missing the civic empowerment messages of a Pope and a President

Michelle Boorstein compares the enthusiastic responses to Pope Francis in 2015 and Barack Obama in 2008 and collects several explanations for both:

  1. People have “an undeniable, sweeping affinity, a gut reaction to a new leader to whom we attach huge expectations …,  even though most Americans don’t know much about Francis.”
  2. “Does the pope’s all-embracing commentary, which seems to exclude no one, have particular resonance in an increasingly diverse country?”
  3. Does “Francis offer people hope of rescue with his confident proclamations about what needs to be done to fix the world? Cartoonists and graffiti artists have often drawn him as a caped superhero.”
  4. “Francis is an accessible father figure at the helm of one of the world’s largest organizations.”
  5. “People love the blank slate.”

Let me suggest an alternative. Both the president and the Pope talk explicitly about how we, active citizens, can and must address problems. These two men may have been caricatured as caped superheroes, but they are as clear as one can be that they are not the solutions to our problems; we are.

This was the main theme of Obama’s Springfield speech announcing his candidacy in 2007, an important note in his Grant Park speech on Election Night 2008, and a recurrent topic throughout the campaign. When he accepted the Democratic nomination in 2012, he put it concisely: “As citizens,” Obama said, “we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.” I have collected many more similar quotes here.

As for the Holy Father, he said recently, “the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize.”

I believe that people hear and are moved by these invocations of their power, agency, and responsibility. They do not treat Obama and the Pope as blank slates or as accessible personalities; they feel moved to take action.

Meanwhile, the press completely ignores these leaders’ talk of civic engagement. That theme was never covered in the 2008 presidential campaign, and no one mentions it when they cover the Pope. Obama’s critics especially misunderstand his civic appeal, thinking that it is narcissistic. (“We are the ones we have been waiting for” is literally misheard as “I am the one you have been waiting for”). And we see basically patronizing explanations of why these leaders strike a chord.

See also how to respond to a leader’s call for civic renewal; the encyclical Laudato Si and the power of peoples to organize; and Taking the President Seriously About Citizenship.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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