Much has been made of Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. In a supposedly increasingly secular age, it has been a media event largely without parallel, rivaled only perhaps by his election to the papacy. Many Americans, indeed even many journalists, are seeing that in many ways Pope Francis is quite a different pope from his predecessors. He speaks with a subtlety that because of its rarity in public discourse today comes across rather like a yawp shouted from the rooftops. I mean this in the best way possible, of course. He uses his recurrent theme of “our common home” to speak at once to issues of abortion, capital punishment, climate change, immigration, and wealth inequality. He speaks often in ideals and abstractions that demand close readings and that resist being pigeon holed as dressing only this issue or that.
This subtlety was perhaps on display no more clearly than during his speech to the U.S. Congress on Thursday. Francis’ speech was structured around four “great Americans”: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. He used these four to call the country’s political leaders to action on a number of important yet controversial issues. He summed up their contributions and how the nation could truly be great by following their examples.
A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.
In theses remarks I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired to many people to dream.
By framing his speech around four great Americans and offering up encouragements like “that is something which you, as a people, reject” and “I know that you share my conviction that . . .” Francis employs a clever rhetorical strategy. He does not tell Congress to be like him or to even be like Jesus. Instead, he says to be great Americans. That those Americans he highlighted just happened to allow him to make the points he wished to make, well, that must have been divine intervention. It sounds like positive reinforcement when in reality it is more of a lecture about what this country is not doing. His advocacy against capital punishment and his admonition that politics “cannot be a slave to the economy and finance” make this much clear.
To be sure, this rhetorical strategy is not foreign to American politics. Every politician attempts to paint her/himself as the successor of some other “great American,” but the strategy takes on a bit more force, or is at least heard with fresh ears, when coming from the likes of Francis. In quoting Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Declaration of Independence, Francis highlighted only part of America’s history, but he did so in a way that called members of Congress and all Americans watching and reading his speech to strive toward the higher ideals he is promoting.
The success of this rhetorical strategy is yet to be seen, and to a large degree this success depends on Francis’ perceived authority. Those for whom Francis has no authority (e.g., Sen. Jeff Sessions) will likely not be moved. But the Pope’s visit has been met with at least a modicum of bipartisanship, and there is perhaps no better way to get people on your side than to lead them to believe that they already are. Just ask Bernie Sanders.
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