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Pope politics: How the 'Francis factor' could upend 2016

The pope won't be in Cleveland this week for the first presidential debate, but the GOP candidates eyeing the White House will be looking over their shoulders.
Pope Francis waves during a visit to the people of Banado Norte at the Chapel of Juan Bautista in Asuncion on July 12, 2015 (Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty).
Pope Francis waves during a visit to the people of Banado Norte at the Chapel of Juan Bautista in Asuncion on July 12, 2015. 

Pope Francis won’t be in Cleveland this week for the first presidential debate, but the most influential moral leader on the global stage has those eyeing the White House looking over their shoulders.

A pope who denounces “trickle down” economics and insists climate change is an urgent moral issue is recalibrating a values narrative in U.S. politics that in recent years has been off kilter. Less than two months before the pope visits the United States and becomes the first pontiff in history to address Congress, a “Francis factor” could prove to be one of the most intriguing storylines of the 2016 election. 

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is joining several other Republican presidential hopefuls in making a pilgrimage to kiss the rings of billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. The Catholic convert seems far less eager to cozy up to Pope Francis, who describes the economic status quo as an “idolatrous system” that “excludes, debases and kills.” Pro-choice Catholic Democrats have long felt heat from the church. These days it’s Republicans who are playing defense.

“I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” Bush scoffed in reaction to the pope’s recent landmark encyclical, which blasts the “obstructionist attitudes” of climate-change deniers and highlights the links between inequality and environmental devastation. The Catholic son of Cuban immigrants, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio praises the pope for his “moral authority” but, unlike Francis, seems less convinced our addiction to fossil fuels is a problem. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who is courting Catholic and evangelical voters, touts his anti-union bona fides. It’s a position cheered by a conservative base but one that stands in stark contrast to a pope who sounded like a fiery union organizer during a recent speech in Bolivia.

Candidates fighting for the Democratic nomination also have the pope on their minds.

“Some people say my economic ideals are radical,” Bernie Sanders tweeted last week. “You should hear what the Pope is saying.” Billionaire Tom Steyer, a liberal donor pushing Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates to make climate change a top priority, has cited Pope Francis in his appeals. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Catholic educated by Jesuit priests in high school, has been dubbed a “Pope Francis Democrat.”

Despite his frequent presence in U.S. political rhetoric, the pope is likely to find his toughest audience in this country. A new Gallup poll shows the pope’s approval ratings here have dipped swiftly in the past year, driven largely by growing conservative unease. Republican insiders are hyperventilating. “This pope is selling a line of Latin American-style socialism,” a GOP strategist who is Catholic recently told The New York Times. “This guy is not in sync with the American Catholic Church. Guys like Jeb and Rubio are more in line with the American Catholic Church than the pope.”

RELATED: Poll: Americans lose faith in Pope Francis

While that strategist needs a Sunday school lesson -- the pope isn’t preaching socialism, but traditional Catholic teaching about the common good -- his breezy reference to an unofficial alliance between the church and the Republican Party does underscore a significant shift. A Catholic hierarchy now most widely known for battling the Obama administration over contraception coverage and decrying same-sex civil marriage as a “tragic error” was once at the vanguard of major progressive social reforms. 

More than a decade before President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the New Deal, Catholic bishops advocated for a minimum wage, public housing for workers, and insurance for the elderly and unemployed. Catholic social thought helped create a moral framework for legislation that addressed savage inequalities exacerbated by unfettered markets. In the 1980s, the U.S. bishops’ conference challenged Reagan-era anti-government ideology and published major national statements on economic justice and nuclear arms.

By the time Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic, ran for president in 2004, the notion of who was considered a “values voter” and what constituted a moral issue had dramatically narrowed. Conservative evangelicals and Catholics made abortion, and later the fight again same-sex marriage, the defining moral issues in public life. Politicians and activists from Christian denominations often at odds theologically happily sang from the same hymnal politically.

Pope Francis is starting to redefine the public voice of American Catholicism with his appointments and priorities. Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, who some have anointed the “American Francis,” has called economic inequality a “powder keg that is as dangerous as the environmental crisis the world is facing today.” Instead of bristling with outrage after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, he asked for “mature and serene reflections as we move forward together.”

Chicago’s archbishop and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy teamed up in an effort to highlight the moral need to act on climate change. Other Catholic bishops across the country, including in the key swing state of Florida, are planning press events and homilies that draw attention to the pope’s encyclical on environmental justice. Pope Francis’s teachings on the poor and inequality “demand a transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation in our nation,” the new Catholic bishop of San Diego argues.

RELATED: Pope Francis rejects communism critique

None of this makes the pope a Democrat, and liberals should tread cautiously. Pope Francis considers abortion part of a “throwaway culture.” His critique of extreme individualism and rampant consumerism is as much a bracing challenge for those on the left as the right. 

Get ready, Washington. A pope who learned his most important lessons in the barrios of Buenos Aires and isn't afraid to take on entrenched power at the Vatican is coming to town.   

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the forthcoming "The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope's Challenge to the American Catholic Church."