LATimes: 'Congregationalist' Obama quotes Pope Francis

Pope Francis, December 2013, giulio napolitano /
Pope Francis, December 2013, giulio napolitano /

This is what passes for news in Washington these days: an immensely famous politician is having a speech prepared and instructs their speechwriters to quote another immensely famous person, because immensely famous person No. 2 says some things immensely famous person No. 1 likes. Except, it turns out, when immensely famous person No. 1 actually disagrees with immensely famous person No. 2.

What it is the kids say? Oh, yes: "I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit."

Sorry to be so arch so soon after Christmas, but that's how I felt after even a casual reading of The Los Angeles Times' nearly breathless report on President Obama quoting some of Pope Francis' recent comments about income inequality.

If, in the recent near-deluge of reporting on the rollout you're longing for a straight shot of fawning press coverage of the president circa 2009, I believe I found your "fix" -- at least at the start of this report. (The admiration fizzles towards the end.) Read this:

WASHINGTON -- When a White House speechwriter turned in a draft of a major speech on economic policy this month, President Obama sent it back with an unusual instruction: Add a reference to the pope.The final version of the speech quoted directly from Pope Francis' recent letter to the faithful: "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?" he said.

The citation marked a notable development in Obama's complex and sometimes confrontational relationship with the Roman Catholic Church: After several years of high-profile clashes with U.S. bishops, Obama is seizing the chance to highlight common ground with the bishop of Rome.

Quoting the pope isn't likely to yield direct electoral dividends for Obama's party — the once-vaunted "Catholic vote" largely disappeared long ago. But in a string of effusive praise, the president has made clear he sees the pope as a like-minded thinker and potentially useful ally in a crucial battle of ideas, particularly on the importance of shrinking the gulf between rich and poor, a subject Obama has pushed repeatedly but with limited success.

White House officials described the president's praise of the pope as merely a happy coincidence with no political motives. Obama, who has never spoken to Francis, simply found the pontiff's recent statements impressive, they said.

"It's something that is very much on the president's mind," said Cecilia Muñoz, chief domestic policy advisor to the president. "And, happily for us, it's something that's also on the pope's mind."

Yes, there's a lot on this pope's mind, and we'll get to that in just a moment. Let's go back to something that seems to have glided by editors at The Los Angeles Times: "Obama, who has never spoken to Francis, simply found the pontiff's recent statements impressive, they said."

I've never worked in The White House and can't really judge how a president should or shouldn't act, but is it really unheard of for a POTUS to at least schedule a phone conversation with a pontiff once said pontiff is elected? Vatican City is a "state" with which the United States has diplomatic relations, and Pope Francis is the chief executive of that state. Yet Obama has never spoken with him? Not even after both men became Time's "Person of the Year"?

Then again, perhaps there are some elements of Francis' message that might make such a conversation a bit awkward, such as a politician treating the pope's worldview as a buffet: sample this, but don't touch the other. To its credit, the Times captures this, albeit with the seemingly requisite snark towards Obama's GOP predecessors, (leaving one to imagine that Pope John Paul II and President Bill Clinton were perhaps soulmates):

American presidents and politicians have a long history of doing just that. A host of Democrats have clashed with the bishops over abortion. President Reagan worked in tandem with Pope John Paul II to loosen the Soviet Union's hold on Eastern Europe but paid little heed to U.S. bishops' opposition to his nuclear buildup.

President George W. Bush borrowed the phrase "culture of life," made famous by John Paul II, to discuss his antiabortion stance, without noting the pope's teaching against the death penalty, which Bush carried out several times as governor of Texas.

Obama's interest in the pope's message on economic justice surfaced in early October during a television interview. In response to a question from CNBC's John Harwood, the president said he had "been hugely impressed with the pope's pronouncements" and Francis' "incredible sense of empathy to the least of these, to the poor." White House officials said aides had not prepped Obama in advance on the pope's writings.

This month, Obama went further, saying in an interview on MSNBC that Francis was showing himself to be an "extraordinarily thoughtful and soulful messenger of peace and justice."

Aides, who would describe White House discussions only on condition of anonymity, said Obama had talked about the pope with members of his inner circle, which includes Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, a Catholic whose brother Kevin is a priest and former high-ranking official in the archdiocese in St. Paul, Minn.

The Times then turns to academia for further exploration of the differences between Francis and Obama:

Some observers have noted possible personal parallels between the superstar pope and the onetime superstar politician. One is riding a tide of goodwill generated by the sort of promise of hope and change that has ebbed for the other.

"I think world leaders are impressed by someone who got into office and immediately avoided the trappings of that office," said Michael Peppard, who teaches about politics and the papacy at Fordham University.

"People who are in power are in awe of that and have a lot of respect for that. I think Obama probably wants to tap into some of the energy, and tap into some of it for his own message."

To others, Obama's interest in the pope exemplifies the way some liberals, cheered by Francis' new focus, have expressed their hope for a church that puts less emphasis on issues like abortion or gay rights and more on immigration, welfare or poverty programs.

Obama is the "preeminent example of a liberal falling in love with Francis," said Candida Moss, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame.

Of course, even praise for the pope's economic liberalism comes with caveats. The day after Obama praised the pope in his speech, he made clear in the MSNBC interview that he didn't share all of Francis' critique of capitalist culture.

"We live in a market economy that is the greatest generator of wealth in history. We're risk takers. We're entrepreneurs. And we're rugged individualists," Obama said.

Said Moss: "It must be amazing for him to have the opportunity to say, 'I'm a little more right wing than Pope Francis.'"

But for me, one of the more humorous bits of the story comes when the Times describes Obama's own religious background:

Obama, a Christian who attended a Congregationalist church before coming to Washington and now occasionally attends an Episcopal church near the White House, has shown interest in Catholic thinkers and teaching before. He has said that Catholic social doctrines influenced his work as a community organizer in Chicago, and Catholic writers have discerned that influence in some of his speeches, particularly his second inaugural address.

While I accept the President's profession of Christian belief at face value, it's the "who attended a Congregationalist church before coming to Washington" that caused me to chuckle. Even leaving aside, as if one could when discussing Obama's spiritual formation, the controversial preaching of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., to call the Trinity United Church of Christ merely "a Congregationalist church" would be similar, perhaps, to saying the megachurch congregation known as Lakewood Church in Houston, Tex., is simply "a Protestant church."

Lakewood, pastored by Joel Osteen and attended by 45,000 or so (in multiple services) each weekend, is not an average "Protestant" assembly. Trinity is no mere "Congregationalist church," whatever its polity, as evidenced by its own declaration: "We are a congregation which is Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian... Our roots in the Black religious experience and tradition are deep, lasting and permanent."

That's fine, if that's what the congregation chooses. But it's not your garden variety of Congregationalism, and, I believe, at least a passing reference to which "Congregationalist church" and what it teaches might have better served readers, along with some other enhancements as noted above.

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