Gov. Brown’s support of pope raises questions about religion’s role in politics

Source: By David Siders, Sacramento Bee • Posted: Monday, August 3, 2015

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), a Catholic, is tying his climate agenda to Pope Francis, pushing lawmakers to rethink and debate the role of religion in politics.

At a meeting of leaders with Pope Francis at the Vatican this week, Brown has repeatedly called for the “moral dimension” to move policymakers to reduce carbon emissions. Brown has supported the pope, who released an encyclical pushing for climate change action, saying he could influence millions of people.

“There are not that many authoritative voices in a skeptical world,” Brown said. “People are going to listen. … I think the priests will talk about it at Sunday Mass. I think they’ll talk about it at Catholic schools.”

Brown himself walked away from the seminary as a young man decades ago. Now he shies away from discussing his own religious practices but has said he identifies strongly with the Catholic tradition and the Jesuit order. Throughout the United States, the number of Christians has been in decline, with 8 percent fewer people identifying as Christian last year than in 2007.

Brown’s support of the pope has made some state lawmakers uncomfortable, forcing them into an unusual debate about the role of the church in public affairs.

The state Senate approved a resolution last week formally praising Francis’ encyclical. The resolution calls on lawmakers to hold hearings on the document’s implications and to seek testimony from religious leaders.

“That’s pretty rare,” said state Sen. Jim Nielsen (R) of Gerber. “State officials, environmental organizations, business groups and the general public, that’s the way we normally do business. But accepting the doctrine of any given denomination as the basis for a legislative hearing, I think that clearly is mixing church and state.”

Religion has occasionally flared up in California politics. For example, Sacramento Bishop William Weigand urged then-Gov. Gray Davis (D) in 2003 to abandon his support of abortion rights if he wished to keep receiving Communion.

“Ten or 12 years ago, there was a real effort on the part of some bishops to build up a Catholic voting bloc,” said Charles Reid, a canon law expert at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. “That effort has more or less just faded.”

Davis, who served as Brown’s chief of staff, said that religion hasn’t played a prominent role in California politics in a while. But now, he said, California cannot tackle global climate change action on its own, and “there’s no more persuasive global advocate than Pope Francis.”

Brown agrees, saying efforts to tackle climate change will unfold gradually but having another major ally wouldn’t hurt.

“We’re not talking about an election next year, we’re talking about getting more people on the side of de-carbonizing the economy,” Brown said. “It’s like turning a ship in the ocean. It turns slowly, and the pope is another gust of influence here turning us in the right direction” (David Siders, Sacramento Bee, July 22). — CVK