WASHINGTON, D.C. – When Pope Francis left Washington last month after his speech to a joint session of Congress, a faint glow could still be seen on the Hill. Some politicians and pundits acknowledged feeling more charitable toward their opponents after experiencing the pope’s presence.

Ripples of an unblemished love fest lingered also in the wake of the pope’s subsequent visits to New York City and Philadelphia – at least until his meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, was made public after the pope’s return to the Vatican.

The President and First Lady wave to Pope Francis at the conclusion of the ceremony. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

No, the pope was not able to change the country’s political climate with his week-long visit. But he did have an impact, as evidenced by the hundreds of op-eds and dozens of political cartoons penned in response. This analysis focuses on the cartoons, as they deliver their messages quickly, concisely and, often, cleverly.

Using Gocomics online “political slant” archive, Yale Climate Connections identified 72 cartoons drawn over a ten-day period by 25 liberal, 11 moderate, and 13 conservative editorial cartoonists. One quantitative finding: liberals were slightly more likely to respond to the pope than moderates or conservatives; comprising 50 percent of Gocomics’ roster, they drew 55 percent of the cartoons in the sample. And an important point: Just 14 percent of the 72 cartoons identified addressed or mentioned climate change or global warming.

Themes and Memes

The most commonly addressed theme in this set of cartoons was the sorry state of American politics in general or of the GOP in particular. About 20 percent of the cartoonists used the pope’s visit to make one of these points. Liberal cartoonists, not surprisingly, focused on the GOP. Moderates saw a more general decline, as illustrated by Steve Breen’s cartoon of the pope’s interrupting a political brawl in the capital.

Among the few liberals to assign blame for this incivility to both parties, Signe Wilkinson drew a clever allusion to Edward Hicks’ iconic image of Quaker pacifism, The Peaceable Kingdom.

Most conservatives were just as partisan as their liberal counterparts, but they were more personal about it, focusing their animus on President Obama rather than on the Democratic Party more broadly. Some, like Steve Kelley, portrayed the pope challenging Obama on abortion or religious freedom. Others depicted the pope as too left-leaning on the economy (social injustice), foreign relations (Cuba), or the environment. Michael Ramirez, for example, questioned the pope’s belief in science when so many scientists, in his view, had abandoned belief in God long ago.

Capitalism, Climate, and Religion

By contrast, some liberals and moderates evidently expected a more radical pope than the one who actually spoke before Congress. Before the speech, Tom Toles drew a cartoon that predicted Republicans would face a withering critique from Pope Francis for their views on climate change. That didn’t happen. In fact, the pope, in addressing the Congress, never uttered the word, “climate.”

The moderate cartoonist Nick Anderson, however, still looks to Pope Francis for global leadership on climate change. Perhaps he liked what the pope said at the United Nations in New York.

Conservative cartoonist Chip Bok used the occasion of the pope’s visit to refloat the climate-change-as religion balloon. This time, however, the pope’s broader views on social and economic justice allowed liberal cartoonists like Rob Rogers to depict conservatives’ fervent commitment to unregulated capitalism as itself religious.

Spinning Symbols

Other religious memes – the confessional, high mass, baptism, St. Francis, Jesus, the Golden Calf (used to depict Donald Trump), the Devil – were used to address issues of wealth and inequality, gay marriage, immigration, and abortion. And then there was the perfect symbolism of the pope’s little Fiat. As even conservative cartoonist Chip Bok acknowledged, it’s “tough to stay mad at a guy who tools around in a Fiat limo.”

A Pope-Mobile of a different sort provides a visual way to summarize this review of political cartoons drawn in response to Pope Francis’s visit to the United States. In this cartoon by Matt Davies, terms from the pope’s speeches and moments from his very rhetorical itinerary become attractive mementos of liberal and conservative values. Political pope-watchers, one might infer, track only the mementos that matter to them, reinforcing their own preferences as echoed by their filtered social media.

Has Davies stepped outside his own crib to see this reality? Or is the six-to-two ratio of left to right causes on the mobile a reflection of Davies’ own liberal predispositions? One’s answers to such questions likely says less about the pope than about one’s own political leanings.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...