Charlie Harper: New Year … and new message?

December 31, 2013 

Today we turn the page on another year. We will take time to assess our progress and our shortcomings during 2013, and plan on resolutely fixing all that ails us with the fresh start of a blank calendar.

Many also spend this time of year doing predictions. The problem is -- whether politics, investing, sports, or whatever - most of us tend to look at the future as and extrapolated trend line of the present. More often than not, the significant events which change the world around us come from events which are neither expected nor predicted.

Take Time magazine's 2013 Person of the Year. Pope Francis was Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aries the last time we were all making New Year's resolutions. I doubt many predicted Benedict XVI would resign as Pope. Even when he did, very few were expecting a Jesuit from the Americas would be the man selected to replace him.

And yet, not only was Francis picked, but he has managed to change how the Catholic Church and Christianity as a whole are viewed in popular culture in a meaningful and positive way. He has done this by connecting with the people in public, tangible ways. But he's also done this by aggressively changing the posture of messaging coming from the Vatican.

To be clear (as this Protestant writer is frequently reminded by his Catholic friends), the Pope has not changed any of the Church's doctrine or beliefs. He has merely changed the way the church's teachings are presented. It seems that as the leader of the church most synonymous with the term "excommunication," he has decided to embrace the spreading of the church's teachings to the widest audience possible rather than to focus on weeding out the impure.

In short, 2013 gave us an example of how a change in messenger and a change in tone and delivery of a message can provide tangible benefits of public acceptance. Many mainstream media outlets often accused of being hostile to organized religion seem to be falling over themselves to put a new wrinkle on the Pope and the positive nature of his message.

We enter 2014 as an election year. Nationally, control of the U.S. Senate appears at stake. Of course, the U.S. House is always in play though at this time it appears Republicans should retain control - barring some of those surprises mentioned above.

There is, of course, a lot of consternation within the Republican ranks over how to position themselves to win and govern as a conservative majority. Those within the GOP might want to look to 2013's surprise story of the year as an example of how the message can be tweaked when paired with the right messenger to appeal to a wider audience.

After all, a lot of Republicans have been trying to appropriate the term "excommunication" for their own purposes. Some believe only the pure (as they see them) should be allowed within the fold. Driving people away from a party that has lost the last two presidential elections and managed to miss an opportunity to pick up the Senate in 2012 is likely not the best way to get back to winning at the ballot box.

Those who want ideological purity and conformity have begun to fight back, even insisting that it isn't even about winning elections. It's (say it with me now) "about the principle." They argue they can't and won't change the message because their principles are right, and those who disagree should leave.

Simply put, if the 2,000-year-old Catholic Church can alter its message without changing its principles or what it stands for, then the 160-year-old Republican Party might want to lighten up a little bit when it comes to changing how it says what it believes in.

There are ways to say what you believe in that are inclusive and welcoming. There are ways to say what you believe in that are restrictive and punitive.

One leads to greater numbers in the pews or at the ballot box. One leads to fewer and fewer of those willing to identify with the movement.

The assessment of 2013's changes from the Catholic Church seems to be remarkably positive from non-Catholics and even those who don't believe in the Church's teachings. These, coincidentally, are exactly the folks the Church is trying to reach.

Republicans, not winning at the ballot box, are in need of attracting new voters. Perhaps, just perhaps, they can look to 2014 with some resolve to distinguish between core principles and how they message them.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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