What the Republican Party Can Learn From Pope Francis

Influential figures around the GOP say it could learn a lot about openness, populism, humility, and courage from the Catholic leader.
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Pope Francis waves during his weekly general audience at the Vatican. (AP / Gregorio Borgia)

For his party to survive, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich believes the GOP needs to broaden its appeal beyond "the infamous 47 percent." Conservative activist Ralph Reed would rebrand the Republican Party as a force of compassion—feed the poor and clothe the naked. Republican strategist John Feehery says the GOP craves a populist leader—"a happy warrior."

Their model: Pope Francis.

"What Francis is doing," Reed said, "is rebalancing the Catholic Church's message to stress the pastoral mission of good works and service to people before getting to ideology. What he's not doing is jettisoning the Catholic doctrine. What about that is not a model for the Republican Party?"

For top Republicans, Catholics in particular, the pontiff's headline-seizing efforts to reverse negative stereotypes of one of the world's oldest and most ossified institutions—almost exclusively through symbolic gestures—stands as an example for the GOP. The Republican Party, according to polls, is viewed by many in the United States as insular, intolerant and lacking compassion for the poor while consorting with the rich. 

The Catholic Church has the same "brand problem"—and since his election in March, Pope Francis has ruthlessly tackled it. Here are four lessons Republicans should take away from the pope's early success:

Appeal to the unconverted:  The pope has reached out through words and deeds to Muslims, homosexuals, atheists, the disabled and women—groups of people who traditionally feel ostracized or marginalized by the Church. Gingrich compares the pope's efforts to Jesus Christ, who was "radical in meeting people where they were—washing the feet of his disciples, eating with tax collectors, letting prostitutes wash his feet with expensive oils, engaging with the adulterers at the well."

The GOP must be as inclusive, said Gingrich, who converted to Roman Catholicism in 2009. "Nobody is off limits." Writing off 47 percent of Americans who typically vote Democratic, many of them minorities "in its spirit is anathema to a good political leader," Gingrich said, a slap at 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

"It starts with meeting people where they are," Reed said of the GOP. "If somebody is hungry, feed them. If somebody is naked, clothe them."

Make the party more approachable: Pope Francis famously checked himself out of his hotel after his election. He owns a 1984 Renault given to him by an old priest. He stiffs security and mingles in crowds. He cold-calls ordinary people, such as the Italian woman who feared she would not be able to baptize her baby because it was born out of wedlock. "Francis is a happy warrior," wrote Feehery, "with a vision that focuses on the bigger picture, and he is determined to open the Catholic tent to embrace the world and make believers out of nonbelievers."

Republican consultant Scott Reed (no relation to Ralph) said the pope is a populist, extraordinarily attuned to a skeptical public. "I am not a Catholic but I'm watching this pope intensely and am immensely impressed with how he understands that people are turned off by institutions, including government—including the parties." said Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. "The pope stands for something. He doesn't just talk about it. He lives it and breathes it."

While Pope Francis dismissed the "bishop of bling," Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, over extravagant spending, "Republicans are seen as the defenders of the rich and powerful instead of the poor and vulnerable," wrote Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, earlier this year in The Washington Post.

Lead with humility. The pope said, "If one has the answers to all the questions that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble.''

Feehery said there is not enough humility in his party–or in Washington, for that matter. "In a world of egomaniacs like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)—and Barack Obama—wouldn't it be wonderful to have a leader who left a little room for doubt, a little room for the Lord and maybe a little room to find honorable compromise to help make the government work?" he wrote for The Hill.

Don't be cowed by your base. Pope Francis is changing perceptions without changing church policy and yet he's facing criticism from traditional Catholics who fret about expanding the tent. "It seems he's focusing on bringing back the left that's fallen away, but what about the conservatives?" Bridget Kurt, a hospice community educator told The New York Times for a story on conservative Catholics' concerns about the pope. The Internet is filled with posts calling Pope Francis a "false prophet."

To many Republicans, that sounds like the tea party attacking the GOP establishment. But just as there is anecdotal evidence that Pope Francis is already increasing attendance in church, Republican strategists say the party's base won't abandon big-tent politics if it leads to victories. "It has to be about winning," Scott Reed said.

In Virginia, for example, Gov. Bob McDonnell received more votes from self-described evangelicals while positioning himself as a moderate in 2009 than conservative Ken Cuccinelli did in losing this month. Ralph Reed pointed to the success of President George W. Bush, who increased evangelical turnout while expanding the potential pool of GOP voters with his "compassionate conservative" message.

"I would argue that in a sense the party has already learned the lessons we see on display with Pope Francis," Reed said. "We need to get back to it."

Conservatives might argue with that; many loath the growth of government spending under Bush. Liberals might argue that; they always doubted Bush's sincerity. And many moderate and independent voters will remember Bush only for the Iraq war. And so, even Pope Francis, despite the Catholic tradition of infallibility, would make a mistake to think that people are sheep—or that his words and symbols alone are enough to reform an institution.

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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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