Dear Pope Francis,
As a spiritual leader with a political bent, you have picked an incredibly, um, interesting time to make your maiden voyage to the United States.
We have a tradition in this country of avoiding discussion of religion and politics at the dinner table, and you’ll likely soon see why.
(You’ve said people in your native Argentina like to argue; here in the United States, it’s nearly our national pastime.)
Since this is your first trip to the United States, I thought it might be helpful to recap some recent developments in America’s big, messy arguments about religion.
Among the biggest news this week is that Dr. Ben Carson, one of the front-runners for the GOP presidential nomination, said that Muslims are not fit for the Oval Office.
Carson said that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation” because Islam is “inconsistent with the values and principles of America.”
Carson himself is a religious man, Holy Father. In fact, he believes that we should base our taxation system on the biblical practice of tithing. He credits faith with helping lift his family from poverty.
But many American Muslims have condemned Carson’s remarks as religious bigotry.
Meanwhile, the leading GOP candidate, billionaire businessman Donald Trump, said that many people already think we have a Muslim president in Barack Obama.
Technically, Trump is correct. According to a recent CNN poll, 29% of Americans say they think the President is a Muslim, including 43% of Republicans.
They’re wrong, by the way. Obama has spoken often about his Christian faith. Heck, he’s even sung about it.
Speaking of Christians, we have quite a few Catholics in the nation’s Capitol, but they disagree about a lot of things, both politically and spiritually. Some members of Congress don’t even agree with your decision to address them on Thursday.
Rep. Paul Gosar, a Republican – and Catholic – from Arizona, plans to boycott your speech because he thinks you will focus on climate change.
“When the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician,” Gosar says, “then he can expect to be treated like one.”
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington and one of your closet advisers, disagrees with the congressman’s approach.
“I think the more helpful starting point is to face the issues,” Wuerl told me, “rather than addressing the alleged characteristics of the personality.”
By the way, the cardinal says that you’ll be coming here as a pastor (not a politician) and that many people in Washington – on Capitol Hill and beyond – are excited about your visit.
You should also know that our country is holding a raucous debate about religious freedom, an issue that you’re expected to address in Philadelphia, the birthplace of our independence.
Most Americans agree that religious freedom is a good thing and one of the first rights protected by the Constitution.
But we do not agree about how to balance those religious rights with competing claims on our conscience, particularly the new right of gay and lesbian couples to marry. In fact, one clerk in Kentucky was briefly jailed because she refused to sign marriage certificates for same-sex marriages.
The clerk, Kim Davis, says same-sex marriage violates her religious beliefs. Appearing to condone them would be sinful, the clerk insists.
More than 6 in 10 Americans, though, say that Davis and other clerks should be required to sign same-sex marriage licenses.
And finally, even though you’ve never been to the United States, I’m sure you know that we have many, many Catholics here. In fact, nearly 45% of the country has some “connection” to the Catholic Church, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that they disagree about nearly every culture war issue, from same-sex marriage to abortion and climate change.
So, in the end, it’s a good thing that your Twitter handle, Pontifex, means “bridge” in Latin. Because we have quite a few religious divides in this country.
Then again, you’ve compared religious communities that don’t fight to an old married couple who have lost interest in each other.
So maybe our passionate arguments over religion aren’t so bad.
After all, at least we’re still talking.