In a post-secular world, and a post-Christian America, it seemed we might be past the time of towering faith figures and transnational, transcendent religious leaders. Enter Pope Francis — the pontiff formerly known as Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio — who is a religious rock star in a way many thought was impossible. Pope Francis has found a broad, welcoming audience in the United States, and American Catholics have found a new hope for their Church.
While evangelicals do not share Catholics’ interest in the flourishing of the Catholic Church, evangelicals still have a stake in his popularity and success. The rise of Pope Francis suggests to evangelicals that even in this new century, Christians can have a faithful presence and influence in American public life.
Francis’ popularity is driven by his pastoral, inclusive, and humble approach to the Pontificate. He has eschewed the worldly perks of some of his predecessors, opting for a simpler wardrobe and a less luxurious home and car. He has reached out to unexpected people: the Muslim girl whose feet he washed, the meetings and meals he has held with the homeless and those at the margins, his interview with atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari, his encouragement to mothers to breastfeed in church, and his words of humility on the topic of gay priests.
But perhaps the most defining feature of the Francis pontificate so far is his pastoral approach to Catholic leadership. This is a man concerned with how people experience the church, and he understands the limits of declarations of doctrine without a lens of practical experience. This shift was best described by Francis himself:
The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.
His example of Christian leadership, though not unprecedented, has struck a chord with an American public skeptical of public faith. After decades of decline, American Catholics are beginning to feel the wind at their backs.
As Pope Francis is helping Catholics to find their footing in twenty-first century America, evangelicals increasingly feel that they are losing theirs. The defining religious trend of the last decade has been the “rise of the nones,” those with no religious affiliation at all. An overwhelming majority of evangelicals (71%) feel that religious freedom in the United States will become more restricted over the next five years. Seventy-two percent of evangelicals believe that faith is losing influence in America. Evangelicals feel pressured on all sides: demographically, spiritually, politically and culturally.
Just over 50 years ago, John Kennedy was forced to assure America’s Protestants that he would not seek advice from the Vatican as president. Today, many evangelicals are looking to Pope Francis as they seek to find their way in this new nation.
He offers an interesting test case of a model of engagement some next-generation evangelicals have been practicing on a smaller-scale, and to various degrees, without much fanfare. It can be seen in Jim Daly’s leadership of Focus on the Family, steering its focus back to its core mission of equipping families to thrive rather than acting as a political advocacy organization. Or Russell Moore’s more hopeful, holistic engagement of public policy issues as the new head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Or the wave of twenty-first century Christian organizations like Q, Catalyst, the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit, the Justice Conference, and others that are seeking to confront today’s challenges with creative, grace-led approaches. Or the Christian bloggers and writers who respond to controversies with introspection and reflection rather than bomb throwing and diatribes.
These types of evangelicals believe the more strident, partisan faith the previous generation was known for harmed the church’s standing in this nation. The question they are testing in their work, and the core question of Francis’ papacy, is whether a more inclusive, pastoral, and humble approach will be enough to maintain a strong Christian voice in America’s marketplace of ideas.
Pope Francis’ effort in this regard is supported in some important ways by the institution of his church. In a nation that is openly critiquing Christian doctrine like never before, the rituals and history of the Catholic Church provide a reminder of the tradition of the faith. Young evangelicals’ felt need for this reminder is leading some to join liturgical churches.
Some of the strengths of Catholicism in modern cultural and political engagement cannot be easily replicated by Protestants. For instance, while the Protestant emphasis on the individual’s ability to interpret scripture has made it easier for outsiders to view interpretations it doesn’t like—no matter how historic—as arbitrary, subjective and unnecessary, the Catholic can refer the critic of her views on controversial issues to the historic and hard-earned position of her church. Catholics have social teaching—institutionalized through encyclicals and pronouncements—that has been built up over millennia.
Finally, because the Catholic Church has a clear leader, a change in leadership can provide a natural opportunity to “rebrand” and make course corrections in cultural engagement. Protestant denominations aside, which are typically less hierarchical and influential on their member churches, evangelical leadership occurs in a fractured marketplace. Ideally, this allows for the most salient leaders and ideas to rise to the top, but it also facilitates division and, perhaps ironically, evangelicalism’s lack of a dominant institution actually slows any efforts to remake itself.
The rise of Pope Francis suggests to evangelicals that even in this new century, Christians can have a faithful presence and influence in American public life.
Evangelicals also have a vested interest in Francis’ success because it makes it easier to imagine their own. We should remember that the American public’s love affair with Francis is not a result of his views meshing perfectly with theirs. This is a pope who promotes the evangelism of non-Christians, who looks to maintain the Church’s position on issues ranging from female priests to marriage to abortion, and someone who is clearly, completely in love with Jesus.
It is unclear how long America’s honeymoon with this pope will last. Already, some public voices are questioning whether Francis’ approach is sufficient or if Catholic doctrine itself disqualifies the pope from broad admiration. Among some religion-watchers, there is a sense of fatalism about this, a foreboding sense that the unpopularity of some elements of Christian doctrine will catch up with the pope. Still, for now, hope abounds. A year into his papacy, Americans have made room for this humble, inclusive, and pastoral pope. And as he continues to inspire Americans, evangelicals will gain confidence that there is still room in this country for them, too.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author.