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SPOTLIGHT
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A governor, an economist and the pope walk into a bar

Published on -12/8/2013, 12:15 PM

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One of the most vexing intersections in politics is that of religion and democracy. Faith deals in absolutes and senses of clear right and wrong. But citizen politics traditionally lives in the grey area between extremes, the land of compromise and uncertainty.

Religion teaches us that some things simply must be, while politics is (to quote Otto von Bismarck) the art of the possible. Those differences have not kept political candidates and officeholders from embracing a deep connection between religion and politics, even though they are a volatile combination.

Take Gov. Sam Brownback for an example of that delicate mix, given Catholic faith that shapes much of his moral and political ideology. Like many on the right, Brownback makes the religious inspiration for his policy preferences quite overt, and voters have embraced conservative candidates using religious rhetoric similar to that of the governor.

Lest the right take complete ownership of religious iconography, though, the religious left has emerged and now presents a puzzling challenge. Pope Francis, an exponent of the social justice movement championed by the left, recently issued a broadside against Brownback's style of politics that threatens to open up a philosophical rift among the religious. The pope's comments last week strongly indicted conservative economic theory, saying "some ... continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naÃØve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power."

From the beginning of his governorship, Brownback has consistently asserted the trickle-down theory of economists such as adviser Arthur Laffer in his effort to eliminate all forms of income tax in the state. Brownback thus becomes one of the defenders of the ideology that Pope Francis condemns. While the governor and pope might agree on a number of things, their economic theory differences are irreconcilable.

The governor may find the pope's logic unconvincing, but what will voters in Kansas think when presented a choice between the two visions? Catholics comprise about one-sixth of the state population, according to catholic-hierarchy.org, but their preferences are unclear.

Ever since the Summer of Mercy in 1991, Kansas' conservative and Republican majority has been closely allied with religious conservatives, at first associated with the pro-life movement but then in a progressively wider swath of issues including same-sex marriage, taxes and economics. The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the right has earned exclusive ownership over religiously inspired public policy.

The pope's edict means that a shift in religious rhetoric -- and perhaps behavior -- may be underway. The left would like their social justice agenda, focused primarily on social services and wealth redistribution, to reach a level of notoriety equal to their conservative counterparts' stands on issues like abortion.

A poll by the left-leaning Public Religion Research Institute this summer suggests an opportunity for liberal Christians to thrive as younger voters enter the political system. Less than 20 percent of those surveyed under the age of 33 identified themselves as conservative. Twenty-five percent of those under-33 identified themselves as liberal, implying a fertile ground for messages like Pope Francis' to take root. Older voters, much more likely to self-identify as religious conservatives, could be replaced by more liberal Christians as the electorate ages.

For some time, the governor has had little problem selling his economic theories to the public as divinely inspired. However, the pope's repudiation of his trickle-down ambitions suggests a much tougher sell is ahead for Sam Brownback.

Chapman Rackaway is a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

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