What the GOP can learn from Pope Francis

I am a member of two enormous organizations in various stages of crisis: The Roman Catholic Church and the American Republican Party.  The former has a new, impressive leader while the latter appears to have no leader at all. While the GOP wanders the desert to consider who might deliver it once again to the Promised Land of the White House, it would be wise to consider some characteristics that have made Pope Francis so successful so early in his pontificate.

Here are six lessons Republicans can learn from Pope Francis:

Address those who disagree with you with dignity and respect. Pope Francis has spoken with and about homosexuals and atheists in ways no previous pope has. For example, by asking “who am I to judge” people with same sex attraction and by respectfully and sincerely addressing European atheists’ challenging questions about the faith, Francis immediately gave these folks standing and dignified their points of view.  He’s on the path to real dialogue. Is this how Republicans communicate with people with whom they disagree? Not even close. Fellow Republicans thought to be insufficiently conservative are deemed “RINOs” or members of an imaginary “surrender caucus.” Counterproductive primary battles may divide the party further in the coming months.

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Admit mistakes and honestly endeavor to fix them.  Not one year into his pontificate, Francis has already launched a reform effort of the Vatican bureaucracy. He has taken steps to crack down on child abuse and information leaks in Vatican City. There are no such reforms from within the GOP. Rather, factional leaders continue to point fingers at one another and play “gotcha” in the press. The next successful national Republican leader will confront and reform the GOP’s problems: An overpriced consultant class, grossly outdated modes of voter contact, primary dynamics that divide its base and alienates regular Americans.

Ditch the Popemobile! Okay, so the GOP doesn’t literally have a popemobile, but it does operate in a bubble. Most Republican candidates these days spend their time preaching to the choir instead of pressing the flesh with the unconverted. As advertising budgets have increased, genuine grassroots and field operations are an afterthought in modern Republican campaigns. Some of this is of necessity; it’s hard to meet enough voters personally to make an impact on the election. But it has reduced the catalogue of winning GOP strategies to a single item – owning the ad war – and if that fails, Republicans lose. Republicans would do well to emulate Francis, climb out of the bubble and meet the people. 

Speak to and of the poor and disadvantaged constantly. Republicans are not indifferent to the poor. But average Americans are justified for presuming they are. Republicans don’t talk about poverty or the poor, they talk about prosperity and hard work. Don’t misunderstand; these are virtuous things to talk about on the campaign trail. But wealth and meaningful work are very far from the grasp of tens of millions of Americans. The two parties disagree strongly on how to address poverty. But Republicans aren’t even in the conversation as far as the poor are concerned. Contrast this with Francis who almost never stops talking about the plight of the poor and the weak.  

With humility comes authority. A friend often describes the GOP as “arrogant” and says Republicans remind him of Michigan football fans. “With them it’s always either ‘we won’ or ‘we got screwed,’” he says. This from a middle class small business owner in a swing state. Republicans have no authority on issues that matter to him, as far as he is concerned. Contrast that with Pope Francis. The man has captured the world’s attention for the very fact that he publicly rejects the trappings of his office and lives simply and humbly. And because of this, he speaks with an authority that even non-Catholics recognize.

Focus on what unites, not what divides.  Pope Francis took a good deal of heat when he called on Catholics to stop “obsessing” about abortion and sexual issues. And yet he was absolutely right: the Catholic Church is not first and foremost a pro-life club. Its mission is to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ’s love and atoning sacrifice. The Church’s “obsessions” have at times prevented it from executing its mission effectively. (The Pope did not say these issues are unimportant, but that’s the subject of a different debate.) Meanwhile, Republicans are engaged in a civil war over legislative tactics that strain their relationships with the American people and with one another. Nasty, intraparty fights over minutia and personal attacks have muddled their message and diminished them in the eyes of the American people.

My illustration is imperfect. The Catholic Church is a spiritual institution out to save souls while the Republican Party is out to earn votes. But public perceptions have plagued both the Church and the GOP in remarkably similar ways and Francis’ response to this crisis of perception has been truly exemplary while the GOP’s is in need of course correction.

Hynes is the president of Hynes Communications. He was an adviser to the presidential campaigns of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Gov. Mitt Romney.