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A Jewish Atheist Responds to the Pope's Call for Peace

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In the first Christmas address of his papacy, Pope Francis called on atheists and followers of other religions to make common cause with him in pushing for global peace.

Speaking as a Jewish atheist, I would like to take this opportunity to respond to the pope's appeal to me to make common cause with him for peace.

A sus órdenes, Pope Francis. Count me in.

The verdict of history has been decisive. Stalin was wrong. The pope is a powerhouse. The Soviet Communists went to the dustbin of history. The pope is leading 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. A quarter of the U.S. population identifies as Roman Catholic.

Of course, as a practical matter, the pope's sway over these 1.2 billion people is far from absolute.

But that doesn't mean that he is powerless. He has an unparalleled global bully pulpit. You or I give a Christmas address, we're not getting a headline in the New York Times. The pope is getting that headline. That's a serious form of political power that can be used to advance the cause of peace, particularly if it catalyzes a broader movement that engages in sustained political action.

As a member of Pope Francis' new global peace movement, I would like to offer a suggestion for making our joint advocacy for peace more effective in 2014. The pope could have a dramatic impact in 2014 by intensifying and highlighting the Vatican's diplomatic engagement with Iran. Indeed, the pope could make plans to go to Iran, dramatically highlighting the prospect of better relations between Iran and the West.

The nascent U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran reflected in the interim nuclear deal could help lead to a dramatic de-escalation of tensions in the Middle East. In particular, it could help end the war in Syria. But U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran is facing a domestic political threat: pro-war groups in Washington are working to undermine U.S. diplomacy, by pushing in the Senate for new sanctions on Iran, which the Obama administration says would blow up the U.S.-Iran interim agreement and put the U.S. on a path towards military confrontation.

This is something the pope could do something about. Recall: a quarter of the U.S. population identifies as Roman Catholic. Twenty-seven U.S. senators identify as Catholic.

Again, the pope can't order these people around. But he can set a pro-diplomacy tone. It would be hard to promote "Iran cooties," Iran demonization, or a war fever among American Catholics if the Pope were strongly pushing a message of dialogue and engagement.

Overwhelmingly, the story of protecting U.S. diplomacy with Iran is a story about Democrats. Republicans can hold their breath until they turn blue, but without allies among Democratic Senators, they can't do much to undermine the President's diplomacy.

Of the 27 senators who identify as Catholic, 18 are Democrats.

Of the 18 Catholic Senate Democrats, three are on the record in opposition to new sanctions now. Seven are on the record supporting new sanctions now. Eight are not yet on the record either way: Maria Cantwell*, Dick Durbin, Heidi Heitkamp, Tim Kaine, Ed Markey, Claire McCaskill, Patty Murray*, and Jack Reed. The starred Senators (Cantwell and Murray) are Democratic committee chairs who did not sign the letter of ten Democratic committee chairs against the Menendez bill.

By contrast, among the 10 Jewish Senators who caucus as Democrats (which is all of them), four are on the record against new sanctions now, three have already signed up for new sanctions now, and three are not yet spoken for: Bernie Sanders* (a committee chair), Al Franken, and Brian Schatz.

So, at this writing, among the Democratic Senate Jews, the plurality are backing the president's diplomatic engagement with Iran, while among Democratic Senate Catholics, the plurality are currently supporting efforts to undermine the President's diplomatic engagement with Iran. But we could turn this around by moving the Catholic Democrats not yet counted into the diplomacy column.

If you look at the list of the Democratic Senate Catholics not yet spoken for, they look overwhelmingly like people who would much rather be with the plurality of Jewish senators supporting the president than with the Republicans working to undermine him.

Perhaps these Democratic Senate Catholics could use some political cover from retaliation by the pro-war camp.

How about it, Pope Francis? How about giving some political cover to Catholic Senators for supporting diplomacy with Iran?

You can urge Senator Murray, Senator Cantwell, and Senator Sanders to back the Obama Administration's diplomacy here.