Welcome to TIME subscriber Q&A, with correspondent Elizabeth Dias.
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Sue_N asks: Elizabeth, as a liberal Catholic, I wonder if Pope Francis and his emphasis on poverty, unemployment and all aspects of social justice will have any effect on moving the U.S. bishops toward a more vocal role on issues other than abortion. I remember in the ’80s, when the bishops were very vocal (some to the point of getting arrested) about disarmament, economic justice, labor issues, war and peace issues, and so on. Now, unless the issue is gay rights or abortion, the bishops remain if not mum, at least very quiet. […] Do you think Francis will be able to move them? To give them the courage to speak up again?
I think it is actually harder to put the U.S. bishops into one monolithic category than one might think. Many bishops in the southwestern United States have been continually speaking up for immigrant rights and immigration reform, and all the economic justice issues that go with it, for years.
It is very difficult for Catholics in leadership of any kind to speak openly against the Pope, or even hint publicly that they may disagree with him. He is the top leader, and his word goes. That’s a reason why leadership by example is so key for Pope Francis. His example does give those that agree with him the freedom to imitate more publicly, and it also hushes those who would prefer that traditional culture war issues were his cup of tea. One of the big tests of how the US bishops will speak on these social issues will come in the lead-up to the 2015 World Family Day in Philadelphia, which Pope Francis confirmed that he plans to attend.
PaulDirks asks: My Grandfather was Methodist Minister, a noted leftist, and dedicated his life to helping the less fortunate as Director of the Indianapolis Goodwill for 35 years. I attended Church as a youth and was taught in no uncertain terms that Jesus’s mission was one of mercy and forgiveness. I then attended a summer camp run by Wheaton College and was presented with an entirely different and (to me) alien version of Christianity. What happened to allow the word “Christian” to become a synonym for “Right Wing”? I know for a fact that there are literally millions of liberal Christians but any close look at the media and the words they choose, makes it seem like such people are insignificant to the point of non-existence.
Yes, Christianity and the Right Wing are two very different things. Book after book has been written talking about the historical and social forces that saw the union of types of evangelical Christianity and the GOP during the latter half of the 20th century. I think a lot of it can directly date to the 1980 presidential campaign and the fallout from Roe v. Wade. The political reality is that there are also still plenty of stories that need to be written about conservative evangelical political forces—groups like the Family Research Council still have a lot of clout and financial influence. But, I think also one of the big stories of the next decade will be watching how that plays out as the millennial generation comes of age and continues to challenge some of those assumptions. Already young evangelicals tend to support marriage equality in ways their older counterparts did not. And when that base starts having the power to really contribute financially, we may see the tides shifting.
Yogi asks: PEW polls have shown a trend that Americans are becoming less religious with the rise in atheists, agnostics and “secularists”, yet views towards atheists tend to be more negative than any other groups (Islam being the exception). This seems to be a disconnect, do you see it continuing or will there be some tipping point either of acceptance or people going back into religious groups? Do you see a legitimate presidential candidate running openly as an agnostic/atheist any time in the near future?
There is a growing trend of religious switching, merging, melding, and less strict identification with one religious group. That does not mean that people are rejecting a spiritual identity. I think it means that there is more flexibility in how people understand what spiritual identity means. Presidential campaigns are another matter altogether. The history of the country and the presidential politics game basically require candidates to ascribe to some sort of faith, so we may actually see a Muslim or Jewish president before we see an atheist in the White House.
DonQuixotic asks: Elizabeth, have you had a chance to interview or follow the Dalai Lama? If you have, what are your impressions of him? Not just as he is today but how both he and his “fight” has changed and evolved over the years both within Tibet and throughout China.
Yes, I had the opportunity to interview His Holiness this past February. You can read that interview here and read my extended impressions about it in this Lightbox feature. When it comes to China, his “fight,” as you put it, has quieted since he relinquished his political role in 2011, but it is clear that the social and governmental issues are still close to his heart and mind.
You also asked in another question what other religious authorities are saying about Pope Francis—the Dalai Lama gave me his take, which you can read here.
DonQuixotic also asks: Elizabeth, I’m thrilled that Pope Francis is re-emphasizing the Church’s doctrine of social justice and caring for the poor. So why won’t the Republicans / Tea Partiers (for the most part) play along and promote this too, both in Congress and the states, especially since they often invoke religion in their politics?
Good question. I’m watching this closely—especially because the 2016 GOP playing field is full of Catholics: Rick Santorum, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Sam Brownback. Plus, David Brat, who unseated now-former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, worships at a Catholic parish. Right now the trend is for everyone to try to use Pope Francis’ popularity for their own advantage, but we will see how this plays out when Pope Francis comes to the US in late 2015—right as 2016 is heating up. I doubt Pope Francis will let his words get twisted in ways he does not approve of, especially if he does accept an invitation to visit Congress.
Deconstructive asks: Elizabeth, not really a question, but I hope YOU take a selfie with Pope Francis …and post it on twitter or here! As is well known, he does pose for them….
Me too!! I may need to go to Rome…