Sunday, September 20, 2015

What Factors Influence Attitudes Toward Religious People?

Psychology, Memory, and Religious Narratives

Pope Francis is in the Americas and will soon be welcomed by the U.S. Congress. What a difference 500 years can make! Attitudes toward Catholics have changed in recent years. Pope Francis offers words of hope to the disenfranchised.

I’m focused on the dynamic of human memory and religious struggles--memories that appear so malleable and responsive to revised narratives.

To some degree, we each control our own narrative. We tell the story others hear. We explain how religious and secular events fit into our personal history.

Together with others, we also tell a collective history of our religious tribe. We share how we related to other religious and irreligious groups. And we forge new narratives when we act in the present.


In terms of human history, it wasn’t long ago that Catholics and Protestants were at each other’s throats. The church-state connections in Europe along with the attendant animosity, traveled with the adventurers, colonists, soldiers, and clergy to the Americas. The year 1492 doesn’t just mark the Spanish venture to the Americas; it also represents the year Islam was expelled from the Spanish kingdoms. Catholicism was on the rise.

It wasn’t long until England "divorced the Vatican" and King Henry the VIII established himself as head of the Church of England (1534). Also in the 1500s, Martin Luther challenged Catholic practice. The rise of non-Catholic Christians exploded.

Meanwhile, colonial expansion in the Americas proceeded at a rapid pace. Spanish, French, and British fought each other. And they fought against people in local tribes. For the Europeans, crosses and flags staked out new lands. In the "early years" (1492-1783) religious intolerance appeared to be more common than tolerance.

It’s hard to find much love when war litters the landscape with human life.


In the 1960s, the U.S. discovered a Catholic man could be elected president. Attitudes had changed. In the privacy of the voting booth, John F. Kennedy’s faith did not matter to the majority of the electorate.  But his Catholic faith was an issue for some. People wondered aloud if Catholics would be listening to the Pope in Rome for advice. But when he was assassinated, Protestants joined with Catholics in mourning and a show of respect. JFK helped change the narrative.

From time to time, clergy attract attention for their sins. Nothing makes headlines more than a sex scandal. Protestants had their fallen stars. More recently, the Catholic Church garnered pervasive attention for the sexual abuse of children by so many clergy. Not only was this abuse horrific, but the response of the leaders was even more reprehensible as offenders were in positions where they could re-offend. Sexual abuse is one sure way to destroy faith in faith.

There have been many apologies and settlements. But victims and their families do not forget sexual abuse. Neither do those who left the church in disgust. However, the society at large appears to have moved on.


By all accounts, Pope Francis has had a significant impact on how people in the Americas view the Catholic Church.

Most Catholics report liking Pope Francis’ leadership of the church (79%). His favorability is at 41% among all Americans and only 8% hold an unfavorable view. (CBS Poll)

The Pope can’t change doctrine but he can change attitudes. Women still cannot be priests. Marriage remains limited to one man and one woman. Divorce is still a sin as is abortion. And birth control is not compatible with church doctrine.

So what’s different? There have been apologies for sexual abuse. People have been removed from office for their role in the abuse. Compensation has been paid to some. 

There are some examples that lavish living will not be tolerated by the Pope. And there’s a consistent effort to reach out with forgiveness toward those living lives contrary to Catholic teaching. So now it's easier for Catholics to remarry by having the first marriage annulled. And priests are encouraged to offer forgiveness to women who repent of having an abortion.

But there’s more. Pope Francis represents that curious admixture of strong leadership and humility rarely seen in religious leaders. He's out among the people. He seems to care. And U.S. news reporters smile a lot when they are near this pastoral Pope.

Pope Francis has changed the narrative once again.


It’s hard to know how long the current era of goodwill will last. Western cultures promote tolerance of behavior considered sinful by Catholics and a substantial number of other Christian groups. For now, Catholic views on some social issues fit well with the views of many (but not all) U.S. Evangelicals.

Most Christians obviously support killing in official or semi-official wars. But U.S. Christians remain divided over global warming, social programs, and same-sex marriage. Equality and ideas of helping the disadvantaged is ok—up-to-a-point—but few will sacrifice their jobs or entry into a prestigious university.

For now, abortion supporters are on the ropes—Planned Parenthood is the current poster portrait for disgust. But birth control use isn’t likely to change much. However, as I said above, the views of the Catholic Church on sex-linked social issues fit well with U.S. Evangelical positions.

Human memories are short and malleable. As long as humans lead religious groups, sex and money scandals will surely continue. Christians can hope that their leaders have learned long-lasting lessons of how much victims suffer when sin runs rampant amongst the clergy. But it will take persistent effort to remind each new generation of the sins of the past.

There are other social forces at work that can limit goodwill. Following are some questions. How long will the U.S. continue to support clergy and religious organizations with special tax exemptions? How long will a western society think it is fine for women to be treated differently than men in hiring practices? How long will a western society think it is fine for churches to discriminate against same-sex couples? And what about Spanish-speaking immigrants, citizens, and illegal aliens—will the Pope’s use of Spanish promote tolerance or evoke rejection?

Perhaps of higher risk for lasting goodwill is the potential for the Pope to go too far left in his support of social values that may seem close to advocating socialism (or even communism). Any narrative is subject to modification by the press, cultural leaders, and of course the rest of us.


For now, we can expect favorable and constant coverage of Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. His six-day tour begins Tuesday 22 September when he meets President Obama. There are some firsts. The Pope will hold a canonization mass in Spanish. And on Thursday, the mostly Christian (92%; 2015, CNN) U.S. Senate and House will open their doors to a Pope’s message for the first time in history.

On the seventh day, the Pope will presumably rest on his return to the Vatican.


Nowadays, keeping goodwill alive requires constant positive press. Each person and each group must be on guard if they want to control the narrative of their lives. Memories are short- that can be good when you want to gain distance from bad events. But, short memories also mean it is important to keep working narratives that matter.

The six-day tour can surely build on the string of successes Pope Francis has accumulated. But just as contemporaries seem largely unaware of the centuries of strife and the horrors of clergy abuse, a new generation can forget the good feelings toward this Pope and any other charismatic leader—religious or secular.

Recall that in 1492, the Spanish drove the Muslims out of the Spanish peninsula. But Muslims are back in the news thanks to political candidates Donald Trump (Fox News) and Ben Carson (NBC story). Muslims have spoken out in response to the candidates. As with any religious group, leaders have an important role in controlling what narrative enters the memories of a given culture.

No comments:

Post a Comment