When Pope Francis visits the United States in two months and becomes the first pontiff to address Congress, his speech will be a seminal moment in American history. A pope who pumps fresh energy into the world’s most influential religious institution and humanizes the papacy will likely find his toughest audience in this country. Several polls released last week show both the challenges and opportunities that await a pope who denounces an “economy of exclusion” and in bracing language prods political leaders to wake up to the reality of climate change.
After enjoying sky-high approval ratings for the past two years, a new Gallup poll shows a swift decline in support for Pope Francis in the United States, driven largely by conservative angst. The pope’s overall favorability rating is now 59 percent, a significant dip from 76 percent early last year. Forty-five percent of conservatives now view the pope favorably, a stark decline from 72 percent who did a year ago.
Don’t quote me on this, but I think Jesus also took a hit in his poll numbers when he kicked the money changers out of the Temple, broke bread with prostitutes and reminded the religious elite that their obsession with the letter of the law missed the big picture. I doubt a pope who is focused on bringing those on the peripheries to the center of global debates is losing sleep over the finer points of Washington punditry or polling. This is a pope who still remains enormously popular and is arguably the most compelling moral leader in the world today. Coveting thy fellow leaders’ polling numbers is likely a sin, but most politicians would do anything to have the pope’s widespread appeal.
Pope Francis has put U.S. conservatives on the defensive by insisting that climate change and economic inequality are urgent moral issues that can’t be ignored. When the first pope from Latin America probes the underbelly of global capitalism—what he calls “an idolatrous system which excludes, debases and kills”—that drives a stake through the heart of conservative economic dogma and challenges a blind faith in free-market fundamentalism.
If you’re a proud conservative who loves God, the Republican Party and thinks any mention of inequality is leftwing heresy, the sight of a pope calling for a radical rethinking of the economic status quo is enough to spoil summer barbeques at the country club. Couple this with the fact that some Catholics, including a few bishops, have expressed concern that the pope isn’t talking enough about abortion, and that’s a recipe for serious disaffection.
While pro-choice Catholic politicians have long felt public pressure from the hierarchy over abortion, GOP Catholics are now getting squeezed. “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” Jeb Bush, a convert to Catholicism, has scoffed. After Pope Francis issued an encyclical last month that urged global leaders to act on climate change disproportionately impacting the poor, Catholic Rick Santorum sniffed that the pope should “leave science to the scientists.” Francis is preaching traditional Catholic social teaching that past popes have also articulated, but his muscular prioritization of inequality and environmental justice explode a values narrative in American politics that conservative Catholics and evangelicals have shaped in recent decades.
Gallup found that liberals in the United States, while nowhere near as unsettled by Francis, also show signs of cooling on the pope. His approval ratings with liberals dipped 14 percentage points from the year before. This could reflect a view held by some on the left who see abortion, contraception, Catholic teaching on gay marriage, and the limiting of clergy ordination to men as the litmus tests for assessing whether any real change is happening in the church. Francis strikes a more pastoral tone on LGBT issues—underscored by his now-iconic “Who am I to judge?” response to a question about gay priests—and clearly wants to broaden the conversation beyond the flashpoints of the culture war.
Nevertheless, some progressives were a bit naïve in assuming the pope could act like a new president handed the keys of the Oval Office and reverse the policies of his predecessors. The Catholic Church is not a democracy and moves in centuries, not by soundbites. Development of church doctrine does happen, and Francis welcomes debate that in past papacies was effectively muted. But the pope has always emphasized that his deeper reform agenda is about building a “poor church for the poor” that is rooted in the radicalism of the Gospel.
The pope’s visit to the United States has an inescapable political backdrop—even if he defies conventional ideological labels. Nearly a quarter of the electorate is Catholic, and while there is no monolithic Catholic voting bloc, several key swing states critical to winning the presidency have a high percentage of Catholics. Since 1972, only one presidential candidate, George W. Bush in 2000, has been elected without winning Catholics. A new poll of likely 2016 voters from Lake Research Partners found that the pope’s emphasis on community and his critique of a “throwaway culture” that puts profits and efficiency before human dignity resonates with many voters. A Quinnipiac University poll also finds that voters in the swing states of Colorado, Iowa and Virginia agree by margins of more than 2 to 1 with the pope’s call to do more to address climate change.
Pope Francis is making new again what is ancient wisdom about the common good at a time when our politics and culture are often defined by a libertarianism on both the right and left. The pope taps into a deeper hunger for community and solidarity that goes beyond self-interest. This has implications for core values that must frame our political and policy debates. Voters and candidates can’t ignore the pope’s insistence that addressing climate change, honoring the dignity of work, protecting the sanctity of life and building an economy of inclusion are all moral obligations.
The pundits and partisans will have their say as campaigns heat up, but a more intriguing storyline to watch unfold will be the “Francis effect” on the 2016 election.
John Gehring is Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington. He is the author of the upcoming book, The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church. You can follow him on Twitter @gehringdc