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In March, a foreign leader gave a much-publicized address to Congress. But President Obama and many Democrats were angered by the remarks of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who delivered a forceful denunciation of the nuclear agreement Obama was trying to reach with Iran.
Six months later, a man from abroad, with an even larger following than Netanyahu, came with a message that delighted the left. While Pope Francis did not directly address U.S. political debates, his speech on Thursday at times closely aligned with Obama’s policies and ideals. Francis urged the U.S. to lead the world in combating climate change, accept more refugees from the civil war in Syria and other war-torn countries and continue to be a place that welcomes immigrants.
At one point in his speech, Francis said it was important to “defend human life at every stage of its development.” The Republicans in the House chamber started applauding, as it seemed Francis was about to start discussing the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion.
Instead, he renewed his call for the abolition of the death penalty throughout the world.
Both U.S. political parties used to support the death penalty, but the left is increasingly skeptical of death sentences. Two of the more liberal justices on the Supreme Court in suggested in June the U.S. should reconsider if the death penalty is constitutional.
“I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes,” Francis said.
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In a Twitter message after the speech, one of the 2016 Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont wrote, "Pope Francis is clearly one of the important religious and moral leaders not only in the world today but in modern history."
Hillary Clinton said, "Thank you, @Pontifex. We have much to do to care for our planet, strengthen economic opportunity, and defend the rights & dignity of all."
Republicans recognized that Francis’ speech leaned in the direction of Obama, who has sought to make it easier for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to become legalized and pushed for broad-scale efforts to combat climate change. Some conservatives, such as Texas. Sen. Ted Cruz, are opposed to accepting refugees from Syria, while the Obama administration has said the U.S. will accept at least 10,000 over the next year.
So while not attacking Francis, Republicans emphasized he has no role in U.S. policy.
“It would be a mistake to politicize his message of morality. As elected representatives, we are entrusted by the people of this country to act on their behalf on issues of policy and law. While I respect the Pope’s moral vision, how we respond to the world’s challenges is a matter of prudential judgment allocated to elected policymakers,” said Wisconsin Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner in a statement following Francis’ remarks.
Sensenbrenner converted to Catholicism in 2014.
Netanyahu’s speech in March had little impact, as Congress opted not to block the Iran agreement, and Obama is now implementing it. But the Israeli leader has become a hero on the right, often invoked by Republican presidential candidates as they defend their more hawkish foreign policy stands and criticize the Obama administration.
Francis, like Netanyahu, probably did not change the minds of many who watched his speech. The conservative opposition to more liberal policies on immigration and climate change is strong and deep.
But Francis, even after he leaves the Washington on Thursday, may remain a figure in American politics. Obama has made fighting climate change a central part of his last two years as president, and he is likely to highlight the fact that perhaps the world’s most influential religious figure and one of its most popular people agrees with him. Clinton has urged the U.S. to accept more refugees from Syria, another position Francis endorsed on Thursday.
To be sure, much of Francis’ speech was not political at all. The Americans he specifically named in his speech, like Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, are heroes to people in both political parties. Outside of his call to abolish the death penalty, much of his speech could have been delivered by an immigrant-friendly conservative, like George W. Bush or Jeb Bush.
“Our response must instead be one of hope and healing,” Francis said, describing a world he cast as “increasingly a place of violent conflict.”
Jeb Bush praised Francis’s speech, writing in a Twitter message, “Grateful for the inspiring words of @pontifex. People of good will must work together to advance the common good.”