Pope Francis and the End of the Religious Right?

There he goes again!

First, the pesky Pope Francis announced a return to a degree of humility and simplicity in the papacy -- no more ruby-red slippers of the sort fancied by his predecessor Pope Benedict. Then he suggested that there were things other than abortion and gay marriage that the Church might also discuss. Next, he critiqued the "tyranny" of unfettered capitalism and pointed out that trickle-down economics had made life for the poor worse. (This observation is self-evidently true for almost any of us except the Republican Party and most tenured economists at American universities).

And now comes news that the Pope has demoted Justin Rigali and Raymond Burke, two hard-right cardinals from the influential Congregation of Bishops. Rigali presided fecklessly (or mendaciously, take your pick) over the pedophile-priest scandal in Philadelphia while he was archbishop there, while Burke liked to dress up in the "cappa magna," a "long train of billowing red silk," in order to lecture us all on the evils of homosexuality.

Pope Francis has left conservative Catholics, the loudest voices in the American church for the last generation, wondering if they aren't being dissed. What, after all, is a faithful, obedient Catholic boy like Paul Ryan to do in the face of a pope who claims to have known some "good Marxists" back in Argentina?!

Whatever Pope Francis's papacy means for American Catholics, his shift in tone and his interest in economic justice may have the effect of upending the political coalition that we call the religious right.

One of the most remarkable political and religious developments of the last half-century has been the rapprochement between Catholics and Protestants around a conservative political agenda. It is worth remembering that the antipathy between Catholics and Protestants was a central feature of American life since the 17th century. John Adams, founding father and second president of the nation, had a particular loathing of Catholics and Catholicism.

As the Church in America grew across the 19th century, a growth fed largely by immigration from Ireland and Germany, and then from Italy, Poland and elsewhere, it was met with an almost equal measure of hostility from Protestant "nativists" and others. In fairness, the Catholic hierarchy in the United States loathed the Protestants just as much. Priest and others routinely issued statements denouncing democracy and public schools in addition to Protestant theology.

When the Democratic party chose Al Smith to run for president in 1928, the first Catholic to be nominated by a major party, party operatives worried that his religion would cost votes, especially in the solidly Democratic south, where Protestant ministers routinely warned their congregations that a vote for Smith was a vote for the devil. Or worse, a vote for the Pope.

The Cold War began the process that brought conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants together. Fighting the threat of Soviet domination was an area on which both groups agreed, and for Catholics in particular anti-communism in the 1950s became a vehicle which brought their voices into the political mainstream. Indeed, two of the most strident anti-communists of the era, Joseph McCarthy and William Buckley, were also devout and unapologetic Catholics. Catholic Cold Warriors helped pave the way for the election of John Kennedy in 1960.

What the Cold War started, the feminist revolution completed. Feminism brought right-wing Protestants out of their churches and into the streets in the 1960s and '70s, especially the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision. Catholics, of course, could always claim to have been opposed to birth control (though that claim isn't quite right historically). Making abortion perhaps the central question for Catholics, as happened through the 1970s and '80s, was not a doctrinal necessity, but a political expediency. It hitched the Catholic Church's wagon to the rise of Reagan's New Right.

The poisonously politicized language of "family values" that emerged during this period was pioneered by Protestants like Ralph Reed and James Dobson's Focus on the Family, but has been parroted almost exactly by William Donohue and his loathsome Catholic League. Reproductive rights, women's rights, gay rights -- they're all wrong in the eyes of these right-wing Protestants and Catholics, and fighting against these issues has tied the two groups together politically. It is in this context of right-wing religious coalition that we can best understand how the Supreme Court wound up with a five-member conservative majority, all of whom are also conservative Catholics. And it provides a political context for the Catholic conversion of the philandering and thrice-married Newt Gingrich.

But if Francis is successful at shifting the focus of American Catholicism away from the cultural issues of marriage and contraception and toward the policy issues of poverty and economic inequality, then this coalition may well dissolve. Perhaps the most pernicious legacy of the religious right in this country is that it has made issues of private morality -- who and how we love, how and when we plan our families -- matters of public policing, while turning public issues -- inequality and poverty -- into matters of private moral failing.

Catholics have been as responsible for this perversion of our politics as Protestants, but for Catholics, at least, the Pope may be saying it is time for a new kind of political conversation.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is "To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government" (Oxford University Press).