Today's meeting between Pope Francis and President Obama was fascinating and elucidating. I wrote for The Atlantic in advance of the meeting, that we should look beyond policy pronouncements to the "deeper things" for the meaning of this meeting. I think this proved true.
It's also been stunning to see media reaction to the meeting. Some are asking if just by merely meeting with Pope Francis, the President's poll numbers will go up. Others are expressing either dismay or surprise that the Pope didn't subject the President to a diatribe on abortion.
Here are my takeaways from the meeting:
1. Christian political engagement doesn't have to be defined by confrontation
The President and Pope Francis discussed serious issues--poverty, persecution, modern slavery--but their disposition was congenial. They exchanged gifts. They laughed. They spoke with respect (The President greeted the Pope by saying, "Wonderful to meet you, I'm a great admirer." Pope Francis replied "Thank you sir, thank you.") To be honest, the leader of the free world looked awestruck by where he was and who he was meeting with--it showed a level of humility we should be thankful for in our president.
While the press and partisans were looking for areas of conflict, today the President and the Pope were looking for common ground. And where they could not find it, from all insight we can gain from reports of the meeting, their differences were shared with a base level of respect.
That type of Christian political engagement is possible in our country too. And you don't need to be the pope to do it. Many times during my tenure at The White House, though not often enough, I saw fruitful, Christian political engagement that glorified God and won converts (politically and, who knows, maybe even spiritually).
2. Self-centeredness, like all sins, are not just personal matters, but public issues
Here's what the President reflected on the meeting:
Later in his press conference, the President reflected on this theme again and said that "It happens also to be good at economics and good national security policy."
I love that! Yes, it is good when we in our personal lives pursue something greater than our own self-interest, because that is God's desire and design. Yes, it is good when nations pursue something greater than their own self-interest, because that is God's desire and design.
We often divide personal morality from public morality, and of course, because of the roles of individuals and the role of states some of those distinctions are healthy and necessary. But God's will can be reflected in public life as well as in our personal lives. Our faith is not to be privatized, but applied, with discernment, to all things.
3. Finally, (surprise!) Pope Francis did have a message for the President on abortion
People have been freaking out that the Pope did not raise abortion in the meeting. Partisan conservatives were looking for the Pope to give the President a lecture about the evils of abortion. They wanted the Pope to tell his visitor how wrong he is.
But I've been in those meetings with politicians before. I've seen those conversations between people before. Usually, the person doing the accusing feels great about himself, but the accused is only given the choice between a defensive crouch or a hardened heart.
Listen, the President has heard it before. He was picketed at Notre Dame before his speech on reducing abortions. Alan Keyes told the President to his face that Jesus wouldn't vote for him because of his stance on the issue. His motorcade has been picketed. Confrontation is not the missing ingredient in the public dialogue on this issue.
But it is also not true that Pope Francis was silent on the issue of abortion in his meeting with the president. In fact, one could argue he made the strongest case that he could.
The Pope's gift to the President, the one that had the President laughing in the video above, is the Pope's encyclical on money, Evangelii Gaudium. In it, he takes on greed, poverty and--an issue that has been the focus of President Obama's second term policy agenda--income inequality. Progressives hailed the Pope's strong statement on the issue, and the President has cited the Pope as he has addressed income inequality.
While receiving the gift, Obama said: “You know, I actually probably will read this in the Oval Office when I am deeply frustrated and I’m sure it will give me strength and calm me down.”
One night, burdened by responsibilities few of us can even comprehend, he may open this small book, and find this:
Maybe this won't change the president's mind. Maybe he won't be convinced. But maybe, just maybe, the president will remember the kind friend who greeted him so generously, the one who said "thank you, sir," even when they didn't see eye-to-eye on every issue, the holy Holy Father who speaks to the heart of so many issues of common concern, and he'll reflect...
Maybe he won't.
What I do know is that Christians are not responsible for political outcomes. What we're responsible for is serving faithfully--with love and in Christ--where we are called. That can change us. And it could transform our politics.