The Pope's Not a Politician, Y'all

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

There’s a good drinking game to play while Pope Francis is in town. (Yes, drinking game—if you’ve never taken a shot with a priest, you haven’t lived.) Look for all the headlines that combine “Pope Francis” and “Democrat” or “Republican” or “GOP.” For example:

Pope Francis Takes Veiled Swipe at ‘Progressive’ Democrats

Pope’s Visit Brings Hopes for Dems, Trepidation for GOP

Democrats Try to Recruit Pope Francis for Immigration Cause

The Pope vs. the GOP

(First paragraph: “Congressional Republicans hope Pope Francis leaves his liberal-leaning views at the Vatican.”)

Pope Francis’s Visit Spells Trouble for Republican Presidential Candidates

(Last paragraph: “But ultimately, even in the unlikely event the Pope endorses a [GOP] candidate...”)

This one doesn’t quite follow the form, but it would earn you a Jägerbomb:

Will Pope Francis Sway the Iowa Caucuses?

I bring this up not because I’m secretly hoping the crowds who greet Francis will be drunk—Lord, have mercy—but to make a point: It seems as though American media outlets are basically unable to process the pope’s visit and views outside the context of politics.

This is not surprising. The media does a great job of understanding political personhood, or how someone’s political views shape his or her choices. It also does a pretty good job of understanding economic personhood, or how someone’s wealth and occupation shape his or her choices. But the media is not very good at understanding religious personhood: the set of metaphysical commitments that fundamentally shape people’s world views and decision-making. In this case, these headlines show the inverse effect: the media only caring about how an event will affect politics.

As I wrote in my opener for Pope Francis’s arrival in the U.S., it’s not very productive to try and interpret him within the left/right political spectrum of the United States. For one thing, our political system is totally idiosyncratic and not all that useful for understanding an Argentinian who caters to the world and resides in Rome.

But more importantly, Francis is not a politician. He’s a priest. His convictions about Christ guide everything that he does; that’s his lens of interpretation. Trying to read him as liberal or conservative misses the point, because neither is the best word to describe him—he’s a Christian.

It’s not that political stories don’t matter; of course they do. And Francis will become part of American politics twice over on this trip: He’ll make stops at both the White House and Congress. But just this once, perhaps theology can take center stage in America. We’ll learn more by listening for what the pope says about God, not the GOP.