Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Traveler From Altruria: Pope Francis In America

Pope Francis’s visit to America was a delicious moment to analyze the reflexes of Christian conservatives.

House and Senate Republicans originally sent a Congressional Address invite to the Vatican when the pope was deeply conservative, Benedict XVI. When the invitation was finally accepted the pope was named Francis and he’d recently made it easier and cheaper to get marriages annulled and proclaimed that women who’ve had abortions be forgiven and welcomed back into the church. And, oh yeah, when asked about homosexuality, Francis replied, “Who am I to judge?”

Seeing U.S. defenders of the faith squirm and protest at the worlds' premier Christian leader apply the teachings of Jesus to our modern political problems sounded familiar to me.

It was reminded of an obscure, largely forgotten novel from the early 1890s, The Traveler From Altruria. In this story by William Dean Howells, a traveler from the newly discovered, distant land of Altruria has been invited to America to learn about freedom, democracy and a Christian nation where “all men are created equal.” But the traveler discovers the myriad of ways Americans ignore those stated values. And the American hosts are appalled by the traveler’s descriptions of life in Altruria. But ironically, what they recoil from is the description of a nation where all truly are treated equal and cultural and economic life reflects New Testament teachings.

Pope Francis is a new Traveler From Altruria. He came to modern America last week – a place with a pretty high opinion of itself, proud of it’s free enterprise system, it’s religious institutions, and it’s traditions of social justice. Yet, this new Traveler rankled some feathers by preaching Christianity in stark, simple language that one couldn’t help but read as a challenge to the political beliefs of many conservative Christians.

He’s dramatically spoken out about the dangers of climate change, adding, “Creation is not a property which we can rule over at will, or even less, is the property of only a few: Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude,” Francis has also said that humanity’s abuse of the earth is sinful, “But when we exploit Creation we destroy the sign of God’s love for us . . . Here, this is sin!”

In response, conservative Christian presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Jeb Bush both said the Pope should leave science to the scientist. Both apparently don’t know that in the world of climate science, there’s no debate. Global warming is settled science.

They also apparently don't know the Pope has a degree in chemistry. ­

Howell’s bemused traveler from Altruria discovered the broad gap between what 1890s Americans claimed to believe and what their actions demonstrated they truly worshiped: money. And one hundred and twenty years later, the reactions Pope Francis’s humble proclamations elicit reveal that many of our most strident political Christians worship capitalism above all else.

Consider these Francis quotes: “The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything that stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule,” and, “Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “Thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

Conservative talk show host, Rush Limbaugh called this, “Pure Marxism.” The American Conservative magazine published an article titled, “Would Someone Just Shut That Pope Up?”

And there’s a bit of trying to have it both ways. Conservatives applauded just a few short years ago when an assortment of American Bishops insisted Vice President Joe Biden be denied communion for his pro-choice policy stand. Now the same crowd is wishing the Pope would stay out of politics.

But perhaps on no issue is the gap greater between conservatives and Pope Francis than that of aiding the poor. Just a taste of his pronouncements: “Among our tasks as witnesses to the love of Christ is that of giving a voice to the cry of the poor.”

But in my social media feeds and inboxes are a relentless myriad of hateful memes about the poor posted by my conservative friends, labeling them lazy, entitled, and drug abusers. When an extreme example of welfare or food stamp fraud is documented, it’s cast not as the extreme it is, but as the norm, as if all who get assistance are gaming the system while the rest of us struggle to carry their dead weight. Conservatives insist that the poor be drug tested – which clearly suggests the majority take drugs. Other memes routinely cast government aid to the poor as the one thing that’s breaks the federal budget.

These broadly exaggerated grains of truth reveal a seam of deep resentment, dislike and fear of the poor that runs through our American consciousness. Meanwhile, the Pope keeps paraphrasing Jesus: “Poverty calls us to sow hope…. Poverty is the flesh of the poor Jesus, in that child who is hungry, in the one who is sick, in those unjust social structures.”

It’s one of the great conundrums of our modern political landscape that paraphrasing the teachings of Jesus in a political setting is the quickest way to be labeled a socialist by American Christian conservatives, some of whom are probably wearing WWJD bracelets.

It is clear that this pope is not interested in the puritanical obsession with sin, condemnation and shame that marked his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI’s reign and played so well in conservative American circles. Like the Traveler From Altruria, Pope Francis comes from a different place.

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