The Washington Post

Republicans have a Pope Francis problem

Pope Francis waves to the crowd during his inauguration mass in St. Peter's Square, Vatican City, 19 March 2013. Hundreds of thousands of faithful, as well as political and religious dignitaries from all over the world attended the inauguration mass of Pope Francis. (ETTORE FERRARI/EPA)

The Republican party is a fracturing coalition in disarray. This past week’s CPAC meetings have revealed that, though they recognize their structural problems, the GOP cannot agree on a strategy for righting the ship. The last couple generations of coalition-building has produced odd bedfellows with very different positions on a multitude of issues: from drones to gay marriage to immigration.

And yes, though few are talking about it publicly these days, even abortion.

Many different kinds of Republicans went to this issue after Romney’s presidential defeat. CNN’s Alex Castellanos chided his fellow conservatives for foolishly embracing big government on “social issues.” John McCain said that conservatives should “leave [abortion] alone.” In a Washington Post Op-Ed, a former member of the Reagan administration opined, “As for morality, our party should live it, not legislate it.”

The fracturing of the GOP collation would be bad enough, but with projected Dow Jones and unemployment trends it appears that Republicans are being defeated even at what they perceive to be their own game: economics. Throw in the fact that the GOP continues to score so poorly with the key trending demographics (Hispanics, women, and young people), and they aren’t just a party at a crossroads, they are a party on the brink.

And the election of Pope Francis, if understood correctly by the Democrats, could push them over it.

Consider that this pope from Latin America has views about strong state and international government energetically standing for the poor and vulnerable, ecological protection, and nonviolence that are to the left of Nancy Pelosi. He would likely be considered too liberal for a prime time speaking slot at the 2016 DNC convention. The pope is radically suspicious of the libertarian approach to “autonomy” and “choice”—especially when it ends up hurting the vulnerable and opening the way for violence.

For Pope Francis, to no one’s surprise, this includes suspicion of the right to choose abortion. His anti-abortion views might make his pontificate seem unfriendly to Democrats, but in reality our peculiarly American obsession with autonomy and individual choice—whether it is about our guns, our pelvises, or our money—is more at home in the Republican party. If Democrats could embrace Pope Francis’ connection between social justice for the poor and equal protection of the laws for our prenatal children, they could finish the GOP for a generation.

Perhaps the only weapon Republicans have left that could turn the tide, and it remains a powerful weapon, is their reputation as the pro-life party. Consider the views of the key demographics. A recent Pew poll found that 49 percent of women believe that abortion is morally wrong. This number, in addition to trending higher, compares to only 45 percent of men—who are increasingly supportive of abortion rights. Furthermore, we have known for some time now that Millennials are far more suspicious of abortion than the previous two generations. The all-important Hispanic demographic (which will of course be particularly energized by the Francis pontificate) has remained stubbornly pro-life for decades, and looks to continue this trend. Americans overall also describe themselves as pro-choice in record low numbers.

But Republicans are trending away from the view that government should be used to protect fetal human life. Though this pits them against current pro-life trends, it is more in keeping with their small government sensibilities. 30 percent of Democrats are pro-life, and this growing number is also in keeping with their more fundamental views that the government must protect vulnerable populations from discrimination and violence. The libertarian “keep government out of my life” approach to abortion was always an odd fit for a liberal party.

If Democrats can find the will to connect pro-lifers to their message of social justice and nonviolence--using Pope Francis as a model-- they will wrap up the key demographics for decades to come.

And give a death blow to the Republican party as we know it.

Prof. Charles C. Camosy of Fordham University is the founding director of the Catholic Conversation Project and author of “Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization” with Cambridge University Press.



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