Pope and Prez

March 27, 2014

Much of the news today featured the first meeting between Catholic Pope Francis and U.S. President Barack Obama. The fact that Obama made a point to visit with Francis reflects partly on the popularity of the new pontiff. However, it also helps demonstrate the modern role religion plays in U.S. politics. As I noted in my book Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics, some Protestant critics of John F. Kennedy incorrectly claimed during the 1960 presidential campaign that he would submit decisions to the pope. However, after the shift to confessional politics, candidates often met with the pope and campaigned by promising to listen to the pope. Presidents like Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush invited a pope to the White House while Ronald Reagan included a photo of him with the pope during the 1984 presidential campaign. Other candidates pledged to consult with the pope if elected. All of this is quite a change from the era of Kennedy and before.

With today's meeting, liberals and conservatives are both trying to spin today's meeting with the former highlighting Francis's positions on immigration and economic matters and the latter focusing on abortion and contraception. Yet, all of that misses the point as Francis did not agree to meet in hopes of helping or hurting Obama politically. While the meeting did create good political optics for Obama, that does not mean the meeting was purely political. After all, Francis gave Obama a copy of his encyclical The Joy of the Gospel. Obama said he would read the document, which offers important religious-political arguments about economics (for a brief summary see earlier my post). Hopefully Obama will keep that promise, and then work on enacting it. While Francis's document clearly includes political implications, his motivations are spiritual. His meeting with Obama likely similarly mixed these concerns.