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Stop Treating Pope Francis as America's Liberal Hero

Progressives are being politically opportunistic. It could come back to haunt them.

Franco Origlia / Getty Images

Republicans are thrilled whenever the rare Hollywood celebrity turns out to be a conservative, as they’re overjoyed to have an ally within a cultural institution overwhelmingly at odds with their politics. Liberals, frequently at odds with conservtive faith leaders, have responded similarly to the ascendancy of Pope Francis and his calls to act on climate change, immigration, and poverty. Those paroxysms of joy are coming to a crescendo with the Pope’s visit to the Washington this week, as nominally secular liberal groups are capitalizing on Francis-mania to amplify their message and attack Republicans.

Progressive advocates are finding religion this week, arguing the Pope's pious message should transcend partisan politics. Faith leaders are among those leading Thursday's climate justice rally on the National Mall, and the organizers of a 100-mile pro-immigration walk to D.C. describe it as a spiritually driven pilgrimage. “What we want to echo is the value and the spirit that the Pope carries,” said A-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, insisting, “It’s not a political action, it’s an act of faith.” NextGen Climate has poured $2 million into an ad campaign that features footage of Francis and cites his encyclical on the environment. 

But the nakedly partisan attacks aren't far behind the non-partisan causes. Take the Bridge Project: Funded by the liberal American Bridge PAC, the group is releasing a report this week that, according to spokesperson Regan Page, “will reveal how the Republican Party is opposed and actively working against Pope Francis' priorities on many issues including climate change, immigration, income inequality, workers' rights, and more.” Another report from the Bridge Project says the Koch Brothers are “on the wrong side of the Holy Father” and outlines how Koch-backed groups have attacked the Pope. “The bottom line is the Kochs are terrified of the Pope's teachings because they threaten what they worship most—their bank accounts,” said Page. 

In claiming the Pope as an ally and using him as a cudgel against Republicans, liberals risk abandoning values that they’ve long held dear. And their naked political opportunism could come back to haunt them.

Yes, Pope Francis has expressed compassion for gays, de-emphasized social issues, and made it temporarily easier for women to repent for having an abortion. But Francis has carefully avoided challenging or altering the Church’s fundamental doctrines on contraception, abortion, and gay marriage, all three of which are at odds with prevailing liberal positions. The left’s reluctance to grapple with the Pope's less politically convenient views is an obvious inconsistency that troubles some faith-driven progressives.

“Everybody has to be careful—we can’t just cherry-pick things we love about the Pope and say the Pope loves our stuff,” said Sally Steenland, director of the Center for American Progress. “I think the danger is to try to assert ownership of him. That's a bad thing to do for either side. A good thing to do is to take inspiration from him and go forth with more energy and clarity. We can’t try to make him our mascot.”

On the specific issues where the Pope’s views align with their own—and only those—liberals find themselves arguing that conservatives are wrong not just on the facts, but because they fall on the wrong side of the Pope. That goes against the philosophy of government that has guided progressives for decades. In fighting a Religious Right that advocates for an openly Judeo-Christian nation, they’ve defended a secular government that separates Church and State. The Democratic Party is comfortable accepting support from religious allies, especially from its African-American base, but only so long as their calls for action fit into a larger argument driven by humanism and pluralism. And Democrats have a particularly long history of keeping the Catholic Church at arm’s length, given the concerns surrounding the country's first Catholic president. As John F. Kennedy said during the 1960 election, speaking before a group of Protestant ministers, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.” 

For liberals who oppose the Catholic Church on core social issues, the Vatican-State boundary has been a critical piece of their argument. Catholics for Choice, for instance, is part of an interfaith coalition that aims to insulate public policy from religious overreach, whose mission statement reads: “Elected officials should not base legislation on any particular religious view, or any particular religious figure’s approval or disapproval.” People for the American Way—a progressive advocacy group formed in 1981 by activists “disturbed by the divisive rhetoric of newly politicized televangelists”—has stood by similar principles: “While it is appropriate to discuss the moral dimensions of public policy issues, religious doctrine alone is not an acceptable basis for government policy.” 

With Pope Francis’s ascendancy, it’s conservatives, not liberals, who are making the arguments for the separation of Church and State. "I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope," Jeb Bush said in June. But the Pope’s visit is blurring lines between Church and State in some unprecedented ways that liberals should be concerned about as well. Francis will be the first Pope and religious head of a state to address Congress, and he was invited not by a Democrat, but by House Speaker John Boehner. It’s an explicitly political setting that will put religion and policymaking in very close quarters. Liberal champions of the Pope are practically giddy about the prospect of seeing Francis challenge Republicans’ policy views to their faces—but who's to say he won't challenge Democrats as well? And the very idea that our elected leaders should change their policy positions solely at the behest of any religious leader shouldn't be something to celebrate.  

The White House has provided the rare Democratic Party corrective to the Left's bear hug of the Pope, pushing back against the idea that Francis should directly influence policymaking in the U.S. even as they roll out the red carpet for his visit. "We would not in any way want to create any expectation that the pope is going to be a voice in U.S. domestic political issues," Ben Rhodes, a national security adviser to Obama, said on a press call last week. "I think the Pope in many ways operates at a different plane of being a spiritual and moral leader. So I think we’d be very sensitive to not suggest that the Pope’s visit and his words are inserted into our own domestic politics.” 

A handful of others are urging Congress to make the same distinction. Interfaith Alliance, a faith-based group created in 1994 to challenge "religious and political extremism," has sent a letter to every member of Congress warning them against making public policy based on religious prescriptions. “While his positions may be driven by his faith, what you do with the information he provides must be motivated by secular purpose. Faith can inform our values, but it cannot be the goal of our public policy,” writes Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance. “Regardless of your personal religious commitment—whether your theological inclination is to agree with Pope Francis or to oppose him—your primary commitment must remain to your constituents and to the Constitution.” 

The Pope probably won’t offer policy prescriptions or endorse specific pieces of legislation. Instead, he’s likely to lend a moral voice to broad social justice issues that liberals have championed—as well as some that they haven’t. The Pope's remarks could also bolster the broader, secular case for the social change, not only because of his popularity and stature, but because his radical authenticity could inspire liberals who have long struggled to cast empirically-driven arguments in moral terms. But the Pope’s address before Congress creates a worrisome precedent that could encourage future religious leaders to even more aggressively dictate how lawmakers should make policy. And the next Pope—or other global religious superstar—who comes before Congress might not be as sympathetic to progressives’ worldview.