First up from the God Machine this week is the increasing relevance of Pope Francis on domestic politics.
The conservative Washington Times reported this week, for example, "President Obama increasingly is finding a key policy ally in the Vatican, with Pope Francis standing virtually shoulder to shoulder with the White House on" several key issues.
The Hill added the same day that the pope "is increasingly driving a wedge between conservatives and the Catholic Church."
The magnetic pope has sparked new enthusiasm around the world for the church and has flexed his political muscles internationally, most recently by helping to engineer a new relationship between the United States and Cuba. But Francis's agenda, which also includes calls to address income inequality and limit climate change, is putting him at odds with Republicans, including GOP Catholics in the United States.
This dynamic is likely to intensify fairly soon -- Francis is reportedly investing considerable time, energy, and focus in 2015 to urging Catholics around the globe to combat climate change, an environmental crisis that many American Republicans continue to argue does not exist.
Sister Simone Campbell, perhaps best known for organizing the "Nuns on a Bus" tours, told The Hill, "Pope Francis's message and tone are making Catholic Republicans a little uncomfortable. He's stirring the concern on issues like poverty and the economy."
At this point, it's not entirely clear GOP officials care. When Francis played a role in the recent U.S./Cuba breakthrough, the pope was jeered by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), without any apparent concerns about the political or theological repercussions.
Still, the White House is looking for as many notable allies as it can assemble, and on several key issues, it appears Obama and Francis are on the same page.
Also from the God Machine this week:
* Sweden, Part I: "Fire ripped through a Swedish mosque early on Monday in the second suspected arson attack on a Muslim center in four days in a country caught up in a fierce debate on immigration. Firefighters extinguished the blaze in the southern town of Eslov and no one was injured, local media reported. 'We ... are working under the assumption it is arson,' police officer Marie Keismar told the TT news agency."
* Sweden, Part II: "A Swedish mosque was 'lovebombed' this week, after residents learned that it had become a target for Islamaphobes. The front door of a mosque in Uppsala in eastern Sweden was covered in colorful paper hearts Friday as Swedes across the country rallied to show solidarity with their Muslim brothers and sisters."
* California: "Every year on New Year's Day the Pasadena Rose Parade hits the streets to showcase the history and culture of Southern California and the country at large. This year, for the first time ever, the parade hosted a float that celebrated the important and little-known history of Sikhs in America -- and it couldn't have come at a better time."
* And TV preacher Pat Robertson recently fielded a question from a viewer whose church doesn't allow congregants to date, leaving many church members "frustrated because we're getting older and no one is getting married." Robertson not only rejected the church's policy, but compared it to gay people. "You know, those who are homosexual will die out because they don't reproduce," Robertson said, suggesting the televangelist still doesn't fully understand how sexual orientation works.