It’s been fascinating watching the right-wingers lose their collective mind over a Pope who follows the teachings of Christ more than the polemics of Ayn Rand.
Be good stewards of God’s creation. Care for “the least of these,” the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden. Seek justice. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
You’d think a group that clothes itself in religious rhetoric – that claims sole ownership over the term “Christian,” in fact, much to the amusement of the rest of us – would recognize these and abide by them. That they would welcome spiritual guidance from the leader of the world’s largest church, from the leader of the church where so many of their foot soldiers go on Sundays. That they would recognize the spiritual power of a man who has spent his life in the service of his faith – the same faith that they claim to have – and who has been elevated by the votes of the elders of that faith into its most prominent and powerful office, an office which, by its own decree, renders the occupant infallible when speaking ex cathedra. A man who lives that faith every day, far more thoroughly than they do.
You’d be wrong, of course.
The religious right has nothing to do with actual faith. It is a deeply cynical manipulation of the symbols of faith in order to achieve political power, and it has been extremely successful in the US since it emerged in its modern form in the late 1970s.
And if you understand how it emerged, you also understand why this particular Pope is such a threat to the right-wing and their carefully-constructed political machine.
The modern American right wing is a strange and jury-rigged creation. It has at its core a set of different, not entirely compatible constituencies whose interests all managed to line up together in the decade or so following the 1968 collapse of the left in America.
First and most importantly, you have the politicians of the right, conservative leaders who – like any politicians – sought to gain and hold power. They had been out of power since 1933, when it became clear that the supply-side economics that they favored and which served the interests of the wealthy and powerful so well were simply inadequate to the needs of a demand-side economy. The problem for them is that they had nothing really to offer the American people to get them on their side. The majority of Americans were, objectively, better off economically under the progressive economic policies adopted by the US in the wake of the Great Depression – a fact recognized even by many conservatives, who incorporated them into their own platforms by the 1950s and simply argued for different focus and extent. Read through Dwight Eisenhower’s election year platforms and see.
The right-wing revolt of the 1960s brought a new group of conservatives to power in the Republican Party, and they worked diligently to switch the focus of American politics from economic issues (surefire losers for their cause) to social issues (on which they could win). You see this with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, for example, and the backlash against the social protest movements of the 1960s. While the resistance to the Civil Rights Movement was the most obvious and open social issue on the right, it would be the resistance to the Feminist Movement that would eventually bring them the most success.
Because those conservatives needed foot soldiers. And that brings us to the second main constituency – Protestant Evangelicals, many of whom held deeply traditional or even reactionary views on social issues.
These Evangelicals had largely disappeared from American politics after the Scopes trial of 1925. They hadn’t given up on changing the United States to suit their views, but they generally sought to do so outside of the political sphere. As I have written before, this changes in the 1970s when they emerge back onto the political stage as actors. The question was, of course, whether they would jump to the left – the leading Evangelical politician of the 1970s being Jimmy Carter, after all – or to the right. And for reasons that I’ve discussed here, they jump right.
But those two groups were not enough to turn the modern right wing into the juggernaut it is today. To do that, they needed the Catholics. That's the third group.
The late 1970s is where the abortion issue first becomes a concern to conservatives and Evangelicals. Because prior to that it wasn’t. Evangelical leaders in the 1960s had hewed to what we would call a pro-choice line today – a view that is fairly easy to support using the Bible, actually – and the Roe v. Wade decision removing state restrictions on a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion had been hailed by those leaders as both a religious and political victory.
But the Catholic church had long held a consistent anti-abortion line, condemning it as sinful and supporting political efforts to bar the practice. This fit fairly well with the socially conservative views of the church hierarchy at the time, views that were in many ways not that far removed from those of the Evangelical leaders on other issues – particularly on issues relating to women’s rights in general.
The animosity between Protestant and Catholic leaders had long roots, however. Anti-Catholic hysteria goes back all the way to the founding of the American colonies – the Puritan John Winthrop, one of the founders of Massachusetts in the 1630s considered the Catholic church to be the anti-Christ. And anti-Catholic violence would emerge again and again over the course of the 19th century – the riots of the 1830s and 1840s, and the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s being perhaps the best known examples. Much of the Nativism directed at the New Immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was specifically because they were Catholic. Uniting those two groups would not be easy.
Abortion was the key.
If right-wing political leaders could sway the Evangelical churches to adopt an anti-abortion position, they could join those two interest groups into a powerful and influential voting bloc that would bring those leaders to power. And that, more or less, is what happened. This alliance between Evangelicals and Catholics remains the bedrock of the modern right, the source of much of its electoral strength and the machine that allows conservative politicians to enact their economic plans.
And now the Pope is openly criticizing their economics.
He has decried the kind of unfettered libertarian capitalism that is at the heart of the right-wing economic vision. He has called for economic justice. He has called for resources to be put toward the care of the environment. He has spoken in defense of the poor, the outsiders, and the refugees. He’s basically recognized the incompatibility of so much of the right-wing economic and social platform with the teachings of Christ.
He’s still anti-abortion. But that’s not enough anymore.
What this Pope is doing, in effect, is opening a wedge between Catholics and the American right. American Catholics now find that they have the religious freedom to abandon the right and still call themselves good Catholics. The alliance with Protestant Evangelicals which has been the foundation of the modern American right for nearly half a century may not survive that.
This terrifies the GOP.
And you can see it in the hysterical assaults they are making on the Pope while he is here in the US.
They’ve called him a false Christian. They’ve questioned his understanding of the Bible. They’ve called him a Communist. They’ve boycotted his speeches and angrily declared him to be a liberal, which to those of us who actually are liberal is rather comical.
If Pope Francis ends up decoupling the alliance between Catholics and Evangelicals that has been so critical to the success of the right wing since the 1970s, the right wing will collapse.
It’s been a fascinating thing to watch unfold, and more than a little sad.