The world is witnessing a clear contrast in strategies to capture the hearts and minds of millions of people. In the same week that Pope Francis issued his latest messages about forgiveness and mercy, former Vice President Dick Cheney, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and, of course, Donald Trump encapsulated the venom of the Republican recruitment strategy: bully, denigrate, and divide.
Pope Francis continues growing in popularity, and his focus on mercy, caring for each other, forgiving, and caring for our planet has combined with a well-informed pragmatism to create what has been called the “Francis Effect.” A recent survey found that Pope Francis has increased the Catholic Church’s popularity among non-Catholics and Catholics alike, and two-thirds of Catholics said that the Francis Effect will draw people back into the Catholic Church.
The pope’s messages about mercy and forgiveness started early in his papacy. In March of 2013, he gave a homily saying, “I think we too are the people who, on the one hand, want to listen to Jesus, but on the other hand, at times, like to find a stick to beat others with, to condemn others. And Jesus has this message for us: mercy. I think — and I say it with humility — that this is the Lord's most powerful message: mercy.”
In his letter last week, Pope Francis described the decision women face in having an abortion as “agonizing and painful” and declared that priests can absolve a contrite woman who has had an abortion, at least during the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy, which starts in early December.
Meanwhile, Republicans at every level leave no opportunity unturned to exult in obstructionism, whip up divisive fervor, and celebrate every strain of xenophobia in our nation. Of course examples start with Donald Trump, whose loud denunciations and ridiculing of his fellow candidates are only exceeded by his anti-immigration stance and defamation of millions of Latinos in this country.
Gov. Scott Walker’s likelihood of being the 2016 Republican nominee may be dwindling, but his divisive political tactics continue to flourish — simply because Walker follows the national Republican playbook. Trump’s ascendancy has prompted Walker to take more reactionary positions, including clumsy anti-immigration stands and extreme anti-abortion ones. While the pope is talking about forgiving women who have had an abortion, Walker opposed abortions even to save a mother’s life.
And then there’s Dick Cheney who, with his daughter Liz, just published a book defining the rationale for a Republican president. Starting with claims that President Obama has abandoned a tradition of American strength, he explains: “Americans are tired of the apologies. We’re tired of the defense cuts and betrayals. We need a leader who understands America’s unique role in the world and doesn’t apologize for American exceptionalism, but embraces it.”
The classic Republican strategy. Rewrite history; ignore that the Republican-led war in Iraq fueled terrorism and Islamic State extremism. Create one’s own facts; ignore that tens of millions of people have benefited from Obamacare, even despite Republican opposition. Blame someone else for one’s mistakes; charge Obama with the recession he inherited. And especially, create emotional, character-based arguments, built on defamation.
November 2016 will judge whether dividing people or inviting communal advancement of a common vision is the most popular strategy. Given the self-destructing Republican field, so far, the Francis Effect seems to be winning.
Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.
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