Although religion and politics are not supposed to be discussed in polite company, they are nearly impossible to ignore. We try to do so in order to avoid heated, never-ending arguments, preferring to “agree to disagree” on the most contentious ones. It’s a mark of Lockean tolerance, but there are only so many conversations one can have about the weather and the latest hit movie before more interesting and more important subjects break through our attempts to suppress them.
This is evident even when there’s nothing contentious involved in a religious-political meeting. A case in point: U.S. President Barack Obama met Pope Francis for the first time on March 27 at the Vatican, a meeting that would be noteworthy in and of itself because of the offices involved. Yet secular and religious, conservative and liberal commentators immediately began telling us what to watch for well ahead of their meeting, as if there was something significant at stake – which there wasn’t. Obama supporters said the president and the pope are soul mates when it comes to poverty and inequality, while his detractors couldn’t wait to hear about Francis reminding Obama about the U.S. Catholic bishops’ unanimous opposition to the mandated coverage of contraception and abortifacents in Obama’s health care plan. The debate over who said what to whom in their 50-minute conversation continued when the Vatican press office and Obama himself presented different versions of its contents.
I agree with Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer that the statements of the White House and the Vatican could both be correct, i.e. Obama and Francis spoke about areas of agreement, while the contentious issues were left for Obama’s discussion with the Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and foreign minister Archbishop Dominique Mamberti. That would be the diplomatic way of handling it, especially since, in this case, the two sides would have to “agree to disagree.” Krauthammer is even more observant to note the disparity between a religious leader of one billion people who consider him to be infallible on matters of faith and morals and a politician who promised Americans they can keep their health care insurance if they like it. It comes down to credibility: it’s no surprise that Francis’s approval ratings are a good 30 points above Obama’s or that just about every politician in the world wants to be photographed with the Roman pontiff. (It is, however, worth asking whether Francis, as an Argentine who has no first-hand knowledge of the US, places as much stock in American influence as his European predecessors did. To Francis and Obama alike, American exceptionalism may be no difference than its British or Greek varieties.)
As I noted to the BBC, there’s also a disparity in how a pope and a president address a political issue. The pope can use his office to raise a moral concern about the unborn or inequality but there’s not a whole lot he can directly do about it, whereas a president has “a pen and a phone” as Obama put it. The “pen” means signing or vetoing proposed legislation, while the ”phone” refers to the time-honored practice of political horse trading and arm twisting.
In democratic systems of government, the governing party has to work with those in the opposition and cajole them to compromise, or else end up using a certain issue as a wedge to divide and conquer them in the next election. Those who are most easily frustrated with political debates end up blaming “politics” for a lack of agreement on an issue, which usually means that they can’t understand why everyone doesn’t see matters the way they do. As a result, the most contentious issues are put aside while politicians are supposed to get down to “the people’s business,” i.e., making it easier for people to do business with each other.
Focusing on areas of broad agreement is one way to lower the temperature of a political debate, but it doesn’t resolve contentious issues, especially when they end up being decided by judicial or administrative fiat. The issues of abortion in the US and Obama’s health care law (which passed with no Republicans votes) are examples of what happens when political debate and compromise are cut short and a solution is rammed down the throats of the opposition. A successful politician, which Obama is proving not to be, is able to make his opponents feel as if they have some share in the country’s well-being and prosperity, even if they have lost a particular debate. The criticism of Washington gridlock is merely a symptom of a deeper disagreement over fundamental issues and a general lack of leadership from both parties on how to resolve them politically.
Obama, of course, is not the first politician to overestimate his own skills and powers of persuasion but he exhibits the kind of political messianism that was bound to disappoint. Obama is a type of “secular” religious leader in that he earnestly believes in the justice of his progressive views and simply expects others to agree with him or be overcome by the tide of history. This is in contrast to a true religious leader like the pope, who is merely the caretaker of a deposit of faith that has been entrusted to him, and is more clearly aware of human frailty. For better or worse, the pope’s moral authority is quite different than the kind of power that has the force of law behind it but at the same time is constantly subject to popular opinion.
In contrast to Obama’s once-inspiring, now-domineering campaign of “hope and change,” we have Pope Francis, who has captured the world’s attention in part because of his ability to renounce the trappings of monarchical office and be close to the people but more importantly because the hope he’s preaching is based on Christ, rather than himself, which goes much beyond any political program. Catholics generally have a favorable impression of the pope, no matter who he is, but Francis seems to be especially popular among those outside the Church. In this regard, Francis is proving to be a better politician than Obama precisely because he is not a politician, though this may change once Francis defends the less popular aspects of Catholic doctrine. At least he has God on his side.
So why is it that we’re not supposed to discuss religion and politics, but we can’t help paying so much attention to leaders like Francis and Obama when they meet? One reason is that we know the world is divided along religious and political lines and fear violent conflict as a result of these divisions, yet we also know that our current politics do little to address our deepest aspirations for unity and purpose so we are looking for leaders to provide us with a larger vision. (Here I call attention to our April 29 conference in Rome on religious and economic liberty Faith, State, and the Economy: Perspectives from East and West.) In this sense, religious leaders are political leaders for they capture something about human nature that our mundane politicians cannot and in most cases should not. But that gap in our souls and quest for coherence still need to be fulfilled because man does not live by bread alone.