Jonathan Liedl lives in St. Paul, Minn., where he is a graduate fellow in the Catholic Studies program at the University of St. Thomas. He works as the communications coordinator for Catholic Rural Life, a non-profit devoted to revitalizing the Church in the countryside and applying Catholic teaching to rural issues. In addition to writing and editing for the Register, he is a contributing editor of the web-journal Ethika Politika. Liedl earned his bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Arabic Studies from the University of Notre Dame.
When Pope Francis became the first religious leader ever to address a joint session of Congress last month, articulating a vision of politics as a noble vocation dedicated to advancing the common good, it was a captivating moment.
But whether or not it was a moment that has had—or will have—any discernible impact on American politics remains to be seen.
Last night’s Republican presidential debate in Boulder, Colo., is an interesting specimen to examine to see if the “Francis Effect” is affecting our political priorities and discourse.
In some ways, there’s reason to think that the pope’s message was received loud and clear.
In his address to Congress, Pope Francis made it a point to champion the many “men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread,” and who “sustain the life of society.”
This language was echoed numerous times by Republican candidates in the economics-heavy debate, hosted by CNBC, as they talked about the way various fiscal and tax policies impact the middle and working-class families of America.
Carly Fiorina did her best G.K. Chesterton impersonation when she highlighted the unhealthy relationship between Big Government and Big Business, or what the Apostle of Common Sense called “the marriage of Hudge and Gudge.” She also suggested that the tax code be reduced to only three pages, because small business owners don’t have the “armies of lawyers and accountants and, yes, lobbyists” that big corporations utilize to navigate the 73,000 pages of the current tax code.
Marco Rubio also called for reforms that positively benefited “hard-working people who run their own businesses,” like his dry cleaner. The Catholic senator also played on a Francis theme by emphasizing the importance of the family, noting “how difficult it is to raise children” in an adverse economy (a factor that Pope Francis said discourages young people from marrying). Rubio advocated for an increase in the per-child tax credit for working families, a policy we can imagine Pope Francis would likely endorse.
And, at least in their rhetoric, the GOP candidates seemed to agree with Pope Francis’s gentle critique that politics “cannot be a slave to the economy and finance,” as they reserved some of their harshest criticism for Wall Street, lobbyists, and too-big-to-fail corporations. A seemingly genuine desire to lift people out of poverty also persisted, and was a theme Jeb Bush returned to on a few occasions.
For the most part, the contenders also seemed to aspire to Pope Francis’s call for service-oriented politics, in which the elected official’s chief concern is protecting individual human dignity and advancing the common good.
“I guarantee you that for every person on this stage there’s something deep inside of us that would cause us to give up our livelihoods and step out on this stage and fight for the people of America,” said Mike Huckabee in his inspiring closing remarks.
Where the candidates were less inspirational, at least at times, was in their efforts to engage in civil dialogue, an ingredient of good politics that Pope Francis emphasized in his remarks to Congress.
Attacks were launched over the seriousness of some candidate’s tax plans (and their overall candidacies), prompting Donald Trump to accuse John Kasich of attacking him because “his poll numbers tanked.” And Bush and Rubio had an intense encounter when the former governor criticized his fellow Floridian’s vote count in the Senate by asking if Congress was on “a French work week.” Rubio retorted by saying Bush only brought this up because the two are running for the same office, “and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”
And the CNBC moderators didn’t do much to encourage civility, often asking question that were set up for spectacle rather than substance. This prompted Texas senator Ted Cruz to tell the moderators that the debate “is not a cage match…how about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?”
In fact, despite the occasional barb, the Republican contenders displayed admirable collegiality. Mike Huckabee passed on an opportunity to rip into Donald Trump’s moral credentials. Rand Paul and Cruz tried to outdo each other in compliments and flattery. And there was even an instance where a moderator assumed that Rubio agreed with Dr. Ben Carson’s tax plan because he didn’t attack it.
“No, no. What I said was that I think that Dr. Carson’s ideas are good ideas,” Rubio clarified. “They’re not my ideas, and I don’t necessarily agree with all of them.”
But while the Republican presidential hopefuls were able to put aside differences and competing aspirations to talk policy, they failed to extend any such deference to Hillary Clinton and her fellow Democrats.
Democrats were demonized with relish at nearly every opportunity. Chris Christie, when asked what his greatest weakness was, responded by smearing the Democratic candidates as “weak” and pessimistic. Cruz later said that the Republican contenders had “more ideas, more experience, and more common sense” than any of their Democratic counterparts before comparing the Democrats to Russian Communist revolutionaries.
It was an unfortunate illustration of what Pope Francis has called a “simplistic reductionism, which sees only good or evil.” This type of polarization, the pope says, is an obstacle to the “renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity” needed to move forward. And it’s been a major hindrance to our government getting important things done over the past decade.
So while it was nice to see Republicans contenders acting cordial towards each other (for the most part), and hear them echo Pope Francis’s call for a human and family-focused economy, it was a disappointment to see them continue to use the same cheap applause lines at their political opponents’ expense, words that do nothing to heal the deep wounds of partisanship in American politics. Maybe we’ll need another papal address to Congress to achieve that.