Over the weekend, Pope Francis made a political statement inside the Vatican that has direct bearing on the U.S. presidential landscape: “Politics is one of the highest forms of charity.” Noting that we have a responsibility to engage in the “greater” politics, the pope is onto something. And it’d be worth it for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, especially, to lend an ear. Doing so would undoubtedly provide a direct boon to the campaign.
This “greater politics” plug was a rare statement for a pope who has largely avoided the traditional political space, including keeping a low profile before and after his meeting with presidential candidate Bernie Sanders this spring. But it’s a radical and refreshing understanding of politics, and one that couldn’t be farther from the tactics of Trump, particularly.
Consider the unprecedented following that the pope has amassed in the last year alone. No negative tweeting. No racism or sexism. No misogyny. No insecure swipes. No lazy defaults to base behavior. Now compare that with Trump’s overwhelmingly negative campaign. The pope needed none of this to rally the base. He was busy accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative.
Trump, rather than dismissing the Catholic Church’s leader and someone who is followed by a billion-plus globally, should take a lesson in how the pope exacts power. Trump, who isn’t shy about his power pursuit, could much more efficiently garner untold laudations and legacies if a more magnanimous man was at the helm.
That wins more followers in the end. Take a papal lesson: Do good for the most people rather than doing damage to the majority of the population (including women, communities of color, etc.) in the hopes that a smaller sliver of the population will find some cathartic relief in the liberation of their basest id and unfettered instincts. This idolatry of anger, hate, and greed will only get you half the gold, Trump, not all of it. Walls won’t either. As the pope said back in February, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.”
It’s not rocket science. The pope’s uncharacteristically informal suggestion that “we must generate a crosscutting wave of good vibes to embrace the whole of society from top to bottom, from the periphery to the center and back, from leaders to communities, and from villages and public opinion to the key players in society” is simple. Good vibes—that’s it. But Trump has intentionally been tapping into an unmitigated amount of bad vibes in America and beyond, though he might actually yield a higher return on investment by trying an alternative approach.
Why the pope’s politics work is because Francis is in fact focused on the greater politics: He rises above, affirming and valuing others and lifting up the “least of these” as his equal. He does what is right for the “most of these” and, in the process, realizes unmatched power. And his following isn’t limited to the religious. It includes millions who, like me, see him as a powerful prophet using power and platform to empower the powerless.
Now imagine the U.S. presidential candidates taking a lesson from Pope Francis, modeling their platform off of Saint Francis of Assisi (the pope’s preferred predecessor, whom he picked for his papal title). Assisi’s acts of charity and commitment to ecology knew no bounds. His large legacy is a result of that kind of greater politics. Trump and Clinton should try it.
By mirroring U.S. policy off of greater politics, there would be a very different kind of American agenda. The U.S. could still keep its preferred preeminent status, but do it, instead, by focusing on service, which is the pope’s modus operandi. Take note, candidates. Pope Francis is onto something.
Michael Shank, PhD, is adjunct assistant professor at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and adjunct faculty at GMU’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.