NEW YORK -- Regardless of what Donald Trump says, Americans are a welcoming lot. Unless, of course, Johnny Foreigner starts telling them how to run their Union. Like most countries, they don’t like that. Witness Piers Morgan’s attempt to highlight the issue of gun control during his tenure at CNN.
Who is he to “come over here and tell us what to do?” shouted the Briton's detractors, allied to that hardy perennial: “If you don’t like it, you can leave.”
The notion of outsiders criticising America particularly irks the sensibilities of the right, who cling a little more fiercely to the nationalistic doctrines of American exceptionalism and Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.”
Yet in September, Republicans are going to have to bite their tongues -- probably to the point of drawing blood -- when Pope Francis becomes the first pontiff to address a joint session of Congress.
Around 30 percent of the Congress is Catholic and near-100 percent profess to some form of religious affiliation. Yet the source of the tension isn’t God but the pope’s critiques of capitalism and climate change. The former has become part of the modern Republic’s DNA, while the latter is so entwined in political spin that throwing a snowball in the chamber passes for serious debate.
Earlier this month, Francis attacked capitalistic excess as the “dung of the devil” while delivering a June encyclical on climate change that pointed a papal finger at the US and the other large economies for doing little to address a problem of their making.
Increasing the tension, the pope welcomed last week's nuclear deal with Iran, an agreement most Republicans have decried. He also took aim at the immigration debate, telling reporters in January that he would like to walk across the US-Mexico border to show support for those attempting to make the journey.
The pope’s unease with capitalism stems from its inherent inequality, which in November 2013 he called “the root of social ills...” He said: “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.”
In a quirk of scheduling (or divine intervention), the pope’s visit could fall within the heat of a congressional battle over Republican budget cuts, many that target the poor. Democrats vehemently oppose the cuts, which could lead to a government shutdown. Imagine Francis excoriating the “social ills” of inequality while Congress sits dormant due to a squabble over depriving the needy.
Regardless, the pope is held in such high regard by America's political class that few are likely to voice dissent. As Republican House Speaker John Boehner, the man who extended the invite, said on Sunday: “I can tell you this: I’m not about to get myself into an argument with the Pope.”
This respect will not extend beyond Congress, with right wing media already sharpening cleavers ready to disparage Francis as communist, socialist, progressive, beholden to the environmental lobby, in thrall to the UN, an enemy of free markets, soft of gays, soft on immigrants and anti-American as soon as the papal slippers hit the Dulles tarmac.
Nor will those running for president be able to sit this one out; the 15 GOP candidates (presuming Trump doesn't combust in the next month) will be sought for immediate reaction whatever the pope trumpets. And they better have some good answers. Otherwise the pontiff, who has already transformed the role of the Vatican in global affairs, could find himself inadvertently transforming the landscape for the 2016 election.