Unless you live beneath a rock (and if you do, more power to you, I guess), you’re fully aware that Pope Francis is visiting the United States this week for the first time, much to the simultaneous excitement and fright of both conservatives and liberals. You should expect every word to come out of the pope’s mouth to be stretched and dissected five times over as Republicans and Democrats fight over just exactly whose pope he is. Both sides are desperate to co-opt the popular pontiff so you should expect to see Francis treated as a toy to be fought over by political children over the next few days.
All things considered, it’s pretty much business as usual.
Why are the two American political establishments fighting over poor ol’ Papa Frank? First, because he’s insanely popular among Americans despite the fact the Church itself remains decidedly less so. The whole “God’s representative on Earth” thing tends to lend to those who can associate with him an air of moral legitimacy — even in the eyes of non-believers. Simply put: The pope’s the cool kid on the playground right now and everyone wants to be friends with the cool kid.
Why are the two American political establishments fighting over poor ol’ Papa Frank?
Second reason: Francis is in many ways a ball of ambiguity — and that makes America’s political leadership crazy. The pope’s popularity stems from the political and social diversity of his beliefs. He holds a variety of stances that are both sacred and anathema to Republicans and Democrats, each in their own way. For example, Francis is anti-abortion, but also too often accused of being a Marxist. He’s a major advocate in the fight against climate change, but also isn’t about to start marrying gay people.
Is the Pope more aligned with Republicans or Democrats? It’s not an easy question to approach and it’s the sort of thing that makes the major American political parties uncomfortable. These folks want Republicans to be Republicans and Democrats to be Democrats. Easy. Simple. Done. When someone as beloved as Francis arrives at the doorstep threatening to straddle the line, each side’s spin doctors and narrative hounds are bound to try and shift the story to co-opt him for their own side. “He’s ours,” shout the Democrats. “No, he’s ours,” shout the Republicans.
Branding and leadership expert Charlene Li explains how Francis has harnessed social media to engage with a previously dispirited audience.
Papa Frank’s five-day East Coast swing will allow him many opportunities to dance along that aforementioned political line. On Wednesday, Francis will visit President Barack Obama — one of his most vocal fans — at the White House. On Thursday he’ll speak in front of Congress at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner; climate change is believed to be a key topic of the speech. He’ll then give Mass at the World Meeting of (“traditional”) Families on Saturday before spending Sunday afternoon meeting with prisoners at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. As you can see, it’s quite the eclectic itinerary.
As E.J. Dionne writes in The Washington Post, it’s important to look past the political games to and observe what Francis does rather than what he says (or is interpreted to have said). If it’s truth and reason you’re after, it’s best to ignore the major media mechanizations this week. Focus instead on the Pope himself, not the people desperate to speak for him.
Robert Montenegro is a writer, playwright, and dramaturg who lives in Washington DC. His beats include the following: tech, history, sports, geography, culture, and whatever Elon Musk has said on Twitter over the past couple days. He is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter at @Monteneggroll and visit his po’dunk website at robertmontenegro.com.
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