GOP Eyes Pope Francis for Divine Inspiration

Republicans say party could learn openness, populism, humility and courage from the Catholic leader.

Pope Francis smiles to pilgrims in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican, during the end of his weekly general audience on November 13, 2013. 
National Journal
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
Nov. 14, 2013, midnight

For his party to sur­vive, former House Speak­er Newt Gin­grich be­lieves the GOP needs to broaden its ap­peal bey­ond “the in­fam­ous 47 per­cent.” Con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ist Ral­ph Reed would rebrand the Re­pub­lic­an Party as a force of com­pas­sion ““ feed the poor and clothe the na­ked. Re­pub­lic­an strategist John Fee­hery says the GOP craves a pop­u­list lead­er ““ “a happy war­ri­or.”

Their mod­el: Pope Fran­cis.

“What Fran­cis is do­ing,” Reed said, “is re­bal­an­cing the Cath­ol­ic Church’s mes­sage to stress the pas­tor­al mis­sion of good works and ser­vice to people be­fore get­ting to ideo­logy. What he’s not do­ing is jet­tis­on­ing the Cath­ol­ic doc­trine. What about that is not a mod­el for the Re­pub­lic­an Party?” Faith and Free­dom Co­ali­tion founder Ral­ph Reed (Joe Raedle/Getty Im­ages)

For top Re­pub­lic­ans, Cath­ol­ics in par­tic­u­lar, the pontiff’s head­line-seiz­ing ef­forts to re­verse neg­at­ive ste­reo­types of one of the world’s old­est and most os­si­fied in­sti­tu­tions ““ al­most ex­clus­ively through sym­bol­ic ges­tures ““ stands as an ex­ample for the GOP. 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. Here are four les­sons Re­pub­lic­ans should take away from the pope’s early suc­cess:

Ap­peal to the un­con­ver­ted:  The pope has reached out through words and deeds to Muslims, ho­mo­sexu­als, athe­ists, the dis­abled and wo­men ““ groups of people who tra­di­tion­ally feel os­tra­cized or mar­gin­al­ized by the Church. Gin­grich com­pares the pope’s ef­forts to Je­sus Christ, who was “rad­ic­al in meet­ing people where they were ““ wash­ing the feet of his dis­ciples, eat­ing with tax col­lect­ors, let­ting pros­ti­tutes wash his feet with ex­pens­ive oils, en­ga­ging with the adulter­ers at the well.”

The GOP must be as in­clus­ive, said Gin­grich, who con­ver­ted to Ro­man Cath­oli­cism in 2009. “Nobody is off lim­its.” Writ­ing off 47 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans who typ­ic­ally vote Demo­crat­ic, many of them minor­it­ies “in its spir­it is ana­thema to a good polit­ic­al lead­er,” Gin­grich said, a slap at 2012 GOP nom­in­ee Mitt Rom­ney. Newt Gin­grich, former pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate (Pete Marovich/Getty Im­ages)

“It starts with meet­ing people where they are,” Reed said of the GOP. “If some­body is hungry, feed them. If some­body is na­ked, clothe them.”

Make the party more ap­proach­able: Pope Fran­cis fam­ously checked him­self out of his hotel after his elec­tion. He owns a 1984 Renault giv­en to him by an old priest. He stiffs se­cur­ity and mingles in crowds. He cold-calls or­din­ary people, such as the Itali­an wo­man who feared she would not be able to bap­tize her baby be­cause it was born out of wed­lock. “Fran­cis is a happy war­ri­or,” wrote Fee­hery, “with a vis­ion that fo­cuses on the big­ger pic­ture, and he is de­term­ined to open the Cath­ol­ic tent to em­brace the world and make be­liev­ers out of non­be­liev­ers.”

Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant Scott Reed (no re­la­tion to Ral­ph) said the pope is a pop­u­list, ex­traordin­ar­ily at­tuned to a skep­tic­al pub­lic. “I am not a Cath­ol­ic but I’m watch­ing this pope in­tensely and am im­mensely im­pressed with how he un­der­stands that people are turned off by in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing gov­ern­ment ““ in­clud­ing the parties.” said Reed, who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. “The pope stands for something. He doesn’t just talk about it. He lives it and breathes it.”

While Pope Fran­cis dis­missed the “bish­op of bling,” Franz-Peter Te­bartz-van Elst, over ex­tra­vag­ant spend­ing, “Re­pub­lic­ans are seen as the de­fend­ers of the rich and power­ful in­stead of the poor and vul­ner­able,” wrote Marc Thiessen, former speech­writer for Pres­id­ent George W. Bush, earli­er this year in The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Lead with hu­mil­ity. The pope said, “If one has the an­swers to all the ques­tions that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false proph­et us­ing re­li­gion for him­self. The great lead­ers of the people of God, like Moses, have al­ways left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our cer­tain­ties; we must be humble.”

Fee­hery said there is not enough hu­mil­ity in his party ““ or in Wash­ing­ton, for that mat­ter. “In a world of ego­ma­ni­acs like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Mark Lev­in and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — and Barack Obama — wouldn’t it be won­der­ful to have a lead­er who left a little room for doubt, a little room for the Lord and maybe a little room to find hon­or­able com­prom­ise to help make the gov­ern­ment work?” he wrote for The Hill.

 Don’t be cowed by your base. Pope Fran­cis is chan­ging per­cep­tions without chan­ging church policy and yet he’s fa­cing cri­ti­cism from tra­di­tion­al Cath­ol­ics who fret about ex­pand­ing the tent. “It seems he’s fo­cus­ing on bring­ing back the left that’s fallen away, but what about the con­ser­vat­ives?” Brid­get Kurt, a hos­pice com­munity edu­cat­or told The New York Times for a story on con­ser­vat­ive Cath­ol­ics’ con­cerns about the pope. The In­ter­net is filled with posts call­ing Pope Fran­cis a “false proph­et.”

To many Re­pub­lic­ans, that sounds like the tea party at­tack­ing the GOP es­tab­lish­ment. But just as there is an­ec­dot­al evid­ence that Pope Fran­cis is already in­creas­ing at­tend­ance in church, Re­pub­lic­an strategists say the party’s base won’t aban­don big-tent polit­ics if it leads to vic­tor­ies. “It has to be about win­ning,” Scott Reed said.

In Vir­gin­ia, for ex­ample, Gov. Bob Mc­Don­nell re­ceived more votes from self-de­scribed evan­gel­ic­als while po­s­i­tion­ing him­self as a mod­er­ate in 2009 than con­ser­vat­ive Ken Cuc­cinelli did in los­ing this month. Ral­ph Reed poin­ted to the suc­cess of Pres­id­ent George W. Bush, who in­creased evan­gel­ic­al turnout while ex­pand­ing the po­ten­tial pool of GOP voters with his “com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vat­ive” mes­sage.

 “I would ar­gue that in a sense the party has already learned the les­sons we see on dis­play with Pope Fran­cis,” Reed said. “We need to get back to it.”

Con­ser­vat­ives might ar­gue with that; many loath the growth of gov­ern­ment spend­ing un­der Bush. Lib­er­als might ar­gue that; they al­ways doubted Bush’s sin­cer­ity. And many mod­er­ate and in­de­pend­ent voters will re­mem­ber Bush only for the Ir­aq war. And so, even Pope Fran­cis, des­pite the Cath­ol­ic tra­di­tion of in­fal­lib­il­ity, would make a mis­take to think that people are sheep ““ or that his words and sym­bols alone are enough to re­form an in­sti­tu­tion.

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