A New Frontier for Democrats and Religion?

In remarks after his meeting with Secretary of State of the Holy See Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State John Kerry, the first Catholic to visit the Vatican in several decades, emphasized the role of the Pope in peacemaking, international religious freedom, and combatting poverty.

Kerry’s remarks, and indeed the visit itself, ring of the sort of religiously-inflected politics that he sought to embrace as a presidential candidate. “On a personal level, it was a thrill for me” to have this meeting, said Kerry, something he never could have imagined “as an altar boy, as a young kid.” 

He even hinted that the public should expect a meeting between President Obama and Pope Francis soon.

The Pope Francis moment, even with its hype—perhaps because of its hype—seems to present both Kerry and President Obama with an opportunity to talk about religion on their own terms: as a potential contributor to peacemaking and justice, rather than a battleground for the culture wars. At home, Obama is still the subject of vitriol from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and conservative Catholics for the administration’s position on contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act. But Kerry’s meeting at the Vatican casts the administration’s relationship with Catholicism in a completely different light: emphasizing the Vatican’s support for the Geneva II talks to end the ongoing civil war in Syria, the Pope’s interest in Kerry’s role in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, religious freedom in Israel, Sudan, Cuba, and elsewhere, and combatting global poverty. Other popes might have talked about peace and poverty, but Francis’s much-discussed “new tone” seems like a permission slip for Democrats to talk religion without a full scale showdown on culture war issues.

That said, there are topics apparently left undiscussed: a new war on LGBT people in Russia, Nigeria, and elsewhere, not to mention that elephant in the room with all things Francis, what freedom means for half the world’s population, women.

Obama and Kerry, both of whom have faced pressure to incorporate more religion into their politics and policy, have expressed joy and admiration for Francis that goes far beyond diplomatic platitudes. Who is more Catholic than the Pope, and the Pope would rather talk about ending mass murder in Syria than abortion, no matter how “horrific” he believes the latter to be. This seems to give Democrats the religious cover they’ve longed for since Kerry’s 2004 loss, wrongly blamed on his supposed inability to talk about religion. 

But if Francis gives them an opening, they’d be wise to avoid overplaying it. It may seem like Francis’s papacy has rearranged the balance of power, weakening the hand of conservative Catholics and shedding a much-needed light on issues like poverty and inequality. The Pope may be a rock star, but he is a religious figure, which brings with it all the usual pitfalls of entangling politics and religion. But after all the strife over the contraception coverage, and aspersions cast on his administration for being “anti-Catholic,” it would be hard to blame Obama if he were to savor a future moment with Pope Francis.