I am a white millennial studying on a college campus in the United States in the year 2015. As a member of this rarefied and exceptionally self-congratulatory demographic, certain things are expected of me. The three Cs: curiosity, creativity and compassion. These ideally foster respect, almost to the point of blind adulation, for other people’s world views.
That last one is a little prickly, a little more backhanded than the compliments we’re used to receiving from our TV, our teachers, our parents and ourselves. You caught me at an aggressive moment. I confess, at the risk of becoming a pariah, that I’m feeling close-minded right now. Let me elaborate.
My hometown of Washington D.C. was in a dither of deadening traffic jams last week to welcome Pope Francis to the United States. The head of the Catholic Church has periodically appeared in American media for expressing views that seem lenient in comparison to his predecessors. His latest big move was to call for a globally unified response to climate change in a speech at the White House. The majority of news coverage during his visit has been about this statement. Little to no time has been spent discussing the Pope’s most recent actual policy move: starting in December, as part of a so-called year of mercy, the Pope has authorized clergymen to forgive women who have had abortions.
Why are we not talking about that? Because a statement which highlights the fact that Catholicism excommunicates anyone associated with an abortion procedure, the fact that forgiveness is being peddled like a press stunt for the limited time frame of one year, the fact that women apparently need the word of an official (male) member of the Catholic Church to rescue their souls from Hell, is not nearly as sexy as “Pope Francis wants to fight climate change! What a cool guy.”
American media, especially the kind that is targeted towards and perpetuated by the elite among the millennial demographic, has completely cherry-picked their understanding of Pope Francis in an effort to appear more tolerant, more open-minded and more sympathetic with worldviews and belief systems that are not their own. This is not the first time we have selectively edited our understanding of a religious leader in order to seem cooler. The Dalai Lama is the leader of Buddhism and the nation of Tibet. He also happens to be a favorite of millennials who are not even remotely Buddhist but want to appear exotic and edgy by picking a role model outside of the Western cannon. On a recent visit to London, the Dalai Lama declared that yes, his successor could be a woman, on one condition: “That female must be attractive, otherwise it is not much use.” This problematic remark – not the first of its kind made by the Dalai Lama – was promptly downplayed by the BBC.
This is another classic example of cherry-picking the comments of a prominent religious figure in an effort to improve one’s self-image – either as an individual or as a society – while avoiding discussions about actual policy and theological issues.
Perhaps you’ve inferred that I am neither Catholic nor Buddhist. I don’t understand religions that place so much emphasis on the leadership of a single human being, but I acknowledge that millions of people do. And really, as long as I get to stay in my own lane, I don’t care. Believe what you want. What agitates me is that religious figures like the Pope and the Dalai Lama are becoming yet another thing that millennials use, selectively and frivolously, to bolster our good feelings about ourselves. Other things that fall into that category: politics (but that’s a separate story).
Let’s abandon those original three Cs, just for a moment. They’re undoubtedly important, but let’s also entertain these ones: consistency in the views and opinions you express, courage to delve into issues of religion, and critical consumption of ideas and information. Our generation already thinks of itself as the most loving and respectful one in history and that’s great. I just wish we were closer to being the most discerning.