Even before Francis arrived in this country, observers were trying to place him in the American political scene. Some compared him to Donald Trump. Pope Francis is not Donald Trump. He’s Bernie Sanders.
I’m not thinking so much of their politics. ABCNews tried to present Francis as sharing Sanders’ political commitments, or Sanders as sharing Francis’s. They could do it only by stretching Francis’ statements too far, equating his statement of an ideal with Sanders’ statement of a specific policy, and by leaving out a lot, like Francis’s commitment to the unborn and the natural family and Sanders’ rejection of both. A much better article by the journalist Katrina Trinko (a Catholic) explains Francis’s differences with both American political parties.
Francis would certainly be closer to Sanders than Trump on most political and economic matters. On a political spectrum with Trump at one and Sanders at ten, he’d be a seven, maybe eight, although on the life issues and others he’d be on an entirely different spectrum than either of them. And his speaking as a Catholic makes a very big difference (“yuge,” as Trump might say). It’s the reason Francis can see the connection between care for the environment and care for the unborn, and Sanders can’t.
By the admittedly a little provocative “He’s Bernie Sanders,” I mean who they are and what they want, and therefore what people see in them. Many people see in both of them something that’s not there, but that’s itself revealing.
First, both Francis and Sanders call people to a communitarian or corporate work. Many people feel disconnected, alienated, unrooted, if not from their families, churches, or communities, from their society and nation, and some from their Church. They sense that being an American or being a Catholic means something more than local. They may be individualists, as most of us are, but they dislike many of the visible fruits of individualism, like the social darwinism behind much libertarianism. They are not so swayed by appeals to “America,” which can mean anything or nothing.
What Francis and Sanders offer is the chance to work together for the common good (as they see it), and to create something communal and corporate. Sanders’ movement is merely political, the pope’s religious, though with direct political expressions. They both present a vision of a large corporate work to do good in a way only large corporate works can do. One wants to draw together political liberals, the other wants to draw people to Christ and into the Church, and the second is the more profound offer.
Second, neither is as radical as many people think. Sanders calls himself a socialist—or did before he started running for president — but he’s really a social democrat. Just compare him with the socialist Britain’s Labour Party elected as its leader. Francis isn’t the liberal reformer some people hope for and other people fear. At most, and I’m not sure even this is right, he’s a mainstream Catholic who wants the Church to live her life more liberally.
They don’t offer a radical break with their traditions. They offer a renewal of their tradition and a belief that it can be a more active force for good in the world. That seems radical, but only because Sanders reacts against a party that has become economically establishmentarian and because Francis speaks of Catholicism in a very personal and media-friendly way. (And also because his comments can be spun to fit the major media’s “radical pope” chosen narrative.) This is not nothing even if it’s not radical: liberal Democrats and faithful Catholics long for their traditions to be renewed because they believe those traditions stand for something crucial.
Third, both are insiders that people take for outsiders. (Hoopes made this point in comparing Francis with Trump.) I think their being insiders means more to many of their supporters than they realize. Francis was an archbishop and cardinal before becoming pope. Sanders has been a congressman or senator since 1991. This gives them their platform. Francis wouldn’t be pope if he hadn’t been cardinal and Sanders wouldn’t be a presidential candidate if he weren’t a sitting senator.
They offer a voice for their people’s hopes and ideals that comes with the weight and support of an institution for which many have deep respect and affection (in the case of the papacy) or a shrewd recognition of its power (in the case of the Congress). The two are rooted in something that grounds them and binds them. The pope isn’t just some guy on a street corner handing out tracts. Sanders isn’t some guy at a rally holding up a sign for a political party he invented sitting on his back deck. They’re not rootless freelancers wealthy enough to pursue public office. They’re men speaking from a tradition.
Finally, both Francis and Sanders incarnate many people’s hopes. Many people live in fear. Whoever you are, unless you’re wealthy, you don’t feel economically safe. You could lose your job, or have lost it and have trouble finding another, or know that a single medical problem could tip you into bankruptcy, or remember that another 2008 could bring you down. You have little reason to trust the system, economic or political. Many of us, even those who are economically safe, feel the dangers of a rapidly changing culture, not least, if we’re parents, its extreme sexualization.
Francis and Sanders offer a promise of a better life. Others do as well, with politicians and corporations selling themselves as the providers of a new heavens and new earth, but for many the promise feels more real and genuine coming from these two. The promise is entirely this-worldly in Sanders’ case, mostly other-worldly in Francis’s, but in both cases it’s the promise of a world in which people would like to live. Both proclaim that things don’t need to be the way they are, and Francis also proclaims the possibility of happiness not just in but through the trials of this life.
They also incarnate many people’s fears—the Church-wrecking pope, the economy-wrecking socialist—but that’s a different subject.
The comparison may help in understanding why the pope and the candidate appeal to so many people, and why at the moment they’re the American rock stars in their different areas. It also reveals the power of the Christian message. Even the socialist should know that socialism can only take you so far in this world and that it doesn’t satisfy the restlessness of the heart St. Augustine described, which so many people feel. What people want to get for this world through politics, the Church offers for this world through charity and community as well as politics, to the extent it can be had in a fallen world, and offers it in perfect form in the next world. To the hopes and dreams of the secular world, the Church says, “That, but even more than that.”