Pope Francis and the Religious Right

The Religious Right

One in four Americans claims to be an evangelical Christian. Evangelicals hold strongly conservative positions on many social and moral issues, and form one of the most powerful voting blocks in American politics. They comprise the traditional base of what is popularly referred to as “the Religious Right.”

Although the Religious Right has often dreamed of being a dominant force in American politics – think of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1980s and the 1988 presidential campaign of Pat Robertson – it has never had sufficient breadth to form a true majority.

Jerry Falwell-bEven with the Moral Majority rising to national prominence in the 1980s, Falwell’s appeal never moved far beyond his own conservative Baptist base. He remained suspicious – even antagonistic – toward most other Protestant groups and was fundamentally distrustful of Catholicism. By the late 1980s, the Moral Majority had folded.

Pat RobertsonPat Robertson’s presidential bid never made it out of the primaries and he ended up casting his support to the incumbent, President George H. W. Bush. Robertson then used the remainder of his campaign resources to found a new organization to succeed the Moral Majority, to be known as the Christian Coalition. He appointed Ralph Reed to direct the organization and Reed worked diligently to expand the group’s base.

In particular, Reed formed an effective alliance with conservative Catholics around issues having to do with preserving traditional “family values.” Their efforts focused largely on opposing access to abortion and exempting gays from civil rights protections.

As Ronald Story and Bruce Laurie note in their book, The Rise of Conservatism in America, 1945-2000

book-Rise of ConservatismThe tenuous, sometimes troubled alliance between Catholic conservatives and Protestant evangelicals matured at the end of the 1980s into a more reliable partnership on moral issues. The influx of immigrants from Third World countries, hostile to gay rights and abortion, nudged Catholicism rightward. So did the appointment by Pope John Paul of conservative bishops unfriendly to the social justice ethos of Vatican II ….

Lay activists worked to unite Catholics and Protestants around a program of making religious conservatism a public issue. They formed Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), which issued manifestos endorsed by conservative clerics. (p. 27)

The authors note that despite these advances, the Christian Right received little support from the Republican President George H. W. Bush and even less from his Democratic successor, Bill Clinton. However, with the candidacy of George W. Bush, “The Christian Right in 2000 finally had one of their own at the head of the Republican ticket.”

Older stalwarts Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson … mobilized evangelical Christians through their broadcast outlets and voter guides. Catholic prelates encouraged votes for Bush… . Lay Catholics distributed guides urging voters to assess candidates on abortion, gay marriage, and euthanasia …. Such a broad coalition, armed with a great war chest, made the GOP look like a sure and easy winner. (p. 30)

Yet even with such a broad coalition of voters pushing for Bush’s election, the race was amazingly close. The Democratic candidate, Al Gore, actually won the popular vote and the Electoral College vote was a toss-up until the state of Florida (governed by George W. Bush’s brother, Jeb) was declared for the Republicans more than month later after the Supreme Court stopped a contentious vote recount by a 5 to 4 decision.

The Religious Right had won – but by the narrowest of margins. The challenge would be to keep that coalition of conservative religious voters united in future campaigns if victory was to be maintained. But after 2000 the Christian Coalition fell on hard times, was the subject of several lawsuits, and by 2004 it was technically bankrupt. It continues today as a 501(c)(4) organization focused on opposing abortion and same-sex marriage.

The Democratic candidate Barack Obama swept into office in 2008 on a broad surge of popular appeal and the promise of a new vision for America. Despite major losses for Democrats in the 2010 mid-term elections and fierce campaigning against his policies by the Religious Right, President Obama was re-elected in 2012 and Republicans suffered a net loss of seats in both the Senate and the House.

The question must be raised as to whether the Religious Right can still maintain a dominant position in national electoral politics. The level of support was insufficient under the limited appeal of the Moral Majority in the 1980s, but was more successful when it included conservative Catholics within the Christian Coalition.

Today efforts continue to keep conservative evangelical Protestants and Catholics together as a united force campaigning on the key issue of “family values.” This united front is now being jeopardized by a new and unexpected factor – the election this year of a new Pope.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis-cIn September, Pope Francis made waves with the publication of his statement that the Catholic Church had become obsessed with the issues of abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and needed to display an attitude of mercy rather than judgment. He criticized the Church for putting dogma before love, and stated,

We need to find a new balance, otherwise … the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards.

When asked specifically about the issue of homosexuality, he said,

Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.

Francis has called on the church to be more caring toward the ostracized, the suffering, and the needy. “I see the Church as a field hospital after battle,” he said. “You have to heal [the person’s] wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”

He has called on the Church to offer itself as a “home for all,” and has, as reported by the New York Times, “criticized the church for putting dogma before love, and for prioritizing moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalized.”

All of this could be bad news for America’s powerful Religious Right. If a significant number of Catholic voters follow the Pope’s example, they may move away from the kind of “culture war” issues that currently define much of conservative American politics to focus on other matters.

Pope Francis definitely wants them to give priority to other matters. Not only is he noticeably shifting the focus away from the divisive social issues emphasized by religious conservatives, he is redirecting the discussion toward critiquing areas normally considered sacrosanct by conservatives, namely capitalism and the free market economy.

This past November, Pope Francis issued a lengthy “apostolic exhortation” (Evangelii Gaudium, literally, The Joy of the Gospel) in which he laid out a mission statement for the Catholic Church. It contained bold language and sweeping calls for change on many issues, including the way the Church addresses economic policies. It provided a harsh critique of “trickle-down” economics and unrestricted free markets that disadvantage the poor. The pope lamented the growing trend of income inequality under capitalism and called on political leaders to adopt financial reforms that will lift up the lower classes.

trickle-down economics

Among Francis’ more memorable statements in this document:

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power …. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?

Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. 

When Rush Limbaugh states that “This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope,” or Sarah Palin complains that his statements “sound kind of liberal,”  they display their ignorance of traditional Catholic teaching.

Pope Francis is no Marxist and he is not a liberal. He is a traditionalist, steeped in the teachings and approved practices of the Catholic Church. In his statements he is pointedly reaffirming the positions laid out in the official papal encyclicals of his predecessors including:

  • Rerum Novarum: On the Condition of Workers (1891) – addresses capital, labor, and the condition of the working class
  • Quadragesimo Anno: On the Reconstruction of the Social Order (1931) – on the dignity of labor, the rights of workers to organize, and the immorality of keeping economic control in the hands of a few
  • Laborem Exercens: On Human Work (1981) – states that work should not be dehumanizing but a means for participating in God’s ongoing creation
  • Sollicitudo Rei Socialis: On the Twentieth Anniversary of Populorum Progressio (1987) – adopts a critical attitude toward both capitalism and communism
  • Caritas in Veritatae: Charity in Truth (2009) – calls for linking charity and truth in the pursuit of justice, the common good, and authentic human development.
  •  Mater et Magistra: Mother and Teacher (1961) – places responsibility for social justice not just in the hands of the individual but also in the hands of the State
  • Populorum Progressio: On the Development of People (1967) – advocates a pluralistic, decentralized approach to addressing economic problems

Pope Francis has not changed the Catholic Church’s doctrine or policies on any of these matters. He has, however, definitely changed its tone. And his message seems to be going over well. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll has shown that not only is Francis popular among progressive Catholics, even 91% of politically conservative American Catholics view their new pope favorably. There is remarkable interest in his weekly pastoral addresses, and he has some 3.3 followers on Twitter. Time magazine recently named him “Person of the Year.”

Pope Francis’ appeal is considerable. He is widely seen as a force for renewal and revitalization within the Church. The question is, as Catholics follow the lead of their Chief Bishop and turn their attention to addressing other pressing social issues such as high unemployment, rising poverty, social inequity, and care for the disadvantaged and marginalized in society, will it affect their political ties with Protestant Evangelicals and the Religious Right as a whole?

Will Evangelicals come to be seen as badly out of step with their Catholic compatriots? Will the Religious Right in America devolve back to its former state of representing only a narrow sliver of the religious spectrum? Will it be capable of sustaining itself, much less generating broader appeal, or will it, like the earlier Moral Majority, fall by the wayside?

If they are willing, evangelical Christians and political conservatives as a whole might learn a lesson from Pope Francis. As a recent article appearing in The Atlantic noted,

The Republican Party, according to polls, is viewed by many in the United States as insular, intolerant and lacking compassion for the poor while consorting with the rich. The Catholic Church has the same “brand problem”—and since his election in March, Pope Francis has ruthlessly tackled it.

The parallels are striking. But it remains to be seen whether American social and religious conservatives will prove able to change their message and rebrand themselves as nimbly as Pope Francis has done. If not, their influence may well continue to decline.

photo credit: Reuters


About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

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