Friday, September 25, 2015

Papal Pandering

The news of a Pope arriving in any country is greeted with much pomp and fanfare. Streets are cleaned, flags are unfurled, giant posters are drawn up and the news media goes into high gear with round the clock incessant coverage. So the arrival of the Pope in the US this week was treated no different. A countdown clock was set into motion in New York city, eagerly awaiting his arrival from Washington D.C.. Half the island of Manhattan was shut down as a security measure, irritating some New Yorkers, while making others ecstatic. So as the Pope rode down fifth avenue in his compact black Fiat waving, thousands cheered on with cell phones in hand, trying to capture a fleeting glimpse of the pontiff for their Facebook page. There was excitement in the air, but also vexation as many did not get their packages delivered on time and their favorite restaurants were inaccessible for the day.

In Washington the Pope addressed the joint session of congress. A historic first for any Pope, and a little appropriate for this one, as he is very popular in America and the world for his largely liberal, socialist and humanistic views. After ascending to the Vatican throne in 2013, Pope Francis captivated many by his refreshing remarks on issues, which in the past the Catholic Church was unyielding on. In his sleepy monotonous diction the Pope challenged the US congress and visa vie Americans to reform certain fundamental aspects of their society. He called for an end to capital punishment and to the commerce of weapons of war. He expressed sympathy towards the Native Americans who were decimated in the name of religion by the invading Europeans. He made a plea for immigrants to be treated with compassion and respect, reminding that after all America is a nation of outsiders. He called for religious tolerance in a time of religious extremism spreading around the globe. But he stopped short on expressing any views on abortion and gay rights. Two polarizing issues, one that threatens to shut down the government next week and the other, that still faces challenges despite the unprecedented Supreme Court ruling that made gay marriage constitutional.

All in all the Pope made quite an impression on the congress and the thousands who had gathered outside the Capitol Hill to hear him speak. Whether his words actually have any impact at a time when Americans plunge themselves into yet another bitterly fought scathing election season, I doubt it.

So why the pandering? There is no question the Pope is a powerful entity with over 1.2 billion Catholics around the globe seeking membership. Catholicism with all its recent scandals of child abuse and a dark legacy of bloodshed and oppression through the ages, has prevailed and continues to be wealthy and strong as ever. Pope Francis has certainly restored some shine to its recently tarnished legacy. But in the end the Pope is only a religious figurehead to its members, and to others an amusement. He has symbolic political power via statements that catch media attention, but beyond that there is very little the Pope influences in terms of global events. Yet his standing is exceptional, as he is the only religious leader in the world who is given the privilege to address the United Nations.

Socially, the Vatican exerts great power through the riches that it has amassed over time. Through schools, colleges, charitable institutions, churches and social programs, the Catholic church exercises unparalleled influence across the globe. Especially in poor countries where basic services are sparse, thereby bringing more and more people into its fold. Politically it can influence as a voting block on issues such as abortion, traditional family values and contraception. With America becoming more and more Hispanic in demographic, the Catholic church's clout grows, as its membership base is very strong on the continent of South America.

Religion in American society and politics has historically played a significant role and continues to do so even today, even though people would like to believe it did and does not. Even though the constitution clearly makes an attempt to keep religion out of politics, it is always lurking in the shadows as something to abide by to gain public legitimacy. Recently religion was again a part of the political debate when a Republican presidential candidate openly stated to the media that he would not support a Muslim for president. President Obama is still hounded by many on the right for being a closet Muslim, because his biological father was a Kenyan Muslim. When John F. Kennedy ran for president his Irish Catholic background was an anathema. The reality is, even though the constitution says religious affiliation cannot be a litmus test for presidency, it is impossible to be elected president if you are not mainstream christian today. As a Mormon the last presidential hopeful Mitt Romney faced an uphill task. Ben Carson, the presidential candidate who cast aspersions on Muslims as being un-American to be president, himself is a Seventh Day Adventist, which to many is not acceptable. Whether President Obama kneels or stands when he prays, or prays at all is immaterial, as long as he does the job he has been hired to do. But in today's politics optics is everything, and for the president to proclaim and act as a christian is very important, in order to maintain the enduring persona of an American presidency.

A majority of American's today, about 70%, identify themselves as Christians belonging to various denominations, mostly considered as protestants. About 20% of Americans are Roman Catholic. This demographic make up undeniably has a huge impact on the politics of this nation. It is delusional to deny that this nation is not Judaeo-Christian in nature. Despite the constitution and the wisdom of the founding fathers, America at its core is without a doubt a christian nation.

Hence this level of pomp and pageantry only reserved for the "Holy Father".  It is an indication of how firmly the christian ethos dictates and influences the decision makers and the power elite of this country. So while the Pope maybe a figurehead with little tangible political power, his influence cannot be underestimated. In a shocking announcement the present speaker of the US House of Representatives John Boenher, a Catholic, submitted his resignation today. He said his meeting with the Pope helped him arrive at this decision he was mulling over for sometime now.

A few years ago I visited St.Paul's Cathedral in the Vatican city. What struck me most about this place of worship was its enormity and its ostentatious ornamentation. The purpose was clear. To dwarf humanity and to proclaim the wealth and power of the church in an awe inspiring manner. In many ways the cathedral was antithetical to the story of their deity, Jesus Christ. That's when I realized that the image of Jesus was just a means to an end. The Catholic church through out history was and is about amassing power, wealth, influence and dominance. The Pope was installed as the caretaker and king of its wealth and power. Popes through out history have used this power to not only grow the church and its riches but to influence people globally. Behind the angelic, humane, civilizational guise the Pope radiates and the charitable acts the church engages in around the world, this fact never changes and never will. It is what it is.