Both enjoy far more public support than the faltering institutions they want to reform.
Photo: Bernie Sanders. (Courtesy of Jeffrey Bruno/Flickr)
Pope Francis made his first visit to the United States during a time of political revolutions across the world.
Bernie Sanders is the first viable socialist candidate for the U.S. presidency in almost 100 years. Economic populism boosted Jeremy Corbyn to Labour leadership in Britain. Greece’s Syriza and Podemos in Spain are just two of the populist parties that aim to return economic power to the majority of people in their respective countries.
Pope Francis is a revolutionary too. He has turned the Catholic Church on its head by sacking long-time Vatican powerbrokers and focusing attention on the poverty and economic inequality still unsolved by unfettered neoliberal capitalism.
What’s responsible for these global trends? Institutional failure.
Sanders argues that American politicians have sold the people out to businesses and the uber-wealthy, and the popularity of that message stretches across traditional political lines. Even Donald Trump, supposedly the most extremist GOP candidate, says that “hedge fund managers” earn too much and pay too little in taxes.
Similarly, Pope Francis has decried the exploitation of the Catholic Church by members of its establishment. He forgoes the trappings of the Papacy, and he has actively removed people he sees as corrupt from positions of power. He also preaches a message that has broad popularity outside of the traditional Papal audience, and his message aligns with those coming from Sanders, Corbyn, and movement leaders in Greece and Spain.
Even the polling numbers highlight the similarities. The American people by-and-large disapprove of the U.S. Congress and both major political parties. But people who have heard his message see Sanders—who’s been in Congress for 25 years—favorably. In Vermont, where Sanders is best known, he won a quarter of Republicans in elections to the House and Senate. With 12 percent, he’s tied for first place among Vermont Republicans, and “Republicans for Bernie Sanders” is growing in popularity. (Some group members recently photo-bombed GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush).
American attitudes towards Pope Francis and the Catholic Church are pretty similar. About three-quarters of Catholics hold a “strongly favorable” opinion of Pope Francis, but only 47 percent have the same view of the Church itself. Of Americans who view the Church as “strongly unfavorable,” 50 percent still support Pope Francis. His appeal crosses political lines as well—79 percent of liberals, 74 percent of moderates, and 62 percent of conservatives hold favorable views of the Pope.
Surely there are holes in this comparison: Sanders is a politician and Pope Francis is a religious leader. The Catholic Church isn’t as unpopular as the U.S. Congress. Sanders does not lead the institution he wants to reform; Francis does.
Yet the similarities are too striking to ignore. The leader of the world’s largest religion has taken aim at neoliberalism on many occasions and condemned throwaway materialism to be one of the greatest moral challenges of our time. Sanders has been an outspoken opponent of neoliberal capitalism and its materialist values since the 1970s and hasn’t compromised his views on what he clearly believes to be a moral imperative.
The failure of the Catholic Church’s establishment forced the cardinals to elect Pope Francis to clean up the mess and bring Catholicism back from the brink. The failure of the political establishment in the United States has enabled the presidential candidacies of Sanders, Donald Trump, and Ben Carson, among others.
We are living through a revolution, a backlash against the selfishness of our economic system and political institutions. If Bernie Sanders becomes president, the leaders of the world’s most powerful country and largest religion will be revolutionaries. We just have to hope that’s enough to save us from massive global inequality and climate disaster.
Zac Bears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.