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Even Pope Francis can't convince Congress to act on climate change

The pope's address to Congress is a pure clash between God and politics, and a test of which is the greater force. So far, politics is winning.

When Pope Francis talks to Congress on Thursday, he’s expected to dwell on the subject of dangerous, man-made climate change, which just so happens to be an issue that most of his audience believes is bogus. That makes for an unusually pure clash between God and politics, and a test of which is the greater force in American life.

So far, it doesn’t look good for God.

Back in June, His deputy here on earth emerged as an environmentalist, publishing a 184-page defense of “our common home,” and calling for a “cultural revolution” to save it. Pope Francis framed climate change as a moral issue, landing direct blows against everyone who is blockading action, denying the science, or hiding behind cherry-picked passages in the Bible.

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But although the document was hailed as game-changer, there’s almost no evidence so far that the game of climate change politics has changed. Religious and conservative Americans remain almost uniformly unmoved by the Pope’s appeals for the planet, polls show, and it may take a papal miracle to change the mind of a member of Congress.

Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona isn’t taking a chance. In an op-ed last week, he announced that he’d be boycotting Pope Francis’s appearance in Washington. Although Gosar is a self-described “proud Catholic” who lives in a state that can’t really tolerate any more heat, he doesn’t want to hear his religious leader talk about global warming.

“If the Pope wants to devote his life to fighting climate change then he can do so in his personal time,” Gosar wrote. “But to promote questionable science as Catholic dogma is ridiculous.”

Signs that other Catholics feel the same way emerged on the first Sunday after the pope’s urgent call for action on climate change. Very few American priests and bishops pounded their own pulpits in sync with the pope’s message, according to interviews by The New York Times. Two months later, an Associated Press survey found that most Catholics still hadn’t heard anything about the pope and climate change.

But it gets worse for the pope, who has made clear that he’s hoping for major changes in the way we live and work. All the best polls suggest that he hasn’t converted many climate change deniers, if any, and that most people think he should pipe down already, because his efforts clearly aren’t working.

It’s nothing personal.

Majorities of Americans across every age, race and ideology love Pope Francis and his focus on forgiveness, according to a Bloomberg Politics poll released on Wednesday. They simply don’t like the climate change part of his platform.

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Only a third of the Bloomberg respondents support the pope’s chastising of those who deny the human role in climate change. Among Republicans, meanwhile, 75% seem to agree with Gosar—calling the pope’s efforts “a bad direction” for the church.  

At the very least it’s so far been a fruitless direction for the church. Earlier this month, an organization called Faith in Public Life teamed-up with Catholic University and YouGov in hopes of measuring the impact of the pope’s message. What they found was, well, there is still little impact to measure.

Pope Francis’s message was supposed to connect with Catholics on a warmer, more humane level, succeeding where the bloodless research of a thousand scientists had failed. But the YouGov survey suggests that the two messages are about the same—and that neither of them really work.

To come up with that finding, the surveyors asked some participants to read a message about the urgency of climate change from "climate scientists” and other participants to read a similar message from the pope. Then they asked both groups whether they agree that the U.S. government needs to act on climate change.

The results were statistically identical, and surprisingly dismal: Just a third of Catholics supported the idea of government action on climate change, regardless of which message they received.

But in matters of religion, there is always hope. It’s still early and the full effect of the pope’s message may be incalculably large over the long term. That’s what Democrats are predicting.

“I think we have to be realistic about how quickly social change and opinion move,” Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona told reporters on Tuesday.

“Progressives are usually right, but too soon,” added Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, a Catholic Democrat, speaking during an event hosted by the Center for American Progress. “Politics is not for sprinters; it’s for marathoners."

But religion, it seems, is no match for politics.