Thanks to a small-town county clerk from Kentucky, Christianity has become an issue in the presidential campaign. Republican candidates Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz rushed to share the media attention with Kim Davis when she was let out of jail after spending six days in confinement for refusing to perform her lawful duties as Rowan County’s elected clerk. Insisting her conscience compelled her to follow God’s authority, not the authority of the American judiciary, Davis would not put her name on any marriage license that would legitimize a marital union between two people of the same gender.
As his adroit aides performed a blocking maneuver on Cruz, Huckabee went before the TV cameras with Davis and declared himself ready to go to jail in her place is if she is threatened with incarceration again. “We cannot criminalize the Christian faith or anybody’s faith in this country,” Huckabee said.
For those who believe there is a “war on Christianity” in this country, Davis has become a conspicuous martyr. Her dispute with the law is bound to come up in Wednesday’s GOP presidential candidates’ debate at the Reagan Library. Huckabee and Cruz will want to trumpet their on-the-scene support for Davis and the CNN debate moderators will surely be unable to resist putting the other candidates on the spot to see whether they side with the Christian clerk or the constitutional courts.
The competition between Republican politicians seeking to prove who is the most pious has become a sorry element of contemporary electioneering, and it does not do much to further the cause of Christianity. By turning evangelical Christians into just another electoral target group, conservatives have seriously skewed the definition of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Many Americans of a less-religious bent find it easy to caricature Christians as a herd of narrow-minded cranks obsessed with Bronze Age fables that justify their antagonism towards homosexuals; a community of fearful bumpkins who allow themselves to be duped and fleeced by money-grubbing TV preachers who are, themselves, periodically exposed as prodigious sinners.
There are, of course, many Christians in this country who do not fit that stereotype, including a significant number of evangelicals working to protect the environment and to encourage more generous and effective governmental programs to aid the poor. These good folks, though, get little attention from the media, nor do they have presidential candidates fawning over them.
Perhaps that may change, if only for a few days, when an even bigger celebrity than Donald Trump comes for a grand American tour. From Sept. 22-27, Pope Francis will visit Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia. It is safe to say he will not spend his time ragging on gays or pitching the idea that having abundant wealth is a sign of God’s favor. The pope’s priorities seem to be a bit more in line with those espoused by Jesus.
During the first dramatic year of his pontificate, Francis veered radically away from the defensive, rigid, hierarchical style of his predecessor, Benedict XVI. While the new pope has exhibited humility in his personal life, he has been bold in kicking open the doors of a church that has been too protective of institutional wickedness and too reactionary in the face of doctrinal challenges. Rather than drawing hard lines between the church and those who have been alienated from it, Francis has opened his arms to the outcasts and raised hopes for reconciliation.
“The thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful,” Francis has said. Rather than backing down from core tenets of Catholicism, what Francis is attempting to do is reassert the core values of Christ’s teaching. He is placing forgiveness, compassion and an open heart over dogma, literalism and harsh judgments.
While Huckabee and the rest of the American religious right have done their best to intensify the culture wars, Pope Francis has established a truce. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” Francis has said. He wants to have a different conversation about bigger things. That includes talking about the excesses of capitalism, the ravages of climate change, the plight of refugees and the persistence of global poverty and social inequity. Exactly like Jesus, Francis speaks most often about the poor and the duty of Christians to work and sacrifice on their behalf.
In this era in which politics and religion are deeply entangled and ensnared in strident partisanship, it would be a great blessing for our republic if the concerns of Pope Francis could find as many champions on the campaign trail as Kim Davis has found for her dubious cause.