The Pope and the GOP: Francisco Goes to Washington

At around 4 PM on September 22nd, a Latino visitor to the United State will land in Andrews Air Force Base very near DC and immediately impact the tone, tenor and content of the primary campaigns for the 2016 presidential elections.

Pope Francis, the Argentine Jesuit, will arrive to the very centre of American political power carrying with him a message forged over a two year period, first and foremost, as an instrument of institutional reform for the largest transnational political organization in the world, the catholic church.  And as it turns out, by the lights of the pope, what is good for the holly church should be good enough for the American people and their institutions.

The message will not necessarily be new but expressed in gesture and pronounced in speech should take an entirely new life. Spoken on American territory, the reform program of the new Vatican may make the American political curia feel the target of severe criticism. In fact, Francisco program should translate effortlessly into the American political vernacular and, in its American accent, it should promptly antagonize a vast section of the republican party and its funders. Probably all.

There are two particular areas that will probably resonate loudly and will gain him enmities in the conservative camp. The first one is the demand of hospitality towards the foreigner. The duty of care towards immigrants has been an important theme of this papacy since the very beginning. Only a few months after becoming pope, Francis first pastoral trip was to Lampedusa, an Italian island which has seen a string of migratory tragedies. There he demanded the “reawakening of a sense of brotherly responsibility” and started what became a long invective against indifference in the face of this kind of suffering.

This, of course, is not bound to be good news for anyone in the republican field. invariably, the republican positions have pandered to a latent mistrust of Latino immigrants. But it is sure to gain the pope the attention of Donald Trump who has made some form of low-grade generic xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiments a centrepiece of his campaign.

So it should not be very difficult to guess what is bound to be the reaction to the pope celebrating the first mass on American soil in the capital, in Spanish to canonize Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan who established a group of missions throughout California.

Yet, presumably the republican party will have to find a strategy to respond in a way that avoids further alienating the proverbial Hispanic vote. Any GOP candidate needs 45% of those voters to make it into the White House and Trump, who has now become the de facto face of the conservative field, has already done what seems like irreparable harm.

The pope will also have a lot to say about the abuses of unbridled capitalism.  This is not a new message either and as the rather pugnacious pronunciations about environmental issues, they were the main theme of the latest encyclical. But both  messages straightforwardly agree with most of the talking points pushed by the candidates in the democratic field.

With regard to environmental policy and global warming, the Vatican has aligned itself squarely with the White House and this means in direct opposition to the republican party line. More interestingly however, the criticism of poverty as a form of violence and the vulnerability and precariousness of the individual and the family in the face of unbridled egoism of individuals and corporations seems perfectly well aligned with much of the agenda of Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

The republican field should take note. They face a pretty formidable political adversary. The pope is not merely the leader of a congregation of faith, the pope is the leader of a congregation of conscience and, as such, is in the business of promoting certain values that, ultimately, translate into political demands.

Of course, Catholics are not a voting block. The republican base can most likely continue to count on catholic conservatives who see this pope with disdain. Those who take sexual morality to be of a higher moral order than, say, care of the neighbour will most likely vote for whatever may be the reincarnation of Rick Santorum.

But 2 out of every 3 Americans have a very favourable view of the Pope. And it is very likely that the number increases when you look at groups like Hispanic who are predominantly catholic. So for the GOP candidates this presents a rather delicate situation. If the pope is seen as statesman who stands above the political fray, then an open attack from the right will simply push his acolytes to take a defensive position. This would be another nightmare for the GOP which fas found in religious conservatives an echo chamber for its social policy agenda.

And then, it is a matter of pure speculation what could be of FOX news in this cross fire. The mouthpiece of the GOP who has been bemoaning a war against Christianity will be forced to learn new tricks in political contortion and find more viable commentators than token Catholics.

In any case, September will be a wonderfully entertaining month to observe American electoral politics and particularly the republican field albeit not from within the republican party.

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