Everybody likes the pope.
Or at least nearly everybody. Time’s newly minted Person of the Year is viewed favorably by 92 percent of American Catholics, according to a new ABC/Washington Post poll. The same poll found that 69 percent of all Americans view Francis favorably. And these numbers have been rising since Francis’s election in March. A new Wall Street Journal poll says that the pope’s popularity has nearly doubled since July. Francis is already at least as popular as Pope John Paul II was at his peak.
So when Pope Francis issued his World Day of Peace message on Thursday attacking the “widening gap between those who have more and those who must be content with the crumbs,” Americans listened. This is the same pope who in September criticized the global economic system for worshipping “a god called money” and said that “we want a just system that helps everyone.” It’s the same pope who denounced “trickle-down” economics and warned that the “idolatry of money” would lead to a “new tyranny.”
While the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in 2011 deserves credit for bringing income inequality to the political front-and-center, it’s Pope Francis who can actually keep it there.
A big part of the reason for that is his popularity. Occupy Wall Street never had anything like the pope’s approval numbers. A month after the movement began in fall 2011, more Americans approved of Occupy than disapproved by a slim margin, 39 percent to 35 percent.
But a vastly larger number of Americans supported the ideas behind the Occupy movement. A December 2011 Pew Research poll found that while Occupy at that point had just a 44 percent approval rating, 77 percent of Americans believed that “too much power in the hands of a few rich people and corporations,” and 61 percent believed that the U.S. economic system was unfair and favored the wealthy.
The ideas about inequality expressed by Occupy in 2011 and by Francis today are not uncommon among Americans. But the pope is an infinitely more powerful conduit to carry and champion them. And he can be that champion without suddenly ditching the papacy and accepting a policy gig at the White House. The pope, with his infallibility and his U.S. base of over 75 million American Catholics, is already standing atop one of history’s largest soapboxes.
It makes sense that, in a recent speech on economic fairness, President Obama quoted Francis, asking “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” It’s much more difficult to imagine the president quoting Occupy in that major speech on economic mobility—in no small part because it’d be kind of weird for Obama to just start waggling his fingers.
But as Obama tries to base the remainder of his presidency on mobility and inequality, he has few allies more powerful than the Vatican.