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Published: September 22, 2015

Homage to Taylor Swift: Ryan Adams Taylor Swift, Pope Francis will arrive at a military base outside the capital on Tuesday afternoon to open his first visit to the United States, and President Obama will be there to welcome him. It is a gesture the president has extended to virtually no other foreign visitor.

And little wonder. For Mr. Obama, there may be no more potent ally in the world in his quest to bend the arc of history, to use a favorite phrase, than a pope who helped him restore diplomatic relations with Cuba and who has spoken out on issues like economic inequality, immigration, climate change and criminal justice reform.

Yet if the pope’s visit seems likely to bolster Mr. Obama on some of his top priorities, it also comes at a moment of sharp focus on moral questions where the two differ. For conservatives assailing the jailing of a clerk who refused to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples and for abortion foes now mounting a bid to cut off federal money for Planned Parenthood, Francis and the teachings of the church offer a timely boost.

The conflicting interpretations underscore the hazards of trying to pigeonhole any pope into the binary left-right spectrum of American politics. At the White House and on Capitol Hill, leaders say Francis cannot be viewed in strictly political terms. But in Washington, where everything is political – including religion – both sides in the perpetual American argument hope to make the most of the pope’s three-day visit to the seat of power.

That will probably be easier for Mr. Obama and the Democrats. Just as Pope John Paul II was seen as more aligned with the anti-Communist mission of President Ronald Reagan, Francis is seen as sympathetic to Mr. Obama’s priorities. Some conservative Catholics refer to Francis derisively as “Obama’s pope,” while some Catholic Republican presidential candidates have expressed polite disagreement with the leader of their church.

“We are fully expecting that there will be some messages with which we may respectfully disagree or have differences, but that on many of the big-ticket items” the pope’s “essential messages will resonate very much with the president’s agenda,” said Charles Kupchan, an adviser to Mr. Obama. “And in that respect, we are hoping that his moral authority helps us advance many of the items that we take to be very high on our policy agenda.”


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