ call to “reform your lives and believe in the gospel” in favor of talking about social and economic issues that they do not feel any responsibility about because they do not have the economic power to change them. He says nice things and no individual feels responsible for the things he decries.

    • David, you’re mistaken. Francis doesn’t preach a message of low expectations. Rather, many of those who claim to admire him simply ignore the challenge of the gospel that he preaches in favor of a diminished, TIME magazine version of Pope Francis. They do the same to Jesus, doncha know!

    • Jonathan Merritt

      Austin:

      This was sent out via your twitter account (“Children don’t need to know about what is intrinsically disordered and abnormal”). The tweet has since been deleted but references to it remain at various organizational web sites and news outlets. This was right around the time that you stated on the radio that “hard left, human-hating people that run modern universities…should all be taken out and shot,” which resulted in your removal from American Family Radio.

  16. I am an atheist, and often anti-theist. I often agree with the Dawkins/Hitchens crowd. Because of this, I dispute that we are reflexively anti religion. The motivation for opposing religion comes when religious people attempt to force others, especially others of different faiths or no faith, to conform with religious tenets we otherwise reject. We see this as a power grab, a violation of liberty for the sake of dogma or power or money. The author correctly points out this motivation but fails to understand folk like Dawkins or myself.

    I have no qualms with the Amish, for instance, though I find their beliefs absurd. As long as I am free to not live as they do, I have no argument other than friendly disagreement.

  17. As a Roman Catholic who thinks very highly of our current Pope I wish I thought that his current popularity meant that Christians weren’t under attack in our nation, but I don’t think that is the case. The Popes popularity hasn’t prevented Obama and the democrats from trying to force Nuns, Christians, and other people of faith from being responsible for making abortion pills available in violation of our own First Amendment right to Freedom of Religion. Obama and the democrats have shown an intolerance toward Christians, and people of Faith that we might have seen toward atheists in the 1950s, and we’ll see how long the secularists and Atheists continue to like our current Pope. He has brought a new style and emphasis that is welcomed by conservative and traditionalist Catholics, but when push comes to shove this Pope will defend the faith, and the faithful, and when that becomes clear the atheists and secularists won’t like it. Then we’ll see.

  18. Please tell where I said “gay people are disordered and abnormal “. Otherwise, a correction please. I have little doubt that my moral superior would have no problem doing the right thing. I also have no doubt you can lazily find something else you can use or distort.

    Yours,

    Austin Ruse

    • Jonathan Merritt

      Austin:

      This was sent out via your twitter account (“Children don’t need to know about what is intrinsically disordered and abnormal”). The tweet has since been deleted but references to it remain at various organizational web sites and news outlets. This was right around the time that you stated on the radio that “hard left, human-hating people that run modern universities…should all be taken out and shot,” which resulted in your removal from American Family Radio.

      • Please show me that was acre deference to “gay people “. I have never ever said that.

        Either show us or make a correction.

        Yours,

        Austin Ruse

      • Jonathan,

        I am looking for a correction. I have never said anywhere that “gay people are disordered and abnormal.” If you can show me that i have said that, then do. It is quite irrelevant what is on other websites. As you likely know, there is a n echo chamber and when one site puts soothing up, all the rest are thrilled to repeat it, like you are, even though the quote can never be substantiated.

        I am quite happy to stand by the things that i have written but i insist that this be corrected since i never said it and you cannot show that i have ever said it.

        Cite it or take it down.

        Yours,

        Austin Ruse

        • Jonathan Merritt

          Austin,

          You said on my Facebook page that you did indeed say this, except you were referring to the state of homosexuality and not to gay people. I have updated the article to reflect this.

          Jm

  19. Rarely have a read a piece so laden with stereotype and condescension.

    Pope Francis isn’t popular in American culture. What is popular is the distorted image the media have created of Pope Francis. Pope Francis said that living a gay lifestyle is fine, and we shouldn’t judge people who do so. Except he didn’t. Pope Francis said that we should stop making such a big deal about abortion. Except he didn’t. Pope Francis said there should be a redistribution of wealth, taking it from the rich and giving it to the poor. Except he didn’t. Pope Francis said that the Catholic Church shouldn’t be involved in politics. Except he didn’t.

    You get the picture.

    What people find genuinely attractive about Pope Francis are his actions on behalf of the poor and marginalized and his genuine practice of a humble lifestyle – long before he became pope. People loved the same thing about Mother Teresa. But, when Mother Teresa spoke out against abortion, she was either censored, condemned, lied about, or ridiculed. When the media stop being so impressed with the newness of Francis, and when they start listening to what he really is saying, then they’ll drop him like a hot potato, and he’ll become a cantankerous old pope, no better than that dour-faced meanie, Pope Ratzinger.

    “It’s easier to swallow the pill of a simplistic narrative than reflect on the complexities of reality.”

    “Simplistic narrative” is a pretty good way of summing up this article.

  20. Jonathan, One last thought and question. You do understand the difference between a person and their inclinations? Perhaps you don’t but a person is not the same thing as what they desire or are inclined to. Christians, especially, usually understand that distinction…

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