Pope Francis and the American Culture War

What would the pontiff say about feelings of religious persecution on the political right?

Max Rossi / Reuters

In September, Pope Francis will visit the United States for the very first time. His trip is guaranteed to be interesting, partly because this pope often does and says unpredictable things to great effect, and partly because his teachings don’t map neatly onto the American left-right political spectrum. As the Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson said at a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Friday, “This is someone who is ambivalent about America—this is the mothership of global capitalism.” It will be fascinating to watch what happens when he addresses Congress, for example: Which legislators will clap when he talks about climate change? About abortion?

Among some American conservative Christians, the pope has been a source of anxiety. When Francis released his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, for example, politicians from Jeb Bush to Rick Santorum had to do a delicate dance, reiterating their opposition to climate-change reform while also not condemning the world’s most popular religious leader and the head of their Church. There’s a sort of political combativeness in this, an instinct to treat even the teachings of a priest as ground in a partisan war.

In Aspen, the editor in chief of America magazine, Matt Malone, said the pope would see this attitude as antithetical to the teachings of Jesus:

He fundamentally believes that what we are called to be are evangelists, not activists. His pastoral approach, his way of being in the world, is one of encounter, not confrontation. I would think that that’s particularly important now, because if we continue to see our engagement in the public life in this country as a series of confrontations and battles that have to be fought, it will inevitably lead to a kind of Masada complex, in which we feel that we are besieged by the forces around us. This, in the pope’s mind, is contrary to the generosity, the openness, the inclusiveness of the gospel proclamation.