Pope Francis is making conservaties come to Jesus on religion’s relationship with politics

If the Pope’s remarks at the White House are any indication, we’re about to see a whole bunch of conservative Christians do a big about-face on religion’s proper role in politics.

Here’s the video, from earlier today:

[iframe src=”https://amp.twimg.com/v/7efc6e3c-e7b9-434e-bbe7-1a89c21845ec”]

Over the course of just over nine minutes, Pope Francis touched on a series of hot-button political issues. Parts of his speech were welcome signs for the American left, giving rhetorical nods to liberals on issues ranging from immigration:

As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families.

To climate change:

Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution. Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.

To name-checking Martin Luther King (while talking about climate justice!):

To use a telling phrase of the Reverend Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it.

At other points in his remarks, Francis sounded a bit more like the social conservatives we’ve come to expect in positions of religious authority, with less-liberal messages relating to marriage:

I will also travel to Philadelphia for the Eighth World Meeting of Families, to celebrate and support the institutions of marriage and the family at this, a critical moment in the history of our civilization.

And the right to discriminate:

American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination. With countless other people of good will, they are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty.

Thus far, the defining feature of Pope Francis’s tenure as the Vicar of Christ on Earth has been that he gives higher priority to economic justice and climate change than his predecessors. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t bring something to the table for everyone to like. He’s gone out of his way to say that he isn’t a liberal, and he hasn’t changed Catholic doctrine in any measurable way. All he’s done is give more air time to messages outlining the vices of unfettered capitalism and the importance of caring for the environment than American conservatives are used to.

But those American conservatives, who aren’t used to being told that their “Moral Majority” is neither moral nor the majority, aren’t having it. As long as Pope Francis isn’t 100% in their camp on every issue, using his authority to exclusively go after LGBT people, women and atheists with no mention of economic or climate justice, he might as well be Stalin:

As unfair as this is to the Pope, there’s a silver lining: Maybe, just maybe, forcing themselves to break with the most prominent Christian in the world on political matters will plant the idea in conservatives’ heads that our morals, and not our holy books, should guide our politics.

That may seem like a split hair, but consider:

As Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig wrote earlier today, politics is, at its core, a moral enterprise:

To paraphrase Aristotle, the question before any democratic body is: How ought we live together? This is the foundational question of democratic politics, one that helps illuminate matters of government procedure (such as how to make decisions) as well as the goals of governance itself…When we create laws in order to create peaceful relations between citizens, communities, states, and nations, we are communicating at the very least that we value peace, and likely a variety of other values that peace itself ensures: life, self-actualization, development, joy.

All of which are moral judgments.

So, to the extent that one’s religion informs their morals, their religion informs their politics. It would be asking far too much to claim that one’s religion (or lack thereof) shouldn’t bleed into their political opinions — even if our government is neutral with respect to those religious beliefs. You can be as religious as you want, but as soon as you enter the public sphere, “God says so” needs to become, “It’s right, and here’s why.” Building off this point, Bruenig argues that it is not only reasonable but expected for the Pope to take stands on political issues, writing that, “For Pope Francis, ignoring political matters would mean ignoring a key component of the lives he is entrusted to care for and guide.”

This is in keeping with the history of the Church, as the Pope has always been something of a political figure. Setting aside the fact that the papacy of the Medieval Era was a political office with a standing army, His Holiness has consistently loomed large in modern American politics. Had John F. Kennedy not gone out of his way to remind the largely Protestant electorate that, as president, he wouldn’t take orders from the Pope, he almost certainly wouldn’t have been elected. So for conservatives to just now decide that it’s time for the Pope to tone it down with all of this political stuff is, at the very least, ahistorical and convenient.

But there’s a problem with Bruenig’s argument: The sheer diversity of political opinions that all lay claim to the same body of Scripture suggest that her causal arrow is pointing in the wrong direction. She and Pope Francis have both read their Bibles and found that economic and environmental justice are high on God’s priority list. George Will and Pope John Paul II have other ideas about what’s really important. Who’s right? Both of them? Neither? Does it matter? It matters, right?

These questions are hard to swallow for religious people who are used to trading in absolute truth, where a difference of opinion must mean that someone is right and someone else is damned. But everything we know about how our brain processes moral information, and by extension political information, suggests that disagreement as to how best to live is both inevitable and necessary for a healthy society.

Presented with a Pope that is for the Iran Deal and progressive taxation, but against same-sex marriage, most politically-inclined Americans will find themselves picking and choosing. Which is fine, but they should recognize that their morals are informing their religion, not the other way around. This is what happens when you take a vastly divergent set of political opinions and crowd them into the same set of Scriptures.

It’s normally incumbent upon secular liberals to make this point, but this is what’s at the core of conservatives’ gripes about Pope Francis. Taking them at their word, they’ve read their Bible and gotten a completely different message about what committed Christians should care about. So if a supposed liberal like Pope Francis thinks we should do more to curb our carbon emissions, or that we should allow the Iran Deal to be implemented, then fine — but leave the Bible out of it. Make your case without claiming you’re right just because a self-affirming book said so.

Less charitably, and probably more in line with reality, they haven’t read their Bibles and are simply claiming Pope Francis is wrong because their politics disagrees with his religion. But the point still stands: Every time Pope Francis gives the DNC something self-congratulatory to tweet about, conservatives are confronted with the idea that maybe we should try to decide how live together for ourselves, without the aid of an outdated religious text.

Let’s see if the feeling lasts for more than five minutes after Pope Francis has left the country.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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