Why Do We Care Whose Side the Pope Is On?

The unseemly left-right war over the pope's affections

Pope Francis departs the Vatican's diplomatic mission in Washington, DC on September 23rd, 2015 Credit: Cliff Owen/Corbis

So the pope is here. His arrival has spawned a Drake/Meek Mill-style diss battle within the pundit class, pitting conservatives bemoaning the pope's false prophecy against liberals swooning over his platitudinous anti-capitalism.

It's like the Colts-Jets game from Monday night. I can't decide which side I want to lose more.

It's been a long time since the left and right in America have had had a real fight for primacy in the religious space. For almost a generation now liberals have mostly conceded the very word faith, letting Republicans smother and monopolize the term like overprotective parents.

Overt religiosity is the norm on the GOP side, with God-stalking nutballs like Michele Bachmann or Ben Carson perennially front and center. Meanwhile, the closest thing to a famed religious liberal that America has seen over the span of many decades was probably Susan Sarandon's nun character in Dead Man Walking, an anti-capital punishment parable whose religious message wasn't believable even though it was a true story.

But now the script has flipped. The Republican frontrunner is Donald Trump, a man who is worse at naming Bible verses than Sarah Palin is at naming Supreme Court cases. And this week's arrival of the world's most famous religious leader is being celebrated in the lefty press like the premiere of Fahrenheit 911.

Pope Francis won over urban liberals through writings like his 184-page encyclical on climate change, which described the earth as an "immense pile of filth." Raised in Peronist Argentina, he also talks with varying degrees of vagueness about the "perverse" inequities of global capitalism, complaining for instance that a two-point drop in the stock market makes the news, while nobody notices when a homeless person dies of exposure.

This past weekend's column by George Will perfectly expresses the sense of abject betrayal conservatives feel at a pope allowing himself to be appropriated by the global left, when he could be just railing against abortion and moral relativism like his recent predecessors.

You can always tell how mad George Will is by how much alliteration he uses. "Pope Francis's Fact-Free Flamboyance" predictably seethes from the start:

"Pope Francis embodies sanctity but comes trailing clouds of sanctimony. With a convert's indiscriminate zeal, he embraces ideas impeccably fashionable, demonstrably false, and deeply reactionary. They would devastate the poor on whose behalf he purports to speak…"

The notion that Will is upset with this pope on behalf of the poor is hilarious, but understandable. Conservatives loved the pre-Francis Catholic strategy for dealing with the poor. First, you create lots of cheap third-world factory labor by discouraging contraception. Then you give lip service to alleviating poverty by pushing a program of strictly voluntary charitable donations.

That Catholic Church has always been a great ally to the industrialist aristocrats George Will represents. So it's not surprising he's not feeling this whole "we need to reform capitalism" thing.

But conservatives feel betrayed on another level. Much in the way Mormons believe Jesus will ultimately return to earth and settle in Missouri, conservatives have long accepted that the pope should be a secret American who believes in free enterprise, cries during Band of Brothers and would build his home in the United States if he had it to do all over again.

Thus a lot of the criticism from the right this week implies that this pope is insufficiently worshipful of America and Americans. They think his lack of reverence for God's chosen symbol of the miracle of capitalist production traitorous, and moreover they're offended that he doesn't seem to think Americans are the best and most generous people on earth. Pollution and greed aside, doesn't this pope know that some of us claim hundreds of dollars a year in charitable deductions?

"Does this pope understand America?" moaned Brian Kilmeade on Fox and Friends. "He's talking about the greed of America, but does he understand what the capital of America has done for charitable causes?"

Will put it best, noting that what the pope fails to recognize about us Americans is that our greed and selfishness are actually our best qualities.

"He stands against… the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources," Will wrote. "Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation's premises."

For his offenses, Pope Francis has earned himself a ticket onto the ever-expanding enemies list of the American political right, joining Black Lives Matter, Mexican immigrants, Muslims, feminists, Hollywood actors, college lit professors, Occupy Wall Street, whales, the French, Bill Maher, Canada, Sesame Street and other such undesirables.

"Pure Marxism," cried Rush Limbaugh about the pope's ideas.

"Hand-selected by the New World Order… The same people who gave us Obama gave us this pope," cried Michael Savage.

"Part of the globalist plan to destroy the world," chimed in Alex Jones.

But for all of the right's sourpussing, the papal Beatlemania on the other side has been just as revealing.

The commercial media is of course doing its thing, making the pope's arrival into the Biggest Live Coverage Event of all time. This whole-week Popetacular will be like a baby-down-a-well story times a Kursk rescue times a presidential inauguration. Atheists are advised to keep their TVs off.

Even Donald Trump will be a footnote to reporters while His Holiness is in the country. (Although, humorously, Trump's biographer Michael D'Antonio squirmed into the headlines this week by comparing Trump to the pope. "They're both completely authentic guys," he said.)

But it's the defenses of the pope by left-leaning media that are really striking. A spate of articles in traditionally liberal newspapers and websites has appeared, each praising the pope and appropriating him as one of their own.

Should you, the progressive, embrace the head of one of the most socially conservative organizations on earth? "Yes. Yes, you should," says Jack Jenkins at ThinkProgress. "Especially if you want legislative action on immigration reform, climate change, or income inequality."

Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon took particular issue with George Will's broadside against Francis, which I get. But beyond that she went after Will for misrepresenting Catholic values, which may tilt blue-state:

"I find it interesting when conservative guys like Will lose their minds over the idea of someone with a fair degree of authority on the subject of Catholicism — like, say, a pope — pointing out the actual stated values of one of the richest and most powerful religions in the world. Values that include, uh oh, charity, humility and non-materialism."

Suzy Khimm at the the New Republic pointed out several of the more transparent attempts to turn Francis into a Democratic-leaning hero. She cited the liberal-backed American Bridge project, which is releasing a report that will "reveal how the Republican Party is opposed and actively working against Pope Francis's priorities on many issues." This comes on the heels of another report arguing that the Koch Brothers are "on the wrong side of the Holy Father."

All this stuff is a drag. The American left is always at its most unlikeable when it's being pious. And that's just the secular, hey-that-joke-isn't-funny kind of piety. If we have to add actual religious piety to the equation, we're suddenly taking a lot of the charm out of not being a Republican. Watching progressives fawn over a pope is depressing and makes me want to go watch a Cheech and Chong movie.

I was raised Catholic. To me the Church is just a giant evil transnational corporation operating on a dreary business model, one that nurtures debilitating guilt feelings in its followers and then offers to make them go away temporarily in exchange for donations. I realize the Church does some nice things with the money it raises and that other people have a different opinion, but this is my experience.

And this pope, for all his good qualities, is to me a modern version of an old religious scam. In Tsarist Russia you'd have some wizened starets show up at an aristocrat's estate in rags and preach to the ladies of the house about the evils of wealth in exchange for wine, pastries and a few nights in a feather bed.

This version is a pope arriving in America with a gazillion-member entourage to reassure young professionals in New York how right they are about climate change and income inequality. He says a lot of very vague things about the wrongs of society that everyone is sure coincide with their own opinions. George Will is right when he says Francis speaks "in the intellectual tone of a fortune cookie," saying things like, "People occasionally forgive, but nature never does."

Meanwhile Francis chugs along as the head of one of the most socially regressive organizations on earth, doing nothing to take on the Church's indefensible stances on things like birth control, gay rights, discrimination against women, celibacy and countless other issues. He claims the moral authority to reform global capitalism, but he's somehow not ready to tell teenagers it's OK to masturbate, which seems bizarre.

People have such impassioned political fights over the pope because everyone wants the endorsement of the guy closest to God. But what if he's not closer to God, and is just a guy in a funny hat? Doesn't that make all this fuss and controversy ridiculous? It seems strange that it's the year 2015, and we still can't say that out loud.