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:

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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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7 Responses to “Pope Francis is making conservaties come to Jesus on religion’s relationship with politics”

  1. Hue-Man says:

    You’re welcome to call yourself what suits you; my comment was aimed at the christianists who use “non-believer” as a curse word, suggesting that we have no morals, don’t know right from wrong, and are probably some kind of criminal! I don’t know that there is a word that isn’t used as a weapon by these people – atheist, non-theist, or similar terms. I try to avoid people who would raise the issue with me but then I live in a town where 50.9% percent of the age 15+ reported NONE as their religion in the 2011 Census.

    Back to the tooth fairy: what do you call someone who doesn’t believe in the tooth fairy? Sane!

  2. The_Fixer says:

    I use that terminology to refer to people who believe in a deity as opposed to someone who does not. In my case, I do not believe in a deity, so classify myself as a “non-believer.”

    But you do have a point – although I am not a believer in a deity, I do believe in other things – being good to fellow humans, justice, fairness, etc.

    I guess that calling someone a “believer” or a “non-believer” is an incomplete way to label someone, but I hardly think that anyone religious would willingly embrace the label of “delusional” (as true as that might be). In my comment above, believer/non-believer is shorthand used to make a point.

    I get what you’re saying, though, and wonder what would be a better set of terms. Anyone?

  3. Hue-Man says:

    I object to the idea of “believers” and “non-believers”; my beliefs are just as strong or perhaps even stronger than someone who worships one deity or 600! If religionists need to claim an adjective let it be “delusional”; wouldn’t that describe someone who believed in the tooth fairy?!

  4. Bill_Perdue says:

    Jorge Bergoglio, the replacement for the recent papenfueher, Ratzigner, heads a cult that continues to shelter child rapists and that abets and engages in child sexual abuses everywhere in the world. His predecessor was forced, like Nixon, to resign because of the scandals and illegality of their regimes.

    Jorge Bergoglio is guilty of crimes against humanity by abetting the crimes of perpetrated by the Argentinean Junta , when tens of thousands were ‘disappeared’ tortured and murdered (1).

    Obama, instead of arresting this Dirty War’ thug, embraced him and his crimes against humanity just as he embraced the crimes of the Bushes and the Clintons, war criminals all. That’s because Obama doesn’t want to be indicted for his war own crimes against the peoples of Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and his own little ‘dirty war’ against Arab Americans when he ordered the racist and extra legal drone murders of Arab and muslim citizens like Ahmed Farouq, Adam Gadahn, Anwar al-Aulaqi, Samir Khan, ‘Abd al-Rahman Anwar al-Aulaqi and Jude Mohammed. One was a sixteen year old boy from Denver Colorado. (2)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21XhdpHOjRY

    (1) http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/pope-francis-and-the-dirty-war

    (2) http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/drone_killing_the_fifth_amendment_20140220

  5. The_Fixer says:

    Forgive me for not being giddy about the pope’s visit. I am over religion and deities, having left Catholicism long ago and turned toward a lack of belief sometime after that. Aside from that, I think that all the Catholic hierarchy’s wardrobe choices are ridiculous. But that’s another matter.

    That being said, it’s obvious that I am in the minority in this country. Most people are believers by default – their parents, grandparents and other ancestors are, so they are, too. Believing in something so totally unbelievable has become “normal.”

    It is clear that the far right wing population finds religion to be a convenient justification for their particular prejudices. Far right-wing politicians find it to be a great way to snooker the masses into voting for them and sending them money.

    The whole thing reeks of fraud. It would be easy to write the whole thing off were it not for the fact that there really are a lot of people who really take it seriously and try to give aid and comfort to their fellow humans in need. To me, those people deserve my admiration, respect and sympathy. Sympathy because all around them, people are talking a big talk and twisting religious talk for their own uses while the people doing the good works really are walking the walk.

    In the end, the politicians will try to use this to their advantage. The people will get out of it what they will. In another 2 months, the papal visit will be all but forgotten, along with whatever words he has spoken.

    I’ll just ignore what I can and let it all blow over. In the end, it’s no more significant than a parade, which is what comes to mind when seeing all of the coverage in the media.

  6. BeccaM says:

    Fundamentalists have been comfortable for generations in their selective rhetorical appeals to irrefutable authority. Thus the Pope and the Bible and other religious figures MUST be obeyed when it’s something the wingnuts demand, but MUST be dismissed and ignored when it’s something they don’t want.

  7. nicho says:

    Let’s not pretend that Francis is any kind of a revolutionary. Here are revolutionary words from a pope:

    “Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.”

    From Pope Leo XIII in 1891, Rerum Novarum.

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