WASHINGTON, Sept. 22, 2015 – No one is more emphatic about maintaining the wall between church and state than liberal Democrats, God bless them. Thoughtful conservatives are often equally anxious to ensure a bright line of separation, but they show a much higher degree of tolerance for men and women of faith entering the political field and letting their faith be their guide.
GOP politicians are far more prone than Democrats to wear their faith on their sleeves. Democrats are far more likely to worry that religious people entering the political fray are determined to erase the First Amendment and turn America into a theocracy.
The Kim Davis affair shows how silly both sides can be. Liberals see the situation as an attempt by religious conservatives to use their faith as a justification to break the law. Conservatives see it as a first step to criminalize Christianity.
In fact, the issue was really a matter of deciding how far government must go to accommodate religious belief. The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act demands that the burden placed on Davis be the lightest necessary to achieve a compelling legal interest, but it doesn’t demand that it be nonexistent; it doesn’t guarantee Davis a job that her faith will allow her to perform.
So here we sit in an increasingly polarized America – liberals having fits when conservatives wonder what Jesus would do, conservatives convinced that liberals hate God – and in walks Pope Francis.
Now social media are awash with memes suggesting that conservatives don’t really love Jesus and that Francis gives the world a truly Christian message on economic inequality, climate change and capitalism. Occupy Democrats is gaga over Francis and his Jesus message. And Jesus, they assure us, hates GOP positions on all three.
I pray frequently, though I will admit I’m more prone to give God advice than to ask Him what Jesus would do so that He can guide my life. It seems that, like Internet liberals, I already know what Jesus would do. I part company with them only in my skepticism that Jesus sent the full memo to Pope Francis.
Not that long ago, liberals doubted that the pope knew Jesus from an oddly shaped turnip or the scorch marks on a piece of toast. The pope was just an old white man in a dress who thought that he could tell women what to do with their vaginas. But get a pope who tells you what you want to hear, and suddenly the heavens have opened. Hallelujah!
Conservatives have found themselves equally turned around, suddenly telling one and all that a religious leader isn’t qualified to talk science or economics. Some of them would be more convincing in their new-found secularism had they not trotted their ministers out to condemn everything from teaching evolution to same-sex marriage and to pooh-pooh global warming.
The pope, God bless him, has brought Democrats to Jesus in a big way. Even President Obama’s most virulent critics would have to admit that he now talks not like a Muslim (I don’t believe he ever did), but like a Jesuit turned papal groupie. At the same time, Francis has shown conservatives that religion is a political sword that cuts both ways.
The pope is enormously popular, and by all accounts he is a genuinely kind man. He’s no more an economist than Janet Yellen is a theologian, however, and why his views on economics should carry more weight than my barber’s is a mystery. Yes, yes, it’s his “moral authority,” but by all appearances that moral authority flows from his ability to say what people are eager to hear. Were he to tell them to stop drinking, goofing off on the job and fornicating, his moral authority would vanish faster than it came.
The pope’s popularity should serve as a warning to the right; it had better do a better job of making its case or expect to be swept away by people who know as little economics as the pope and who care less. The pope’s popularity is nothing to sneeze at, and it meshes nicely with the popularity of non-traditional politicians in the presidential race.
Religious leaders have every right and obligation to denounce injustice in the world. They have an obligation to stand up for principle, especially when that principle isn’t popular. We might argue that Pope Francis has stood up for some politically easy principles, but we’re in no position to argue that he does it for cynical or political reasons. The pope is here, and he is very welcome. Whatever his virtues or failings, he has highlighted our hypocrisy on politics and religion, and that is always a useful exercise.