The New American Popery

Seventeenth century England was full of debate over the divided loyalties of Englishmen and women. Many were said to be in the grips of papal allegiance, an allegiance that could not be shared with the King of England. We hear similar rumblings today in the U.S. The Republican Party establishment and their benefactors in the media have become increasingly hostile to the message of social justice emanating from the Vatican and it is for good reason.

Here in the U.S., it was not long ago that Republicans were concerned about whether the Pope would direct U.S. policy from the Vatican should Irish Catholic John F. Kennedy be elected president. It seems the potential for such a divided loyalty still unnerves some on the right wing of the political spectrum. Indeed, the persecution of those “popish” priests and bishops in seventeenth century England has a curious symmetry with current outrage on the part of some in the G.O.P. It is difficult to imagine, but the so-called conservative party in the U.S. increasingly seems to be denouncing the religious traditions of over sixty million Americans.

While Pope Francis insists that it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present, as he so eloquently expressed his support for a humane immigration policy in his recent address to a joint meeting of Congress, he also urged us to not repeat the sins of the past. While Francis invokes the golden rule and reiterates the Christian warning of worshiping false idols, many in the conservative wing of our political discourse take such teachings as an affront to the American way of life.

It was not too long before the Pope was accused of being a Godless Marxist. His sin was tackling the worst excesses of the American establishment’s political religion: capitalism. His denunciation of the vicious exploitation, obscene inequality, and demoralizing alienation inherent in the increasingly unfettered global corporate capitalism of which the U.S. economic elite is a primary stakeholder has ruffled a few feathers. Sadly, those same political hacks that condemn organizations like Planned Parenthood as an affront to morality and religious teaching just as easily condemn a Pope for echoing the message of Christ in reminding us that we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve both God and money (Mathew 6:24).

It has become evident that the religion of those who so vociferously criticize the Pope for his message of social justice worship not God but “free enterprise.” Their religion is commerce and their God is money. While they may cloak their indignation in fanciful defenses of freedom, glittering generalities about the American way, and transparently hypocritical invocations of the establishment and free exercise clauses of the first amendment (the idea of separation of Church and State), the reality is that many feel threatened by Pope Francis’ attack on what they perceive as a foundational pillar of their American identity: the uninhibited right to make as much money as humanly possible.

While such a dogged determination is not evil in itself (in fact, the Pope spoke highly of the entrepreneurial spirit in his address to Congress) Christian teaching clearly warns of the dangers of such excess. What is perhaps most unnerving is the shameless manipulation of the entrepreneurial pride (or aspirations) of many hard-working Americans. Many in the right wing establishment and the fundamentalist wing of American libertarianism hope to scare everyday people into fearing this message of social justice just as much as they fear the charismatic power of the messenger. The fact is that corporate lackeys in the mainstream media and the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party insist on reviving the Cold War fears of hard working God fearing Americans for the political and economic gain of their benefactors.

The truth is, when a figure like Pope Francis extolls the virtues of Christ and preaches the social Gospel and speaks directly to over a billion Catholics and many others around the world, this is simply bad for business. It is necessary to demonize him. It is necessary to remind hard working God fearing folk that this Pope’s job is not to preach Christ’s message of social justice but rather, simply, to get people into heaven.

This compartmentalization of the Pope’s supposed role reflects the desire of some to compartmentalize our morality. When we hear Catholic Republican politicians like Rick Santorum and Jeb Bush urge the Pope to stick to what he knows best (i.e. leave the important business of preaching to the masses to our public relations teams), or Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh warn of the Pope’s “communistic” tendencies, it is painfully obvious they feel the pull of their own divided loyalties.

The divided loyalties that underlie the duplicitous indignation of right wing hacks should of course not be persecuted (as in seventeenth century England) but should be exposed and denounced. These craven attempts to redirect the fears of well-meaning Christians against a message of hope, peace, and justice are worthy of any wrath the Creator might want to one day unleash. But, for now, we should recognize the attacks on the Pope for what they are: a worship of the golden calf, American style.

Joaquin Pedroso is a Doctoral Candidate in Political Theory at Florida International University in Miami. Read other articles by Joaquin.