Obama, the Pope, and the Faithful
The recent controversy stirred by Pope Francis’ criticism of the free market has had one beneficial side effect: it indirectly demonstrates the extent to which Barack Obama’s American apologists have more in common with a faithful flock than with independent, free citizens.
As I am all too aware that this topic is a minefield, both among the Pope’s Catholic defenders and among supporters of America’s historic first-ever Dear Leader, a few prefatory clarifications are in order.
Genuine faith is a beautiful and ennobling sentiment. What is sometimes denigrated as “blind faith” (or “Bible-clinging” in some circles) is usually just proper faith as viewed by people who have never experienced it. This sentiment, however, has only one legitimate arena, namely that of religious conviction related to the existence and workings of a supreme being. Outside of that arena, faith (in the literal sense, as distinguished from the colloquial use of the term to describe our trust in a friend’s goodwill, or in the train schedule) is nothing but the refusal to use our God-given rational faculty to examine and judge the earthly realities before our eyes. In other words, when applied literally to our fellow men, faith is nothing but a childish rejection of our moral responsibilities, including our obligation to live by the light of reason to the extent that we are able.
The overwrought and ill-defined “separation of church and state,” which is now cited primarily as a fallacious justification for banning Christianity from the public square, ought not to be misunderstood as an injunction against religious belief among elected officials, against posting the Ten Commandments in a courthouse, or against displaying religious symbols in public. Rather, if the separation of church and state had an essential meaning for classical liberalism, it was this: government must never usurp or supplant the function of religious institutions in a free society. The state must never be permitted standing in the hierarchy of faith. In other words, no statesman or public office in a free society may ever assume a status identical or parallel to that of a Pope.
Consider Pope Francis, a man elected by his fellow cardinals to assume the highest position in the Catholic Church. As a mere man, he ought not to be exempted from the rational scrutiny due to all men who assume a position of popular authority and then make pronouncements according to their personal judgments. However, as a man who is at the top of the Catholic hierarchy, occupying the position initiated by St. Peter himself, Francis is, in faithful Catholic eyes, as close to divine status as a living mortal can be. Therefore, it is understandable, though not justifiable, that men and women of faith might be reticent to accept criticism of this man’s earthly views, and might be ready to distort or even reject reason and evidence in order to protect him.
My focus here is not on why Pope Francis wrote what he wrote, or what it tells us about him and about the Church leaders who elected him. (I have already submitted myself to a public stoning on that issue.) What I wish to highlight here is the particular manner of Catholic apologies for Francis’ pronouncements against freedom, as they shed important light on the trajectory of Barack Obama’s wrecking ball surge through Western Civilization’s last firewall, as should become obvious as we proceed.
Over the past couple of weeks, there have been many editorials, essays, letters, and news articles rejecting any suggestion that the Pope’s apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” contains echoes of Marxist progressivism, and attacking the intelligence or character of those thousands of us who have publicly or privately criticized the Pope’s words and questioned his reasons for writing them. Though I do not pretend to have read all of these defenses, most of the ones I have read seem to share a few basic traits typical of misapplied faith: ad hominem arguments against the critics, intellectual dishonesty, obfuscation, and the flat-out refusal to examine the evidence, preferring instead simply to assert that the Pope said what we would like him to have said, rather than bothering to explain what he actually said.
If these methods of defense offered by the faithful sound familiar to those of you who have found yourselves engaged in debate with defenders of Barack Obama, or of progressivism in general, this is no accident. The methods (and motives) are identical, as a brief recounting of a few examples will suffice to demonstrate.
In the first days of fallout over the Pope’s apostolic letter, particularly in answer to Rush Limbaugh’s suggestion that Francis was talking like a Marxist, the most frequent counterargument was to deny that Francis had ever said what he had, in fact, said. This consisted primarily of the charge that the Pope never used the key words “free market” or “trickle-down,” in the passage quoted in the mainstream media—”Some people continue to defend ‘trickle-down’ theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world ”—but that these were merely mistranslations, and that what Francis was really criticizing was the global corporatist distortions of the market, i.e., the same thing conservatives and libertarians criticize all the time.
This defense has died down somewhat, as the apologists face the inconvenient truth that the “mistranslations” in question were in fact the official Vatican translations, available to everyone on the Vatican website. Surely the Pope’s own scholars in charge of rendering his words into one of the Church’s most popular languages would not have been trying to distort and misrepresent his meaning, would they? Furthermore, a five minute search through the Vatican website’s links to the official translations of Evangelii Gaudium into the Church’s other major languages puts this mistranslation nonsense to rest in short order. Referring to the Italian version of the sentence in question, we find “trickle-down” and “free market” rendered “ricaduta favorevole” (favorable fallout) and “libero mercato”; in French, “rechute favorable” (i.e., favorable back-slide) and “libre marché”; in German (with explanatory English included in the translation) “‘Überlauf’-Theorien (trickle-down theories)” and “freien Markt”; and in the Pope’s native Spanish, “derrame” (i.e., spillover) and “libertad de mercado.”
In other words, it is clear from the variants in other languages, from the fact that in each version the equivalent for “trickle-down” is enclosed in scare quotes, and from the inclusion of the English words as clarification in the German translation, that “trickle-down”—the standard leftist misrepresentation of free market economics since the Reagan era—was the Pope’s precise choice of expression, intended to highlight exactly the evil American free market that socialist propaganda has held out as the world’s bogeyman since the Soviet era. Case closed.
The second major defense of the Pope’s letter is to deny that what he is advocating is socialist redistribution, but rather merely Christian charity, sharing one’s good fortune with the poor. What the critics fail to understand, these apologists tell us, is that the Pope is not a political man, but a man of religion and morality. Therefore, to read political intentions into his call to help the poor is to confuse faith with politics.
Well, I began this essay with an injunction against confusing faith with politics, so I would certainly like to agree with this second defense. Unfortunately, the defenders will have to take a good look at the apostolic letter in question before deciding just who is confusing the two. It is the Pope, not his freedom-loving critics, who wrote of the economic “imbalance” and “inequality” which are the result of economic ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace… and reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control .” Francis writes quite clearly of the free market as an unjust politico-economic system, and decries those who resist calls for state control of the economy aimed at achieving the “justice” of egalitarian redistribution.
If someone wishes to defend these words as somehow a call to voluntary Christian charity, rather than for socialist redistribution, I would love to see him try. But that is exactly the point: the defenders do not try to explain the Pope’s actual words, and to square them with what they would like him to have said. They simply refuse to address the relevant words at all, and then proceed to tell us, in their own words, what Francis “really meant.” I take him to have really meant what he really said. It seems to me that the burden of proof here is on those who wish to use some other standard of establishing the Pope’s meaning. Telling us what a good Catholic should believe about such matters has no bearing whatsoever on the question of what this particular Pope actually said—unless one begins from the premise that Francis, being the Pope, is the unquestionable personification of what a good Catholic should believe, and is therefore beyond reproach no matter what he actually appears to be saying.
The latest salvo in this war between common sense and misapplied faith is the Pope’s own statement, in reply to all those who happened to notice the Marxist overtones in his apostolic exhortation, that he is not a Marxist. (As I have previously explained, he cannot endorse Marxism by name, as a matter of official Catholic doctrine.)
Francis told an Italian interviewer, “Marxist ideology is wrong. But in my life I have known many Marxists who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”
That is his answer to concerned Catholics and others who fear that the Church’s new leadership has all but formally abandoned its traditional and proper support for individual freedom, and opposition to collectivism. The response is glib, and certainly calibrated to dismiss the “Marxist” accusation as inconsequential. But the Pope should “feel offended” at being called a Marxist. Marxism is the rejection of everything the Church once stood for, of the Thomistic core that helped create modern liberty, and Marxist infiltration within the clergy—most famously in Francis’ own region of the globe—has perhaps been the most serious challenge to the stability and righteousness of the Church in many centuries. To this threat, and specifically to the charge that he is part of it, the Pope quips, in effect, “I’m not a Marxist, but lots of my friends are, so it’s no big deal.”
When one hears Catholics jumping on this dismissive answer as evidence in their favor—”See, he said he’s not a Marxist”—one can be certain we are in the realm of pure, though confused, faith, and have left rationality far behind.
Which brings us back to the issue of faith vs. politics, and the question of whether Barack Obama is America’s pope. Let us consider again the means used to defend Pope Francis against the evidence of his own words, and see how these same methods have regularly been used in defense of Obama, since the early days of his rise to power, including by many supposedly conservative commentators and public officials.
Obama has boasted in print of having gravitated towards Marxist professors in college. As the newly elected president of the Harvard Law Review, he was described as having “openly progressive views on social issues,” and described himself as “interested in pushing a strong minority perspective.” He began his first political campaign in the living room of avowed communist revolutionaries. He was married, and supposedly attended services for many years, in the church of a Marxist preacher of the “liberation theology” stripe (the stripe first painted by Catholic priests in Central America, condemned by Pope Benedict, but treated with forbearance and sympathy by Pope Francis). And yet use of the word “Marxist” in association with Obama during 2008 was categorically ignored or ridiculed by mainstream progressive and conservative voices alike. “Why use such extreme language?” they asked awkwardly, as if to suggest that nobody is a Marxist anymore—as though all those self-identified Marxist professors, conferences on Marxism, communist party activists and Che Guevara T-shirts were some kind of illusion.
In short, the establishment and the mainstream public (“folks,” as Obama would say) simply made a tacit agreement to deny that their hero had ever said and done all those things, or that they were “mistranslations,” as it were.
Throughout his political career, Obama has used the language of socialist redistribution to give substance to his schoolgirlish mantra of “hope and change.” From his years as Illinois and U.S. Senator “Present,” to his current run as a U.S. president who consistently votes “absent” when the news is bad (economic meltdown, catastrophic debt, Benghazi, Obamacare, etc.) and “present” when the news is good (Osama bin Laden), the closest this “smartest guy ever to become president” ever comes to expressing a genuine thought is when he is reciting neo-Marxist slogans. From criticizing the U.S. Constitution’s emphasis on mere “negative liberties” to avowing his devotion to the goal of single-payer (i.e., socialized) healthcare, and from “spread the wealth around” to “you didn’t build that,” President Fundamental Transformation’s occasional unguarded moments reveal clearly that what he is guarding is an inclination towards the abolition of private property in favor of forced economic equalization.
And yet his defenders insist that he doesn’t mean any of that. What he really means is merely to criticize Wall Street’s excesses, and to empathize with “the little guy.” Sound familiar?
And then of course there is door number three, deference to the socialist’s own self-defense, in defiance of the evidence of his words and actions. On this count, Obama and Francis appear to be running parallel campaigns. As noted above, the real Pope has belittled the suggestion that he is spouting Marxism by claiming he knows and likes a lot of Marxists, but doesn’t happen to be one himself. Interestingly, it was just a few weeks ago that America’s pope was making a similar claim in an interview at the Wall Street Journal CEO Summit:
People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you gotta meet real socialists—you’ll have a sense of what a socialist is.
In other words, in effect, “Socialist ideology is wrong. But in my life I have known many socialists who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.” Is it possible Obama and Francis hired the same writer? If so, the guy clearly deserves a pay cut, as he is recycling his best lines for different clients.
In fact, we already know that Obama is not a consistent socialist. He is a socialist when he is among his ideological mentors and kin; but he is a fascist when he is courting corporatist allies for his authoritarian schemes, as he would have been doing at the CEO Summit. That easy duplicity and ideological impurity has been his secret to success since at least the Harvard Law days, and is precisely the grounds on which one of Obama’s “real socialist” friends, Bill Ayers, has expressed disappointment in the Obama presidency, in spite of his initial romantic enthusiasm over the apparent triumph of his Chicago communist revolution.
Pope Francis has been prominent on the global scene for a shorter time than Barack Obama, and the evidence of his leftist political inclinations, while perfectly clear, is also in relatively short supply. Francis also has the powerful effect of genuine faith to protect him from the truth. Some people who trust God, and believe implicitly in His Church, simply cannot and will not hear what they must not hear, nor draw conclusions that fly in the face of a sincere faith that has shed its light of unshakable certainty just a little closer to Earth than it ought to have done.
Obama’s case is similar: he is, in the eyes of many supporters, and even of many establishment opponents, immune to the normal effects upon human reason that the plain meanings attached to his own words and actions ought to have. The difference is that Obama is not a leader in the realm of faith, where such errors of reason are explicable and excusable. Modern liberty rests heavily on the rationality of its citizenry—on men’s continued understanding that no political leader is essentially superior to themselves, and therefore that no such leader has a special connection to any higher reality that places him above the rational scrutiny to which we are all subject.
For years, conservatives have struggled to define and explain Obama’s continued support as he lazily hammers the final nails into the coffin of modernity’s grandest political project. From Obamabots to “low information voters,” the general presumption has been that these people, apart from the fraction who are simply evil, are just plain ignorant. Ignorance is not sufficient to explain this level of compliance. It is faith – the conviction that our object of admiration is beyond reason and unfathomable in its superiority – that has shielded Obama from the plain meaning of his words, in the eyes of his flock. He has been “sort of God,” in the words of one of his “elite” admirers. He has magic pant-creases, in the words of another.
The founding premise of a free society is that “all men are created equal,” and therefore that reason and merit are the only legitimate claims one man may make upon the political opinions or choices of another. This premise is indispensable to freedom’s survival. When men summarily ignore a politician’s words and actions if these do not accord with their desire to “believe in him”—when faith is transposed from its proper spiritual realm to the material realm, and thus overwhelms individual reason in politics—liberty is lost.
Pope Francis has abused Catholics’ sincere faith in the spiritual realm. In the process, however, he has shed clarifying light upon one of the truest assertions made against progressivism, namely that it is not a political philosophy so much as a religion. If ever that overused expression, “blind faith,” were appropriate, it would be in relation to the millions of ordinary human beings who repeatedly choose, of their own free will, to walk off a cliff at the command of a political leader whose lies are as transparent as they are predictable.
(Originally published in December 2013)