Republicans, who have complained for years that the Left wants to drum religious voices out of the “public square,” suddenly want the Pope to stick to Sunday mass.
“I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm,” said the Catholic Jeb Bush, who spend considerable effort as governor trying to impose his religious views – rooted in a 1995 papal encyclical – on Terri and Michael Schiavo.
“When we get involved with controversial and scientific theories, I think the Church is not as forceful and not as credible,” said the Catholic Rick Santorum, previously heard warning America about “the dangers of contraception in this country.”
Blunter brushbacks have been tossed at the Pope by Republicans not running for president, like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who whined, “Why all of a sudden is he involved in this?” Other presidential candidates have avoided a direct response.
That may be difficult to maintain. One candidate, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), is actually talking sense about climate change. However, he may get denied a spot on the debate stage if he can’t get his poll numbers up.
But if Graham is unable to force Republicans to confront climate, the Catholic Church is another story. Pope Francis will be addressing a joint session of Congress in three months. And U.S. bishops will be preaching themes from his climate encyclical throughout the year.
Granted, Catholic voters are not mindless robots who do whatever their bishops say. Most Catholics don’t even go to church. And conservative Catholics, like Bush and Santorum, will likely be resistant to anything that doesn’t comport with their political views, just like they generally embrace the death penalty despite its violation of Catholic teachings.
But Republicans still should be worried about white Catholic moderates, who are a significant swing constituency. In 2000, they favored Al Gore over George W. Bush by three points, reflecting the popular vote. In 2004, they swung eight points to the right, favoring Bush by five and again helping determine the popular vote majority. Then in 2008, they broke big for Obama, giving him a 17-point margin.
These are voters who will be receptive to the Pope’s message. And these are voters who Republicans need to get back.
They are not voters who typically vote in Republican primaries. So there is little short-term incentive for candidates to recalibrate on climate. But the long-term need is critical.
And the Pope’s encyclical gives these Republican an opening, should they be wise enough to take it.
They can echo the Pope’s message that solving the climate crisis is a moral necessity, without embracing Pope’s entire economic critique or siding with President Obama’s specific remedies.
They can use the Pope’s moral argument to kickstart a debate over the best methods for capping carbon emissions, looking to their fellow rational Republicans who have offered ideas like a revenue-neutral carbon tax reform and eliminating government subsidies for fossil fuels.
But to do so would require foresight and courage. Don’t bet the farm.