If only the nonpartisan Lillian Carter were still here

Maura Reynolds of the Los Angeles Times reports today on President Bush's plan to attend Pope John Paul II's funeral, interpreting it as an effort to cultivate votes among Catholics:

Some might read Bush's inclination to fly to Rome as a transparent attempt to court Catholics, a constituency in the cross hairs of strategists seeking to expand the Republican electoral base.

But for all the praise the president has lavished on Pope John Paul II in recent days, the relationship between the two men and their politics was tense and complex. And for all the attention paid to the role of social conservatives in Republican politics, the "Catholic vote" is still up for grabs.

"Both the pope and the president have indeed had an impact on socially conservative Catholics becoming more Republican," said Mark J. Rozell, an expert on religion and politics at George Mason University outside Washington. "But the non-churchgoing or occasionally churchgoing still don't identify with the Republican Party."

In his comments after the pope's death, Bush emphasized the pontiff's support for the "culture of life" -- a phrase the president borrowed from the pope and uses to refer broadly to specific positions on abortion, euthanasia and marriage.

But the president made no mention of other issues on which he and the pope disagreed: the decision to go to war in Iraq, the death penalty and the West's responsibility, in the pope's view, to curb rampant consumerism and combat global poverty.

A few thoughts:

• George Bush is not running for the presidency again, and it won't be much longer before his name is preceded by "lame duck."

• Does anyone think many Catholics would be more inclined to support Social Security reform, or the war in Iraq, simply because President Bush attends the pope's funeral?

Of course Bush's relationship with John Paul II was tense and complex. Given the pope's widely known convictions about abortion, is it possible to imagine that his differences with President Clinton made for hours of hilarity and backslapping?

• Is George Bush now on record as supporting rampant consumerism or rejecting the West's role in combating global poverty?

Reynolds includes some helpful distinctions from John C. Green, the University of Akron's always insightful researcher on religion and politics:

"Catholics haven't become more conservative," said the University of Akron's Green. "They have pretty much the same views as they had in the past. The difference is that more traditionalist Catholics have connected their views to their vote, which meant they voted more Republican."

"Modernist" Catholics, who by some tallies outnumber the traditionalists, remain staunch Democrats and last year voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who is Catholic.

Near the end of her story, Reynolds mentions this poignant detail:

The last time a pope died -- Pope John Paul I in September 1978 -- Jimmy Carter was president, and there was little suggestion that he should attend the funeral. Instead, he sent his mother, Lillian, to represent the country.

But since then, starting with Carter when John Paul II visited the U.S. in 1979, American presidents have courted the pontiff, perhaps none so assiduously as Bush. But analysts say that such a courtship may hold sway only with the traditional Catholics who most revere the pope.

Here's another possibility that applies both to Catholics and other Christians: John Paul II's dynamism made it unthinkable that another president would send his retired mother to a papal funeral -- or at least to John Paul's funeral.

Reynolds mentions in passing that Ronald Reagan was the first president to send an ambassador to the Vatican. She doesn't mention that the fiercest objections to that appointment came not from traditionalist Catholics or from conservative Republicans, but from the advocates of church-state separation. For that breakthrough, among many others, social conservatives have many reasons to be thankful for John Paul II's life and legacy.

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