By Michael Orion Powell
Pope Francis is really stirring things up. He enjoyed his first Christmas as the leader of the Catholic Church and his new, forgiving and tolerant approach maintains its evidence on this brightest of holidays.
The new Pope’s message has been disorienting for many people. However, what Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is saying parallels consensus interpretations of Christ but is at odds with the “prosperity gospel” that we have been getting in the form of evangelicalism for decades. His acceptance of homosexuals (Francis famously said this year, after being asked his position on homosexuality, “Who am I to judge?”) is likewise in line with the message of Christ, who said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” (It’s worth noting that the only Biblical basis for homophobia is from Genesis 18:16-19:29, from the Old Testament. There is nothing about the subject in the New Testament, which should make it a Christian non-issue.)
Bill Maher, a left-wing commentator, is one of the many disoriented. Maher remarked on his show that he believes the Pope is “an atheist,” apparently having trouble believing that Francis could be saying all of these things and still be a Man of God.
The marketization of Christianity was a steady process in this country that eventually overtook the faith. America is a Protestant country – by definition, most of the denominations should have been their own small, fractured lights in their communities – playing a critical role in managing those communities but not necessarily dominating them.
The evangelical movement became what it is through a panorama of figures. One was Billy Graham, who was a very visible Christian face. His start was marked by numerous public appearances – debating with the like of Woody Allen. Graham was never an extreme ideologue but he used the term “crusade” liberally and spoke very similarly to Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Francis, he preached tolerance and forgiveness and said that Christ was “not a black man or a white man” but instead was a figure for all men.
The Graham evangelical mold eventually settled in to enterprises like The 700 Club, which only blossomed in influence during the Reagan era. The 700 Club is the main centerpiece of the Christian Broadcasting Network, a well-polished and well-distributed American evangelical television network. The program has long been controversial – Pat Robertson’s aging, senile ramblings against homosexuals (though he peculiarly is okay with transgendered people) make news as regularly as the sun sets.
Despite a lot of the regressive, reactionary elements of The 700 Club, there is obviously an attempt at inclusiveness. When you watch a full length episode of 700 Club, you will quickly notice diversity among the guests. As opposed to staying securely reactionary in one’s own cave, Robertson and co. are well aware that the primary force in self-help daytime programming goes far beyond the southern white demographic, that the President of the United States is black, and that racism, probably more so than any kind of -ism, is a death knell for one’s public career. Therefore, much effort is placed in avoiding this perception.
The homophobia is problematic but is not the only disturbing element of The 700 Club. The corruption of Pat Robertson has been particularly alarming. Robertson set up – through the program – ‘Operation Blessing,’ a charity that was allegedly initiated in response to the refugee crisis caused by the Rwandan genocide. A documentary film called Mission Congo, however, illustrated that Robertson not only channeled the money received through ‘Operation Blessing’ to his own bank accounts, but also didn’t really attempt to help the Rwanda situation, instead using the entire program as a means to exploit the diamond trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo:
Mission Congo, by David Turner and Lara Zizic, opens at the Toronto film festival on Friday. It describes how claims about the scale of aid to Rwandan refugees were among a number of exaggerated or false assertions about the activities of Operation Blessing which pulls in hundreds of millions of dollars a year in donations, much of it through Robertson’s televangelism. They include characterizing a failed large-scale farming project as a huge success, and claims about providing schools and other infrastructure.
But some of the most damaging criticism of Robertson comes from former aid workers at Operation Blessing, who describe how mercy flights to save refugees were diverted hundreds of miles from the crisis to deliver equipment to a diamond mining concession run by the televangelist.
The danger of figures like Robertson is a profound one from within the communal-like foundations of organized religion. Greed is as old as man – it is condemned bluntly (more times than homosexuality ever was) in the Bible. The free market ideology that powered America since the 1980s merged with religion in an unholy (pun intended) mix that was really motivated more by greed than anything scriptual.
For a fairly long time in that process, all sorts of religious writers and commentators dominated American society and made a whole lot of money. Joel Osteen, one of the most visible faces of the “mega church” movement, is also one of the most recognizable icons – his books have a near permanent spot in the book sections of America’s Wal-Marts and K-Marts, right next to copies of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. Megachurches are a huge center for commercial Christianity – Glenn Beck markets his endless books to such consumers. Here in the Seattle area, local megachurches led by the likes of the late Ken Hutcherson were instrumental in many attempts to stop same-sex marriage from occurring.
Times may be changing, however, and commercial Christianity is being challenged by younger generations. Polls shows that millenials show more favor toward “socialist” ideas than any time in recent history – in other words, absent the psychological residue from the Cold War, it isn’t the ‘dirty word’ it was for their parents. Furthermore, most of the people who gave money to programs like The 700 Club and the evangelical movement likely had very good intentions. It is a very real possibility that some of those individuals, who became involved in religion in order to become “better people,” are repulsed by the right-wing embrace of figures like Ayn Rand (former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is a known fan), an atheist and well-known champion of greed who maintained highly abusive relationships throughout her life and framed an entire political and economic philosophy – Objectivism – around the idea that altruism, a term defined as “selflessness based on the principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others,” is an inherent evil.
A backlash against Randian nihilism, especially from within the evangelical crowd on the right, was inevitable. The emergence of Pope Francis embodies its antithesis. The success of the new Pope makes me, for one, very happy – it was very pleasing to read a commemorative magazine about him at a local grocery store this week. It was the first time in a long time that I had read a religious message without tensing up at the fear of being told to hate some group of people for some trivial reason.
The likes of Bill Maher may believe this reinvigorated and inclusive Catholicism is not genuine but, to the contrary, it may be that Francis is taking us back to first principles.