The outpouring of acclaim for Pope Francis and his message of tolerance and compassion, which he delivered in a historic address to Congress and events in three U.S. cities over the past six days, came from Americans of every religious persuasion — not just Roman Catholics — and even from those who are not at all religious.
A Jewish congressman, Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat, began lobbying to nominate Pope Francis for the Nobel Peace Prize. The pontiff’s words were embraced by Capitol Hill leaders who are Muslim, Buddhist, Protestant and Baptist, while crowds of people of every faith flocked to the pontiff at stops in Washington, New York and Philadelphia.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat and a Mormon, said Pope Francis’ “unique approach to leading the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics has captured the attention of billions, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, inspiring us all to live up to our highest values.”
Indeed, the pontiff’s popularity extended all the way to the celebrity circuit, where reality TV star Kim Kardashian gushed in a Twitter post: “The pope is dope.”
As Pope Francis energized Catholics in the United States with his summons to put faith to action, that powerful message — including his advocacy on hot-button issues such as climate change, refugees, immigration and religious freedom — resonated far beyond the Catholic Church.
The pontiff attracted a wide and diverse following by straying outside the traditional bounds of Catholic teachings and into subjects that almost everybody cares about, said Jenna Reinbold, a professor of religion at Colgate University who studies the intersection of religion, power and politics.
“Issues like climate change and poverty strike many non-Catholics and nonreligious Americans as ‘human’ issues — unlike the sexual issues of abortion, homosexuality, etc., which many see as ‘Catholic’ issues,” she said. “Francis’ emphasis on these issues and his insistence on shifting the church’s attention to these issues undoubtedly strikes many as a very welcome change. The fact that this is coming from a very prominent religious leader is all the better, since he commands a huge amount of attention.”
That was the response the pope received from Tim Walker, a 27-year-old nonpracticing Catholic who traveled from his home in Springfield Township, New Jersey, last week to glimpse Pope Francis from the lawn of the Capitol.
“He’s awesome because Catholicism has been shrouded in this strict follow-the-Scripture, do-this and do-that mentality for so long, and now he’s breaking the mold,” said Mr. Walker, who works as a quality inspector for Solar City, a solar power system business.
He called the pope a “revolutionary.”
The pope’s message resonated particularly with liberals, who tend to be less religious, Ms. Reinbold said.
“Many nonreligious Americans associate religion with social and political conservatism. Francis seems to be really shaking up this association, which nonreligious progressives clearly find gratifying and intriguing,” she said.
Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, a Muslim and a leading liberal in the House, lauded the pontiff for speaking truth to power and pushing America’s political leaders to champion the poor, refugees and the environment.
“Pope Francis has issued a call to action for Congress to address these issues and others,” Mr. Ellison said. “Let’s answer that call quickly and decidedly.”
A survey by the Pew Research Center this year showed sweeping popularity of Pope Francis in the United States. The pontiff enjoyed a 90 percent favorability rating among U.S. Catholics and 70 percent favorability from all Americans, up from 57 percent from when his papacy began in March 2013.
The survey, taken before the pontiff’s visit to the United States, reflected his popularity with Americans who do not affiliate with any religion. About two-thirds — 68 percent — of Americans who claimed no religion in the poll said they had a favorable view of Pope Francis.
According to the latest Pew Research poll, 74 percent of white mainline Protestants and 60 percent of white evangelical Protestants say they view the pope favorably.
“He’s speaking a universal message that is touching humanity in the heart,” said James King, a Protestant pastor at Land of Promise Church in Spotsylvania, Virginia, who joined the gathering on the west front lawn of the Capitol for the pope’s address to Congress.
“People are looking for somebody in a position of power and influence outside [politics] to speak on those issues that concern all human beings — like climate change, the poor, equal rights and justice,” said Mr. King. “That’s the real life.”
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