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COLUMN: The pope: Republican or Democrat?

By Charlie Mitchell

Dear National Media,

Please stop conflating religion and governance.

Thank you.

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“Conflate” is a 50-cent word. It’s not used very often. It means to mix together. Some conflation is good, as when eggs, milk and flour are conflated to make a cake. Some conflation is awkward — as when trying to blend oil and water.

The Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis, spent much of last week in the United States. So powerful was his presence that throngs vied for a mere glimpse, to hear what he had to say. Tickets to his appearances sold out faster than any rock concert, ever. The New York Times noted that people in Washington, D.C., and New York, accustomed to famous guests, usually shrug and go on about their business. But everybody wanted to see the pope.

To the secular press, this is puzzling.

Roman Catholicism lists 1.2 billion faithful globally, including the U.S. vice president, the soon-to-be former speaker of the House, the minority leader of the House, 136 other House members and 31 of the 100 members of the Senate, yet this same puzzlement arises when the Dalia Lama or any other international spiritual leader is in the news.

But the media should realize a pontiff’s approach to any topic has nothing to do with any political ideology.

Politics is groupthink. It’s about the distribution of goods and services in a society, including where to obtain the goods and services to share. Competition and crowd-pleasing is inherent in politics.

Religion is personal. It’s about achieving a level of personal peace and satisfaction, which is most often evidenced and reinforced by selfless service to others. A bit of crowd-pleasing takes place, but it doesn’t dominate — especially in old school religions such as Roman Catholicism.

An illustration: Republicans, generally, believe abortion should be illegal and that people convicted of especially heinous crimes should be executed. Democrats, generally, believe reproductive choices, even after conception, belong to the woman, and tend to believe that capital punishment should be outlawed.

This pope and his predecessors have not “sided” with either. They stick to longstanding teachings of Roman Catholicism that life begins at conception and should be cherished from that moment, and that executing criminals is not in keeping with God’s instructions to humanity.

In economic matters, much has been said about whether this pope “supports capitalism.” Here’s a hint: The church is indifferent to whether the people in power are tyrants, socialists, communists or capitalists. The “system” doesn’t matter. The pope’s message was the same in Cuba as it was in Washington: What matters is that human dignity and freedom are valued, that no one is locked out of prosperity and that prosperity itself is kept in perspective.

A good guess is that it is the universal nature of the church’s teachings that draws the multitudes when popes visit anywhere in the world. Why these numbers don’t translate to more people in the pews — almost all churches are seeing declines — is hard to figure. At the center of it all, however, is that popes don’t do politics.

Nothing will keep commentators and issues-centered spokesfolks from saying things such as the Catholic church needs to wake up, start ordaining women and stop taking such an ardent position against contraception and terminating pregnancies.

It doesn’t hurt anything for people to make such suggestions, but doing so presumes institutions such as Roman Catholicism value popularity as much as politicians do.

They don’t. Their tenet is simpler: Be good to yourself and those around you. If we all do that, we all win.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.