It is often said that our most important ally is Great Britain, with whom the United States enjoys a "special relationship." Others say it is our NATO allies who make up the backbone of our defense against Russia. Certainly, the leaders of these countries welcomed Joe Biden's election and subsequent message, "We're back," especially after the "America First" policy and slurs directed at their leaders by Donald Trump Donald Trump Manhattan prosecutors intensifying probe into Trump’s New York estate: report GOP leaders reiterate commitment to working with Trump amid back-and-forth Top Republicans seek to tamp down concerns over Trump’s funding demands MORE . Yet, truth be told, President Biden Joe Biden DNC beefs up its finance team Pentagon extends National Guard presence at Capitol through May 23 Blinken to appear before Foreign Affairs Committee MORE 's most important ally today is not these European leaders but Pope Francis Pope Francis Biden: Pope’s Iraq trip ‘a symbol of hope for the entire world’ Pope: Christians in Iraq need ‘ability to forgive’ Pope Francis holds historic meeting with Iraq’s top Shiite MORE .
With his trip to Iraq, Pope Francis advanced vital U.S. interests. In that war-torn country, the pope called for a full expression of religious freedom and greater tolerance, asking religious and regional sects there to remember "what unites us." One young Iraqi psychology student observed that she had never seen the country so united, marveling : "The pope has performed a miracle." A united Iraq aligns with our interests, especially after that nation's territorial integrity was threatened by the U.S. invasion in 2003.
The pope's high standing abroad can help refurbish a battered U.S. image. Since 2000, favorable opinions of the U.S. in the United Kingdom fell from 63 percent to 41 percent . Similar declines occurred among other allies: France, 62 percent to 31 percent ; Germany, 78 to 26 percent ; Canada, 72 percent to 35 percent ; Australia, 59 percent to 33 percent . For people around the world, the pope is more than a symbol of the Catholic Church. In the United States, 35 percent associate the pope with the Catholic Church, but an even greater number — 49 percent — view him as a moral and humanitarian spokesperson for all people.
At home, Pope Francis is also a valuable Biden ally. In 2016, Donald Trump won 50 percent of the Catholic vote to Hillary Clinton Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton State court tosses Trump defamation suit against NYT More women in workforce could add T to global GDP by 2050: analysis Pelosi says Capitol riot was one of the most difficult moments of her career MORE 's 46 percent . But in 2020, for only the second time in history, Democrats nominated and elected a Roman Catholic president. Biden highlighted his Catholic upbringing and reliance upon the church for comfort in times of sorrow; his Catholic faith was on full display at the Democratic National Convention where Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest, and Sister Simone Campbell offered prayers . On Election Day, Catholics backed Biden, 52 percent to Trump's 47 percent . White Catholics are a particularly important constituency — especially in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — and Biden took all of them by slim margins. Close elections are won or lost at the margins, and that was certainly true in 2020.
Biden's embrace of his Catholic faith was strategic and established a strong contrast with Trump. That contrast was accentuated by Pope Francis's many criticisms, and they were heard by Catholic voters. The pope zeroed in on Trump's harsh immigration and border wall policies, saying : "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian." As for Trump's policy of separating immigrant children from their parents (a policy Biden opposed), the pope highlighted a disconnect between Trump's pro-life position on abortion and his child-separation policy: "The president of the United States presents himself as pro-life and if he is a good pro-lifer, he understands that family is the cradle of life and its unity must be protected."
The pope's criticisms resonated with Latinos, the vast majority of whom are Catholic. In 2020, Biden captured 65 percent of the Latino vote to Trump's 32 percent; their votes made a crucial difference in Arizona, where 61 percent of Latinos backed Biden, and Georgia, where 62 percent did.
On Inauguration Day, the pope extended his "cordial good wishes" to the new president, noting that in a time of "grave crises" he prayed that Biden's decisions "will be guided by a concern for building a society marked by authentic justice and freedom, together with unfailing respect for the rights and dignity of every person, especially the poor, the vulnerable and those who have no voice." The pope's emphasis on social justice issues clashed with another Inauguration Day statement issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). It noted that "our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender," and adding that abortion remains a "preeminent priority." Some Catholic leaders, notably Chicago's Cardinal Blaise Cupich, called the statement "ill-considered." But other Catholics intensified their criticism. Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, chair of the USCCB's pro-life committee, claimed that the weekly mass-attending, rosary-carrying Biden should stop calling himself "devout." George Weigel, a prominent critic of both Biden and Pope Francis, described the president as an "incoherent Catholic" who should not receive communion.
The close alignment between president and pope benefits both. In addition to helping U.S. interests abroad, his commitment to social justice causes and the plight of immigrants, Pope Francis has emphasized the personal responsibility of everyone to take a vaccine to combat COVID-19, the top priority of the Biden administration. In January, the Pope declared , "I believe that morally everyone must take the vaccine." When it comes to the environment, another Biden priority, Pope Francis has been an outspoken advocate; in his encyclical, Laudato Sí , the Pope decried the "irresponsible use and abuse of the goods" of Mother Earth and noted that the ecological violence being done is reflected in the "symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air, and in all forms of life."
Pope Francis's standing with American Catholics is quite high. In a recent survey, 77 percent expressed a favorable opinion, including 35 percent who voice a "very favorable" view. Ninety-four percent describe the Holy Father as "compassionate," and 91 percent call him "humble." Any politician, much less a religious leader, would love to receive such high marks.
No wonder that, as you enter the Oval Office and look behind the Resolute Desk, you will find an array of pictures of the Biden family and one very prominent picture of the president and the pope.
John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America, Washington. His latest book is "What Happened to the Republican Party?"
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