September 24, 2015! A date I will not forget, and a date marked by the significance of the events. I have put it away somewhere deep in my memory alongside the day President Kennedy was assassinated and the day the twin towers fell. It was just as historic.
Many great and powerful leaders have addressed joint sessions of the U.S. Congress. While the Marquis de Lafayette spoke to Congress in 1824, he actually spoke separately to the House and the Senate one day apart. King Kalakaua of Hawaii spoke to the joint houses in 1874, some little time before such titles ceased to have meaning in his homeland. President Charles de Gaulle took the honors in 1960—it would be many years before freedom fries became de rigueur in Washington. In 1992 Russian president Boris Yeltsin gave a great speech in Congress, just a year before he sent troops to occupy his own legislature. And not too long ago Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the occasion to play party politics. It all makes Winston Churchill’s three speeches to the group seem like a romp in the thousand-acre wood. But in reality these are, one way or another, highly charged moments of political theater. One can see why religious leaders have been conspicuously absent from the bookings.
Well I know of one previous attempt to invite a religious leader—only a few months ago the dalai lama was struck from his invitation because he was too contentious a figure. One presumes that meant the Chinese might object: after all, other than accusing them of industrial espionage and interfering in U.S. elections, we are usually careful not to offend a people to whom saving face is so important. It would have been a little less than startling to have actually heard the dalai lama give his usual mix of upbeat aphorisms and New Age universal brotherhood. After all, it’s not like he would have attacked capitalism or done anything stupid like that!
Back to September 24: and with about 55,000 (according to a security person I quizzed about attendance numbers) others I waited a few hours on the green grass behind (in front of!) the U.S. Capitol, watching the giant Videotrons for signs of the approaching pontiff. It had begun as a clear, potentially burning, sunny day, but after some apparent chemtrailing overhead a light shading haze set in, and we happily waited for the pontiff.
My personal sojourn in Washington began way back in the mid sixties, and I’ve seen a few things, including the March on Washington and the riots of 1968 following Martin Luther King’s assassination. I have seen police cars with windows taped against crowd violence and light military vehicles crammed with National Guardsmen (men only back then!). But I have never seen anything like the array of security services brought to bear on the event September 24. There were ATF agents in full attack gear, border police, Secret Service, FBI, capital police, Immigration, Homeland Security, Military Police and regular military, and maybe more. The area well clear of the Capitol was blocked off to pedestrians and cars and tall chain-link fencing funneled attendees to security stations run with a rigor that made the airport treatment seem mild. Why all the security? Beyond prudent measures I fail to see a Pope as a particular target, the May 13, 1981 attempted assassination of John Paul II notwithstanding. All I could deduce is that it was a massive political event.
When the sergeant at arms introduced “the pope of the Holy See,” I was a little taken aback. I had feared it might be “His Holiness…” After all, not all titles are to be repeated automatically, as some claims might normally be expected to cause some distress, especially that in a once- Protestant society. I had expected “the Pope of Vatican City,” since by way of the 1929 Lateran treaty and the Mussolini grant of papal sovereignty over 110 acres the pope is head of an actual mini-state. The Catholic Church takes the See to be not only Rome, the bishop of Rome’s jurisdiction, but also all the Sees of archbishops around the world. This is a little more than a city-state. I went to the State Department Web site and found they understand this. It reads, “The Holy See is the universal government of the Catholic Church and operates from Vatican City State, a sovereign, independent territory. The pope is the ruler of both Vatican City State and the Holy See.” I would think any national leaders would hesitate to acknowledge a “universal government.” Up until Ronald Reagan the U.S. hesitated to do that, even though Richard Nixon tried. The inhibition was simple and twofold: Protestant sensibility and memory was still strong, and republican realities meant that such a state presented certain constitutional incompatibilities. But that was then, and as Senator Rick Santorum famously said a little more than five years ago: “Protestantism in this country [United States]… is in shambles, [and] is gone from the world of Christianity.”
I was happy to see the pope treated with such dignity, even as I was uncomfortable at any religious leader being given a political pulpit.
The U.S. is a civil nation and always ready to face a situation with optimism. Like the Roman Catholic Church, there are moments in our history usually forgotten and regretted: a Protestant sensibility in earlier days sometimes morphed into Klu Klux Klan white Protestant American violence; anti-Catholic riots in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and New York. These sentiments even interfered with the election of John F. Kennedy—who promised that no church leader would direct his presidency, and meant it. But the upside was a society with deep Protestant roots and a conviction that religious liberty was best protected by keeping the Roman Catholic Church and all the other churches from exercising more than moral influence over the running of government. Maybe those days are fast passing too.
I listened closely to the pope’s nicely rehearsed speech and most of it was unassailable. Who but a flat earther could oppose respect for the environment and concern for our fellow human beings? Platitudes aside, it was actually less religious than socially political.
But there were the troubling allusions to oft-stated papal agendas. Francis noted Moses at the beginning: In the encyclical on the environment a line is drawn from the law given to Moses and Jewish and Catholic holy days as memorials of creation. I was encouraged that the document recognized the God-given seventh-day Sabbath, and troubled as always at the recommendation of a Sunday substitution that owes its origin not to God but to the “venerable day of the sun” and the willingness of a forgetful early church hierarchy to assume the right to change it.
There was the repeated phrase “the common good.” It sounds good, but can easily justify group action over individual rights. There was “reciprocal subsidiarity” which repeated the Vatican claim that the state is “subsidiary,” to the church and mixed in a vague assumption of dabbling in state affairs. And maybe it was just a speechwriter tone-deaf on American history, but I found the appropriation of Abraham Lincoln odd, since his assassination was widely assumed to be a Jesuit plot. Four conspirators were hanged and at least as many others imprisoned—one having been chased to Rome, where he had enlisted in the papal bodyguard. Almost all were Roman Catholics, and of course Confederate sympathizers. History has moved on, but its shadow cannot be erased so easily.
The speech over, we made our way home through unnaturally empty streets—the pope on his way to another triumphal event elsewhere. May God bless him as he spreads a message of common humanity. He and the dali lama do a great service when they speak that way. But I hope never does this pope or any religious leader of any religion have the political entre to recommend to lawmakers the dictates of catechism, Koran or Bible. Leave that to the conscience alone.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."