Pope Francis to Donald Trump, in just one year. How did we get here?

The creator of the news magazine knew the power of religion. Henry Luce, the founder of Time, was born to Presbyterian missionary parents in China at the end of the 19th century. He grew up writing sermons for fun. And he made religion one of the five pillars of Time’s coverage. Luce once said, “I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world.”

The heart loves; the heart aches. It can wound and it can break. And, through all that, the heart does something more: it beats. Most of the time we do not even notice it. But that pulse orders our lives and the lives of others. When it is working right, the heart pumps blood through the body, five or six quarts a minute, and gives us life. When it is not, the mere skip of a beat can feel like a heart attack.

Reporting is an exercise in monitoring that beat, noticing when and how it changes, sometimes sounding an alarm when it races or slows or falters. Most often, reporting is simply being there with the heart, hearing it pump, feeling it beat, in a moment, over weeks and even through the years.

Today the pulse of American spiritual life is shifting. There is not just one pulse. There are many, and they often conflict. There is the rise of the so-called spiritual nones, the “Godless generation”; the growing acceptance of lesbian, gay and transgender communities in churches, Protestant and Catholic; the global migration of people, unaccompanied children leaving Central America, Syrians fleeing terrorism, refugees seeking shelter and, in all, the interfaith shuffle that it brings; Americans’ continued fear of Muslims and misperception of Shariah law; the rise of women in religious leadership; violence against black and brown bodies; the list goes on.

I would like to discuss three of the stories that define the American spiritual and political landscape in this moment. Each is a heartbeat in the American spiritual life. Each reflects a pulse of this nation, and each has rooted my religion and politics coverage at Time.

I do not claim to be a theologian. I am a reporter. My job is to track the moves of the flocks. I write what I see, what I hear, what I learn. At its best, reporting is an effort to bear witness to the heartbeat of the world and to name it, describe it and give it back to the world in a way that opens new conversations to understand truth.

The Latino Reformation

One day four years ago, during another presidential election, I was driving in a Maryland suburb of Washington when I noticed a small sign shoved between the Romney/Ryan and Obama/Biden campaign signs that lined every inch of the street. Unlike the others, this sign was in Spanish: Iglesia de Dios del Evangelio Completo. Clearly not a candidate for president. Down the road, I spotted another: Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana de Maryland. Not long after that, one Sunday afternoon I noticed a bus: Iglesia Cuadrangular el Calvario. I decided to follow it. Soon we arrived at a church. Some 500 Spanish-speaking worshipers were inside, singing alabanzas, or praise songs. Some held tambourines, some were dancing under a giant flag of a lion with a mane of orange sunbeams, others waving streamers and fans. A woman had a prophecy, and the pastor rushed the microphone to her: “The Lord will heal people in this room today!” she cried in Spanish. “Gloria a Dios!”

The worshipers, as you might have guessed, were not Catholics. They were Protestants, born-again, Bible-believing, Spanish-speaking charismatics. They represent one of the fastest-growing segments of American churchgoers. More than two-thirds of the 52 million Latinos in the United States in 2010 were Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center. At the time, the best guess was that by 2030 that figure would be closer to half. But today that number is almost there. Nearly one in four Latinos in the United States is a former Catholic. And many are flocking to these evangelical Protestant churches. And many of these churches are doubling in size every few years. They are the evangélicos.

I spent eight months attending worship services at three different Latino evangelical churches. I was struck by how the evangélico boom is tied to the immigrant experience. Church means survival. Each community took “feed the hungry and clothe the naked” seriously. A single mother wept as she told me how she first met members of the church. The members of the church were cleaning her office late one night when they learned she did not have an apartment. They decided to move to a two-bedroom unit so she and her baby could live with them. Another woman shared that God stopped her 12 years of migraines after the church community fasted for three days. Yet another testified that her internal bleeding stopped when the pastor anointed her with oil. The pastor of one of the churches said to me, “I don’t want to say from the altar on Sunday, ‘If someone has a need, let me know,’ because I will have a line of people out the door Monday morning, needing money for rent, food.... But we never let people stay in need. We are not going to be able to sleep if we know a family needs food.”

It was a reminder of how tightly theology and experience are bound up together. Here, “Gloria a Dios” is no throwaway line. A woman prayed so hard once she vomited, or exorcised a demon. Others passed out. At these churches, “the Lord is near to the brokenhearted” takes on concrete hope and it is transformative. For many of these believers, to move to Protestantism is often a path to a more prosperous “American” life. And it was impossible to miss that these churches were so separated from their white counterparts. Sunday is still the most segregated day in America.

The church in the United States is not dying. It is changing. Now, three years later, evangélico churches are less hidden. As a reporter, when you are watching society move long enough in one direction, it is time to turn around. The force waiting to fill the pressure vacuum in your wake is revealing. At the time  only 15 percent of new Catholic priests ordained in the United States were Latino, and the Catholic Church had 4,800 parishes with Latino programing. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical denomination in the United States, saw opportunity—leaders have been working to start 7,000 Baptist Hispanic churches by 2020.

In hindsight, what came next was obvious. The bold counterstrike came in March 2013, when the College of Cardinals named Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina as pope, the first Latin American pontiff, poised to renew not just the Americas but the Catholic Church worldwide. Would he be able to reverse an exodus?

Pope Francis

The moment he emerged on the papal balcony, Pope Francis became a defining story of this age: pope for the poor, for the developing world, a priest with an uncommon feel for the common man. Now, three years into a Francis papacy, we are used to his style—we expect him to surprise, to lead from the margins.   

I remember arriving in Rome last year, the Sunday before the papal trip to Cuba and the United States, and pulling up to St. Peter’s Square and being so disoriented. It was the same as it always was: giant stone fortress, huge dome. St. Peter’s itself looked so distant, so out of reach, so out of place. How was this place home to the pope of the people? Pope Francis reigns here? In just two and half short years, he had made power and might and all the traditional associations of Rome seem so bizarre.

And yet, that view from below needed more examination. As I was trying to understand the giant stone fortress, I was also writing a feature about how Pope Francis had revitalized the Vatican’s role in global diplomacy. He has drawn attention to the Mediterranean migrant crisis from the very start of his papacy, and more recently called on Catholic dioceses to house refugee families. He speaks out about the persecution of Christians in Syria and Iraq. He praised the nuclear deal between the United States and Iran. His encyclical on the environment was timed perfectly to influence the Paris climate agreement. And of course there was Cuba. On the way back from an earlier trip to Paraguay, Pope Francis dismissed his role in the rapprochement, saying, “We did hardly anything, only small things.”

That is a bit of a stretch. What he did not say was that he had dispatched Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino of Havana to secretly visit the White House and deliver a personal letter from him to President Obama, as he had done days earlier to the Cuban president, Raul Castro. President Obama listened as Cardinal Ortega read the letter aloud: Pope Francis was offering assistance to help the United States and Cuba overcome their distrust. The two countries took him up on it. And we know how that ended. Later the Vatican even offered to help relocate prisoners from the military prison at Guantánamo Bay so that it can be closed.

Francis’ small things have already proven to be a big deal for the rest of the world. I have never seen the U.S. Congress so happy as when they, the powerful, listened to Francis. And at the same time, I never saw people happier to see Francis than those whose experience he was lifting up with his presence. In Philadelphia, one of the most joyful events occurred when Pope Francis met immigrant families in front of Independence Hall, where America’s “Declaration of Independence” was forged. “Many of you have emigrated to this country at great personal cost, but in the hope of building a new life,” he told them. “Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face. I ask you not to forget that like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation. You should never be ashamed of your traditions.” That is not a message many of them hear from the powerbrokers of this nation.

Pope Francis has used his power to call other powerbrokers to a new humility. That is a cost for politicians. At the end of his climate encyclical “Laudato Si’,” he  offered this prayer:

Enlighten those who possess power and money

that they may avoid the sin of indifference,

that they may love the common good, advance the weak,

and care for this world in which we live.

The poor and the earth are crying out.

Together, this humility and this influence are a paradox, and they have defined Pope Francis’ papacy so far. It is a reminder to hear heartbeats behind heartbeats and notice how they sound together.

Now the pendulum is swinging again. There is a different pressure vacuum. A year to the day after Pope Francis spoke to those immigrant families, Americans watched the first presidential debate of the 2016 election. It is difficult to imagine a more opposite leadership strategy, not to mention temperament, to Pope Francis than Donald J. Trump.

The Prosperity Preachers

Of all the surprising elements of Donald Trump’s rise in American politics, the religious story has been one of the most baffling. Trump calls himself a Presbyterian, a “Sunday church person,” and he has waved his childhood Bible at rallies. He has bragged that he does not ask for forgiveness, famously quoted “Two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians,” touted his wealth as a crowning achievement and admitted he is not sure he has deserved evangelicals’ support.

The tight grip of evangelicals in Republican politics is not new, but during this cycle the pastors who rallied around the G.O.P. nominee have been different from the start. There is Paula White, a popular Pentecostal televangelist from Orlando, Fla., who has been Trump’s longtime spiritual counselor. On the last day of the Republican National Convention, White prayed for Trump for four hours, and then prayed privately with him, that he would share God’s words when he accepted the Republican nomination. She attributes his speech that night to God. “I think there was a different tone that night, and I think that is because of his heart being open to God,” she told me. Early on, White invited peers like Jan Crouch, the founder of Trinity Broadcasting Network, and Clarence McClendon, the reality star from the show “Preachers of LA,” to pray with Trump at Trump Tower. Joel Osteen, the megachurch and self-help pastor, has called Trump “an incredible communicator and brander” and “a good man.” Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the late, prominent televangelist and founder of Liberty University in Virginia, was the first big-name evangelical to endorse Trump in January.

The moment I realized just how different these pastors on the Trump trail were came during a rally in Illinois in March. A virtually unknown African-American pastor, Mark Burns, from the small town of Easley, S.C., pumped up the crowd with chants of Trump’s name. He began to prophesy in prayer: “Lord, this will be the greatest Tuesday that ever existed, come Super Tuesday Three.... There is no black person, there is no white person, there is no yellow person, there is no red person, there’s only green people!” he shouted. “Green is money! Green are jobs!!”

His was not a usual conversion narrative—it was economic. God, Burns says, has economically transformed his life. Once, before he found Jesus, he says he relied on food stamps, lived in Section 8 housing, went to jail and faced a charge of simple assault as part of his self-described “baby mama drama.” Now he runs a for-profit television church ministry. He told me, “Jesus said, above all things, I pray that you prosper, I pray that you have life more abundantly,” quoting not Jesus but another New Testament passage. “It was never Jesus’ intention for us to be broke. I think that is what Donald Trump represents.” 

Many of the pastors around Donald Trump preach a version of what theologians call “the prosperity gospel,” a controversial conviction that God wants his followers to be wealthy and healthy. Prosperity preachers do not just want Americans to be saved, they want them to be successful. Trump himself resembles a prosperity preacher—come, follow me, and you will find success. It makes sense—he is a longtime disciple of “the great Norman Vincent Peale,” as he calls him, the 20th-century evangelist who preached positive thinking and reached millions through television and radio programs. When Trump says he is winning states when he is not, or that black Americans love him when they overwhelming do not, he is enacting a theological principle of “name it and claim it” theology, envisioning future success in the present tense.

Until now, this strain of evangelicalism has had little power in American politics. It is much younger as a religious movement than evangelicalism in the United States—about 100 years old. But it is a strategic alliance for Trump—both are rejected by traditional power, and they have popular support. In the last year, this new set of believers has risen up, and now we are seeing it flex its national political muscles for the first time. It is making some evangelicals so frustrated that they want to reject the term “evangelical” and call themselves something new.

From Pope Francis to Donald Trump, in just one year. Would any of us have predicted this force during the papal visit? For me it was a lesson to listen harder, to learn what deeper pressures are building and shaping society. And now, as always, another turning point must be ahead.

A Nation in Flux

Different as these three stories are, they all tell us something important about where we are as a nation and as a nation of believers and unbelievers. The ground under our feet is shifting both religiously and politically. New movements rise and new power brokers emerge. We need reporters to help us first name and then understand what is happening. Reporting is a specific kind of storytelling. Facts are powerful. Opinions often serve to protect. Facts reveal. They can advance a story and open us to the truth.

And yet, trust of “the media” is at a historic low in the United States. I am not sure I know what “the media” is—more often than not I find that people do not know that reporting and opinion journalism are not the same. Only four in 10 Americans trust the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly, according to Gallup. Some polls have it even worse, at 6 percent. Forty years ago, that trust was far higher, at more than seven in 10. Anecdotally, I find that the fear of media and reporters is often strongest among religious communities. More often than you would imagine, I am at best an outsider, at worst an enemy who cannot understand them.

My job as a reporter is to learn stories that, almost always, are not my own. Truth is hard. Sometimes reporting is hearing what people may not hear in themselves. Other times it is staring into the atrocities a person has committed. Sometimes it is just fighting to figure out what happened versus what people want to think took place. Power has always had a convenient relationship with truth. It is easy to encounter stories we like or understand. Stories that challenge our trust or experience are easier to dismiss.

People often ask me how faith informs my work. I ask myself a different question. I am more curious about how the stories I encounter, the people I meet, help me better understand what it is to be human. Reporting tracks that in all its messiness.

I have sat with Sybrina Fulton, not long after her son Trayvon Martin was shot and killed, as she prayed that God would use his death to overcome racism in America. “He's in heaven with God—and he has on a hoodie, he has on a heavenly hoodie,” she said.

I have listened to 18-year-old Mohamed and his sister Sara tell me why they bought pepper spray for their mother, a substitute school teacher who wears a hijab, after the Paris terrorist attacks. “I see my mother. Everyone else sees a terrorist,” Mohamed said.

I have watched as Tom Catena, a Catholic surgeon in Sudan, who runs the only hospital for one million civilians trapped in the fighting of the Nuba Mountain region, showed me photos of burned children and legless women hit by Sudanese government forces. “It is not any different than what is happening in Syria,” he said of the conflict. “It just has been going on three decades longer.”

And I have listened to Ali Karti, the Sudanese foreign minister, grow angry when I showed him those same photos, heard him deny they were real and dismiss documented Sudanese government rape camps as lies. “Nothing of that is happening,” he said. “I deem myself of follower of Jesus.”

Once you know the heart’s beat, its aches and loves can take deeper shape. And in all of this messiness, the very human approaches the very sacred. The heart of the world is holy ground. I think of St. Augustine, who said, “The very same person is at once God and man, God our end, man our way.”

The question of a reporter’s faith raises all the questions of the limits of identity politics: Can a white man really cover race riots in Ferguson? Is a woman best able to understand child care issues? Does a millennial best know the experience of young people? Can an atheist ever accurately write best about the Catholic Church?

Those are all ways of asking a different question: Is it ever possible to know, to really encounter, the reality of the other? Is bearing witness, in all its complexity and risk, possible? Is anyone able to get close to the heart of the world? My job is just to try. After all, who am I to deem something, someone, unworthy of my witness?

Stories do not end when I put down my pen. They begin. Then, the decision to bear witness is yours. Benjamin Britten, a British composer, once mentioned the Holy Triangle of music, a holy trinity if you will, of composer, performer and listener. Music, he said, demands the effort and participation of all three. I think there is a similar holy triangle for journalism—reporter, subject and listener. That means that the reporter’s work needs you. And I would not be surprised if that effort involves the old prayer, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Anything more than that I leave to the theologians. There are heartbeats to follow, humans to meet, a world to approach, stories to be told.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bruce Snowden
10 months 2 weeks ago
I found “The Heart Beat” Yale University lecture text given by Elizabeth Dias as she was awarded the George W. Hunt, S.J. Prize for Excellence in Journalism, an excellent pinpointing of scripture’s assertion, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free!” In a word its poignancy at times gripping! The last line in the lecture focuses perfectly on my experiences of “living the Catholic Faith” pointing out that “there are heartbeats to follow, humans to meet, a world to approach, stories to be told.” Sounds to me exactly like what Redemption is all about, precisely what the Gospels say, signed by Jesus. I like Ms. Dias’s “heart beat” imaging, in truth everything in life pulsating with heart beat. I like to believe and trust that my heartbeat (everybody hopefully) is somehow in sync with the heartbeat of Jesus, starting with the embryonic Sacred Heart Beat of Jesus in vitro a few weeks into gestation under Mother Mary’s heart, one with her heart beat, hers one with his. Then to its steady, or excited human heart beat throughout his life, childhood, to manhood, onward to its pounding in painful fear in Passion, to its heart failure on the Cross. Then to its glorious restart on Resurrection morning, to its continual pulsations in the Heavenly Kingdom, each beat mindful of and fully understanding human expectations, needs and sufferings. That explains Jesus’ words to St. Faustina Kowalka, “Tell aching humanity to snuggle close to my merciful Heart.” All of this for me defined by Faith, precisely Catholic Faith, in sync too with the heart beats of all animate creation. Also with the pulsating life principles of vegetative creativity, of say, lettuce, (much more) which was just discovered able to detect when it is being eaten! Unbelievable, but apparently true if the info online recently read is accurate. Then also to the pulse in mineral matter invisibly twinkling in the heartbeat of stardust from where it came. Yes, all of this in our Common Home, poorly explained I fear, Sister Earth, our environment our ecology everything a gift, in all its theo-ecologicl attachments. Everything under the grace of the galactic heart beat so to speak, of the guiding Hand of God, heart beat and Hand as one, from Whom all blessings flow sinewed one to the other by the connective tissue of Divine creative love. Yes, as Ms Dias so insightfully has said, “there are heart beats to follow, humans to meet, a world to approach, stories to be told!” Just as Holy Father Francis repeatedly points out, heralding Jesus!

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