Walker HeadshotBy Executive Director J. Brent Walker

Pope Francis’ visit to the United States — and, for me, the opportunity to welcome him at the White House — was a historic and special time. So much has already been written and said about it, I hate to try to gild the lily. But, I feel it’s important to shed light on what his visit meant for religious liberty and other matters of interest to the work of the Baptist Joint Committee.
I was, first of all, astonished by the energy and stamina of this 78-year-old pontiff. Just watching him travel some 14 hours (round trip) and engage in peripatetic activity for five days wore me out. The man is a human dynamo.

I appreciated his embrace of religious liberty across the board without getting into the specific issues that are the divisive stuff of our culture wars. (Even his apparent meeting with Kim Davis was private and, according to Vatican reports, he extended a pastoral word of comfort to a sister in Christ without touting her refusal to grant same-sex marriage licenses.) But, the pope did not recede from potential conflict; he time and again lifted up the importance of a full-throated public conversation about religion in the public square.

Relatedly, he affirmed pluralism and meaningful life outside the Roman Catholic Church. He exhibited a respect for religious diversity and our common humanity. This was quintessentially demonstrated by his multi-faith service in New York City that made Ground Zero, the site of a religiously-motivated attack, the venue for a coming together of 12 faiths in peace and worship. His extended hand went beyond the reach of most religious leaders — and certainly his predecessors — when he, from the Capitol balcony, implored non-believers who could not pray for him at least to wish him well.

I was intrigued by the pope’s selection of four Americans — Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton — to form the scaffolding of his address to a joint meeting of Congress. I would have not thought of those four in this context, but their selection was creative and brilliant. The first two, well-known; the latter two, not so much to the general public. The first two — one barely a nominal churchman and the other a Baptist preacher; the latter two — Catholics. All four were committed to and worked for freedom, but in different ways. Lincoln, the emancipator, and King, the culminator of freedom from political oppression. Day, the social activist and exemplar of Elizabeth O’Connor’s “journey outward,” and Merton, the Trappist monk dedicating his life to the “journey inward.” Both represented different ways of practicing Christianity and embodied avenues of freedom from ecclesiastical convention.

Other remarkable and relevant features of Pope Francis’ visit were defined by reaction from others. The first has to do with his embrace of pluralism — the inclusion of all God’s children in the Kingdom of God and the rights of secular citizenship. This was counterposed by Dr. Ben Carson’s thorough repudiation of the fitness of a Muslim to serve as president because Islam — in his words — is incompatible with the U.S. Constitution. Thankfully, almost everyone — including conservative commentators such as Charles Krauthammer and Michael Gerson — quickly repudiated Carson’s position, pointing out that the U.S. Constitution itself bans religious tests for public office in Article VI. The BJC and nearly everyone else joined in the condemnation.

The second had to do with objections to the pope’s speaking to a joint meeting of Congress on separation of church and state grounds. (I don’t know why similar concerns were not registered about his White House remarks.) A Facebook friend wrote: “I agreed with almost everything he said. The fact that he was there representing the Roman Catholic Church or anyone representing such groups conflicts with my ‘wall of separation.’” Another friend pointed out that Francis was actually representing the Holy See, which is recognized as a separate nation and has an embassy in Washington, D.C., making him a religious and political leader.

Yes, he is both. Also, the Queen of England — the head of the Church of England — addressed a joint meeting of Congress in 1991. But even as a religious leader, I think the pope’s address can be justified. The government is not endorsing Christianity by allowing the leader of Catholics to speak any more than it would have had it permitted Baptist ministers like Martin Luther King Jr. or Jesse Jackson to speak. Over the past several decades — and perhaps even before — pastors who were serving congregations while in Congress (e.g., Rep. Bill Gray) routinely addressed the body. Frankly, I remain more troubled by the daily religious exercises in the form of prayer led by government-paid chaplains than I am by religious leaders speaking on public policy issues.

Yes, the pope’s visit to the U.S. was therapeutic and a breath of fresh air. For five days, poisonous politics and divisive dithering pretty much stopped. I pray the pope’s humble spirit and soft words of wisdom will leaven the political culture for the days ahead.

From the September/October 2015 Report from the Capital. Click here to read the next story.