Each year, the Family Research Council sponsors the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. The summit postures itself as the “premiere conservative event” in the nation—one that sets a framework for “values voters.” As in years past, this year’s summit agenda included traditional marriage, religious liberty, sanctity of life, and limited government. For decades, social conservatives have championed these issues—which supposedly encompass the entire values universe—along with the discriminatory policies they entail. But this year, the summit was easily upstaged by the prophetic and political nature of an international visitor: Pope Francis. During his U.S. visit in the days leading up to the event, the pope preached a starkly different message—one that was merciful and welcoming rather than judgmental.
At a time when organized religion is rapidly losing members and influence across the United States, Pope Francis attracted attention and admiration from Americans on both sides of the political spectrum. The pope’s transformative faith is a welcome sea change to followers from myriad religious traditions, as well as those of no religious belief. Pope Francis cherishes the role of faith in people’s lives—and also knows how it can be wielded in the public sphere. In his historic address to Congress, the pontiff said, “It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society.”
During his six-day tour, the pope held up the values of opportunity, human dignity, equality, and more. Now, in the wake of his visit, Americans are tasked with bringing these values to life through policies and civic action.
Promoting inclusion vs. intolerance
Pope Francis has maintained a respected moral authority while de-emphasizing culture war issues, such as abortion, contraception, and marriage equality, that have been a focus for the Roman Catholic Church in recent decades. His nonjudgmental nature and spirit of invitation provides welcome relief from America’s warring ideological factions. And his admirable humility was evident on his recent trip when he asked, “Pray for me, and if there are among you any who do not believe, or cannot pray, I ask you please to send good wishes my way.” During his visit, Pope Francis preached inclusivity and acted accordingly, meeting with prison inmates, urging religious tolerance, embracing immigrants, and encouraging the homeless.
It is notable that the public receives the pope’s values and tactics so favorably. Today, a majority of Americans report that religion’s influence is waning in their lives. Yet, they also see this as a negative reality. Many people express frustration with the vitriol wrought by religion, in large part because of the divisive tactics of groups such as the Family Research Council. Quite simply, Americans have grown weary of the exclusionary set of religious values that conservatives use in order to dominate conversations on morality. In seeking the common good, all Americans must heed Pope Francis’ call to honor the nation’s vibrant diversity.
Ensuring dignity for everyone
Throughout his papacy, the pope has repeatedly called for dignity and justice for immigrants. He raised the moral problems of the global refugee crisis and the United States’ mistreated immigrant population in his congressional address, urging lawmakers to reflect on the Golden Rule. “We must not be taken aback by their numbers,” he said, “but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.”
Pope Francis is not alone in his plea. Religious leaders and communities of faith have historically provided immediate sanctuary for immigrant families while simultaneously leading fights for national comprehensive immigration reform. Ahead of the papal visit, interfaith leaders stood alongside immigrants and asked lawmakers to remember “our common humanity, our immigrant heritage, our proud tradition of welcoming the stranger and providing safe haven.”
Unsurprisingly, the pope also spent his visit meeting with those on the margins of society, highlighting the injustice of stark inequality. He called on members of Congress to create an economy that protects workers and promotes fairness, as well as to remember the poor in their daily work. He then visited Saint Maria’s Meals, a program of Catholic Charities that serves meals to the homeless. “I want to be very clear. We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever for lack of housing,” Pope Francis said to a group of staff and volunteers. “We know that Jesus wanted to show solidarity with every person. He wanted everyone to experience his companionship, his help and his love.”
Strengthening workers and their families
Conservative politicians, pundits, and activists concerned with family values should redirect their efforts from policing social behaviors to supporting practical policies that uplift struggling families. Such issues include pay equity, a living wage, and paid family and medical leave. Currently, only 13 percent of workers are offered paid time off by their employers to care for themselves, a newborn, or a sick family member; a majority cannot afford to risk their financial security in order to tend to their families when it is necessary. What’s more, youth unemployment is both a societal failure and a threat to the United States’ economic potential. “A generation without work is a future defeat for the country and for humanity,” the pope has said. Expanding economic opportunities and strengthening security for workers—especially low-wage earners and people of color—would, in turn, bolster the prosperity of families.
Despite conservative pushback, there is a rich history of faith-based advocacy for such policies in the United States. People of faith frequently cite their commitment to religious values when advocating for policies that reflect the needs of modern American families, such as immigrant, LGBT, multigenerational, and dual-income households. For instance, Jewish groups have long advocated for pay equity and expanding paid leave; clergy members have mobilized for minimum wage increases at the federal, state, and local levels; and interfaith groups have warned against exploiting immigrant workers.
Celebrating religious diversity
The pope has also articulated the importance of interfaith dialogue in achieving peace and reconciliation for the common good. While in New York City, Pope Francis visited with family members of those killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks before offering a prayer alongside interfaith leaders at ground zero. His message of hope and cooperation among different religious communities is paramount at a place where religion may be perceived as an instrument of violence. “For all our differences and disagreements, we can live in a world of peace,” he said. “In opposing every attempt to create a rigid uniformity, we can and must build unity on the basis of our diversity of languages, cultures and religions, and lift our voices against everything which would stand in the way of such unity.”
Pope Francis’ words mirror the religious freedom on which the United States was founded, honoring and respecting religion by celebrating religious pluralism. In contrast, social conservatives threaten this cherished American value when they attempt to justify discrimination under the guise of protecting one’s own liberties. At the Values Voters Summit, for instance, a handout for attendees posited, “There’s no such thing as being on the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ side of history. There’s only being on the right or wrong side of truth.” However, real religious freedom safeguards the right of all to believe and worship according to their consciences or traditions. When conservatives attempt to paint themselves as victims by arguing that differing beliefs are an assault on freedom, they neglect the drastic inequalities that marginalized Americans actually face.
Acting on shared values
Despite the narrowness of conservatives’ “family values” agenda, Pope Francis’ compassionate faith brings hope. Over the course of his trip, the pope challenged the voting public to reject exclusion and focus on the core values that Americans have long held: diversity, justice, and basic human dignity for all. Addressing immigrants on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall, Pope Francis celebrated “the vibrant faith which so many of you possess, the deep sense of family life and all those other values which you have inherited. By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within.” To effect real change for all Americans, we should take the pope’s message to heart and embrace our shared values in solidarity.
Lauren Kokum is the Special Assistant for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.