When the President addresses Congress, lawmakers love to show their support—and opposition—by which lines they applaud. It becomes kind of a game, with half the chamber leaping to its feet to applaud while the other half sits stone-faced.
When Pope Francis spoke to a joint meeting of Congress Thursday, they couldn’t play the applause game. Not just because the pontiff is a religious leader whose approval ratings are 45 percentage points higher than theirs. And not just because the speech explicitly called for them to work together more.
But also because the pope’s message confounded obvious partisan divides. At different times, he called on them to support immigrants, end the death penalty, fight climate change, defend the family and oppose religious fundamentalism while safeguarding religious freedom.
At other times, congressional Republicans’ rise was a bit reluctant.
“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” Pope Francis said at one point. Democrats in the chamber swiftly rose, while Republicans were more cautious. One notable exception was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential candidate, who was seen on CNN’s cameras wiping away a tear when Pope Francis mentioned he was the “son of immigrants.”
Mention of the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and applying that rule in efforts to protect life at all stages, elicited one of the morning’s few universal standing ovations. Yet the audience’s reaction shifted when the pope then spoke against the death penalty. Many Republican members shifted in their seats while at least one Democratic representative jumped to her feet and cheered.
During his flight to the United States, Pope Francis rejected the idea that he is a liberal, but audience reactions made clear that some of the pontiff’s messages were easier for Democrats to swallow. The Pope quoted from his encyclical, which calls for action on climate change, rousing lawmakers who too are “convinced that we can make a difference” while others sat in silence.
Despite the moments of difference, Congress did its best to present a united front when possible. When Francis argued that protecting the family is of the utmost importance—without saying anything about contentious issues like gay marriage or divorce—Congress applauded as one. And when he ended with “God bless America,” there was no dissent.
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