When Pope Francis visits the United States for the first time later this month, he will set foot in a country in which a segment of evangelical Christians are waging a crusade. I count myself as an evangelical, but there is a split in the party, so to speak. The centrist and progressive evangelicals are ready to move on from the culture wars of the past 40 years. The conservatives? They are moving, but seemingly backward.
An Apostolic clerk in Eastern Kentucky is being hailed as the newest evangelical martyr for refusing to issue marriage licenses, for God's glory. The presidential candidate with the most evangelical support (20 percent) is the billionaire Republican frontrunner who "loves" a Bible he can't quote and wants to build a wall to keep "illegals" (mostly Latino Catholics) out. And it's impossible not to notice that as soon as same-sex marriage became law, the right wing culture warriors reverted back to raiding Planned Parenthood like it was 1992 all over again.
The theocratic fantasies of this segment of American evangelicals have now been laid completely bare. I support the protection of religious liberty as outlined in the First Amendment, but some Christians, like the emperor Constantine, seem determined to conquer under the sign of the cross. Even while forwarding chain emails claiming that Muslims are trying to enforce Sharia law in the U.S., culture war Christians are attempting to force all Americans to live according to their interpretation of religious law.
This culture war is taking its toll on faith in America. An alarming 36 percent of Young Millennials are now unaffiliated with any religion, and the percentage of "The Nones," those who claim no faith, is up among all age groups. An earlier study revealed their reasons for leaving the faith; they believe that "... religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics." The rise of the Religious Right, an extreme politicization of conservative Christianity in the U.S., coincided with a rapid decline of faith.
While American evangelicals war against same-sex marriage and abortion rights, Pope Francis has clearly chosen a different path. Although the Pope supports neither, his actions have served to open the gate to those who have been shut out of their communities of faith. He agrees with evangelicals on many doctrinal issues, but his overall tone is one of bridge building instead of wall building. Pontifex means "bridge-builder," so he's living up to the title.
Famously, when asked about gay priests, the Pope replied, "Who am I to judge?" Well... he's the Pope, but his answer communicated grace to those who have been excommunicated by the Religious Right. While 77 percent of white evangelical Americans think climate change is a sign of the apocalypse, Pope Francis believes the science and released the groundbreaking (or ground-saving) encyclical calling Catholics to care for God's creation, both the earth and the poor humans who suffer the most from climactic changes that directly affect their livelihoods.
Now just prior to his first U.S. visit, the Pope has declared a Jubilee Year Of Mercy, in which marriages can be more easily annulled and women forgiven the "sin of abortion." Again, while the Pope's beliefs regarding divorce and abortion differ little from conservative evangelicals, the tone could not be more divergent. In fact, the difference is in more than tone. The Pope is expressing a gracious and loving attitude toward the world, not the militant condemnation and separatism conveyed by some conservative evangelicals. He is moving toward the people, not away from them.
A small but growing number of evangelical leaders are reexamining their theology and welcoming those previously walled off from their faith communities. Gracepointe Church in Nashville, the buckle of the Bible Belt, was recently profiled by TIME and NBC Nightly News for its decision to welcome same-sex couples. My friend Brandan Robertson is a champion for human rights while maintaining his passionate evangelical faith. Ken Wilson was the founding pastor of Vineyard Church Ann Arbor, Michigan until he explained to his megachurch in the now published A Letter to My Congregation that he felt morally obligated to welcome members of the LGBTQ community. He now serves as the pastor of Blue Ocean Faith in Ann Arbor, a church that describes itself as "a Jesus, Spirit, Scripture, science, all-people friendly church." The church I founded, One Church, welcomes everyone, along with the common questions thinking people have about the relationship between faith and science, women's rights, the environment, LGBTQ equality and social justice.
Even while maintaining conservative stances, a couple of high profile evangelical leaders have recently displayed a marked change in tone. It is widely acknowledged that influential megachurch pastor Andy Stanley has adopted a more conciliatory posture toward progressive ideas over the past couple of years. Although California pastor Rick Warren still opposes same sex marriage, he apologized for publicly supporting the Prop 8 referendum on same sex marriage in 2008, calling it a mistake. To various degrees, these more conservative evangelical leaders and others like them are attempting to build a bridge between a dynamic, inspiring evangelical faith and the 21st century Developed World. Evangelical Christianity desperately needs more of this Pope Francis brand of leadership.
Although Protestant evangelicals do not officially recognize the authority of the Pope, much of the world recognizes his moral authority. By extending the hand of friendship to those who have felt pushed away, the Pope is making Christian spirituality more accessible to thinking, skeptical people who find his approach refreshing. Perhaps, when the Pope arrives in the United States on September 22 for his historic visit, more open-minded evangelicals will be inspired to act, not as crusaders or wall-builders, but as gracious representatives of God who build bridges.