Published April 5, 2015
On Easter Sunday, Christians celebrate an event that inspires more than two billion of the faithful with eternal hope. Jesus spoke often about the life to come. Yet he also spoke about God’s will being done here on Earth. How best to live out one’s faith in this world has been a complicated issue throughout Christian history, and it remains so today.
Since the mid-1970s, one dominant strain of cultural engagement among Christian leaders in America has been to warn about God’s judgment on a disobedient, decadent nation. This approach assumes that the main task of the church is to call us back to moral righteousness. Among the most prominent representatives of this kind of Christian cultural engagement is the Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of the famed evangelist Billy Graham. Last month the younger Mr. Graham warned that our nation has “turned its back on God.” For nations that do this, he said, the “end is near.” The “tide of immorality has risen to new heights,” Mr. Graham said in 2013, with homosexuality and “all the anti-God people” being the main cause. He has gone so far as to praise the autocrat Vladimir V. Putin for his anti-gay policies.
These beliefs have a theological corollary: It is the duty of Christian leaders to fight on behalf of traditional values and to reprove sin. According to Mr. Graham, “We are locked in a war against the Christian faith.”
But this two-generations-long culture war is not going particularly well. The cultural influence of evangelical Christians is rapidly waning. As one religious leader put it to me: “We used to be the home team. Now we’re the away team.” The response from some Christian leaders, like Mr. Graham, is to ratchet up the condemnatory rhetoric. This has led to greater disaffection, especially among younger evangelicals who find this approach to be brittle, alienating and unforgiving. We are living through a moment of introspection and reconsideration, then, as Christians search for an alternative way to engage the culture that is both faithful and effective.
Enter Pope Francis. For those of us who are part of the evangelical movement, the popular leader of the Roman Catholic Church offers an archetype. He views the role of the church not as a combatant in the culture wars but “as a field hospital after battle.” He has also said, “Without mercy, we have little chance nowadays of becoming part of a world of ‘wounded’ persons in need of understanding, forgiveness and love.”
In 2013, the pope told a young audience in Rio de Janeiro, “Do not be afraid to go and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent.” Two weeks ago, Pope Francis did just that, meeting with gay, transgender and H.I.V.-positive prisoners during a visit to Naples.
Pope Francis criticizes the church not for its unwillingness to rebuke sinners but for ignoring the weak and vulnerable. He washed the feet of two women and two Muslims in juvenile detention — the first time a pontiff has included both women and Muslims in the rite. Without changing church doctrine, he has altered how the Catholic Church is seen. These are symbolic acts packed with theological content, reminding us that individuals are infinitely more valuable than moral rules, that failures don’t define us.
Of the two approaches — Franklin versus Francis — the one taken by the pope is not only more popular but also better reflects Christ’s example. Jesus confronted sin, not to be censorious but because it puts us at enmity with God, one another and our true nature. “Go and sin no more” were words meant to produce greater human flourishing. Yet time and again in the Gospels we read about Jesus embracing those denounced by the religious elite of his day.
The authorities were constantly at odds with Jesus because he hung out with the “wrong” people — the despised, the outcast, the ceremonially unclean — and he claimed the authority of God in doing so. Jesus was condemned for being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” and for consorting with prostitutes. His anger was directed most often against the proud, the hypocritical and the self-righteous. The powerful hated him, while those who were broken flocked to him.
Some of my fellow evangelical Christians may respond by saying they are called to stand against unrighteousness for the good of the whole. But Pope Francis is not reversing the teachings of his church; indeed, Mr. Graham’s and Pope Francis’ views align on matters of marriage and protecting unborn life. The difference has far more to do with tone, animating spirit and emphasis. In the words of the New Testament scholar Richard B. Hays, “What the Bible does say should be heeded carefully, but any ethic that intends to be biblical will seek to get the accents in the right place.”
That is where Mr. Graham and those evangelicals he speaks for have veered off track. He obsesses on some issues while ignoring others, speaks with stridency rather than mercy, and thereby creates a distorted impression of Christianity, one that is at odds with Jesus’ approach.
The award-winning Christian author Philip Yancey once took to asking a question of strangers, when striking up a conversation: “When I say the words ‘evangelical Christian’ what comes to mind?” Mr. Yancey reports that he mostly heard political descriptions — but not once did he hear a description suggestive of grace. This is quite an indictment of a faith in which the concept of grace should be at the very center.
Pope Francis, on the other hand, understands that Jesus’ main mission was to persuade a world in need of God’s love and mercy. If the pontiff speaks of the church primarily as a field hospital, Mr. Graham sees it as a sentencing court.
Steve Hayner, one of the baby boom generation’s most respected evangelical leaders and my spiritual mentor, died earlier this year. The last time I saw him, he told me that the central characteristics of God are love and grace — and that therefore the central mission of Christians is to extend his hand of grace to others. What God has given to us, we owe to others. “If what you’re doing in your life is leading toward reconciliation and redemption,” he once told me, “then you’re most likely headed in the right direction.”
Pope Francis is heading in that direction. There are an awful lot of evangelical Christians ready to follow his lead.
Peter Wehner is a contributing opinion writer and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served in the last three Republican administrations.