At a cultural moment when celebrity trumps character in America, it took a humble priest from Argentina to remind us of the better angels of our nature – and of the kind of nation we must aspire to build in the 21st century.
Pope Francis arrived in our public square as a self-described migrant, and for a refreshing week his message of compassion and justice drowned out the divisive, ugly, sometimes hateful rhetoric of this political season.
Temporarily pushed out of the headlines was trash talk about immigrants, demonizing language about American Muslims, and the puffed-up buffoonery that passes for political discourse in 2016 America.
The pope didn’t downplay or disguise his convictions about everything from climate change to the sanctity of life “at all of its stages.” But he delivered his views – and here is the lesson many of our political and religious leaders would do well to re-learn – with civility and respect.
Consider the pope’s message on religious freedom, delivered at the cradle of American freedom in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Few topics are more divisive in the United States, with one side proclaiming religious liberty “under assault” and the other side condemning religious liberty as cover for “bigotry.”
Without the rancor or hyperbole that characterizes our culture wars, Pope Francis offered a powerful affirmation of religious freedom as a right “given by God himself.” And he warned against confining religious expression to “a subculture without right to a voice in the public square.”
After the pope’s departure from the United States, it was revealed that he met privately with Kim Davis – the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on religious grounds.
Although both sides in the Davis affair are already citing the meeting to attack the other, the pope’s balanced approach to the controversy – signaling support for the right to conscientious objection while avoiding divisive public statements about same-sex marriage – illustrates the tone and balance he brings to conflicts over religious issues in the public square.
As John Gehring, Catholic program director at the liberal advocacy group Faith and Public Life, explained in a New York Times interview, the pope’s approach makes both sides “a little bit uncomfortable.”
“I think Pope Francis affirms religious liberty,” said Gehring, “and he rejects the culture wars. That’s something we need to grapple with.”
Of course, we can, and should, contend with one another over our religious and ideological differences, but if the common good is to be served, we should do so through civil and constructive dialogue.
Standing near the spot where American freedom was born in Philadelphia, Pope Francis called on people of all faiths and beliefs to work for “tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.”
Religious freedom, he argued, thrives best in a society with “a healthy pluralism, which respects differences.”
The pope reminded us that what unites Americans is not religion – we each have our religious and non-religious convictions that rank among our deepest differences – but rather a commitment to pluralism framed by religious liberty, “a fundamental right which shapes the way we interact with neighbors whose religious views differ from our own.”
Just prior to his departure from the United States, the pope modeled the “healthy pluralism” he envisions at a worship service held at Ground Zero in New York. He met with families of those who lost their lives on 9/11 and participated in a “witness for peace” ceremony with Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and other religious leaders.
The gathering was deliberately and carefully described as “multi-faith” – rather than “interfaith” – to underscore that respect for the rights of others does not mean or require uniformity of belief.
At the Ground Zero ceremony, we saw on display the rich possibilities of an America of many faiths and cultures – a nation where citizens affirm distinct religious identities while living and working together for the common good.
Realizing this ideal in an America deeply divided by religion and ideology is one of our greatest challenges in the 21st century.
It will not be easy. But for one, brief shining week, Pope Francis made many of us believe it can – and must – be done.
Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and executive director of the Religious Freedom Center.