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A year later, Pope Francis’ address to Congress looks even more prophetic

WASHINGTON (RNS) But will Americans, and our politicians, heed his beautiful words on the common good in the midst of this ugly presidential election?

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress as Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Speaker of the House John Boehner, right, look on in the House of Representatives' chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 24, 2015.  Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GEHRING-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Sept. 21, 2016.

WASHINGTON (RNS) A year ago on Saturday (Sept. 24), Pope Francis became the first pope to address Congress.

One of the towering moral leaders of our time, Francis spoke about the noble vocation of politics, human dignity and the common good. Lawmakers across the aisle wiped away tears. For a rare moment Washington, the epicenter of hardball tactics and orthodox partisanship, almost felt suffused with the sacred.

A humble pastor who called himself “the son of immigrants,” the pontiff summoned the spirits of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day and Abraham Lincoln to rekindle our capacity for higher purpose.

Today, as we find ourselves in the final stretch of an ugly presidential election, it’s hard not to contrast the pope’s hopeful vision that day with a coarse political culture that manages to blend the self-absorption of reality television, cynicism and ideological trench warfare.

Those we elect seem not only divided over specific policies, but shaped by radically different worldviews. A recent Washington Post poll in the battleground state of Virginia found that voters who support Hillary Clinton report they don’t know anyone who will vote for Donald Trump — and vice versa.

Increasingly, as social scientists have noted for years, we sort ourselves into self-selecting enclaves. The neighborhoods we live in and the media we consume often isolate us into comfortable cul-de-sacs where encountering those with different views is unlikely.

Recasting our political and civic culture away from hyper-individualism and echo chambers toward the common good will require a revival of faith-based social movements that have long pointed democracy in the direction of its highest ideals.

The good news is there are signs that the spirit is moving.

The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, leading Moral Monday demonstrations in Raleigh, NC.

The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, leading Moral Monday demonstrations in Raleigh, N.C.

The Rev. William Barber, a North Carolina pastor whose “Moral Monday” protests in that state have brought together the most formidable multiracial religious activism since the civil rights era, earlier this month helped organize rallies in more than half the states.

People of faith came out to fight for raising the minimum wage, protecting voting rights, paid sick days for workers and ending mass incarceration that devastates communities of color.

Clergy and congregations rally behind these issues inspired by the moral imperatives rooted in the Hebrew prophets’ warnings that nations will be judged by how the powerful treat the most vulnerable.

In ways reminiscent of King, Barber fuses the ideals of American democracy with the gospel’s insistence to bring the poor and the excluded from the peripheries to the center.

Similarly, Sister Simone Campbell and the “Nuns on the Bus” have visited more than 30 states, engaging with citizens across the political spectrum. Last week, the nuns showed up at the Hamilton County Board of Elections in Cincinnati to speak out against Ohio’s purging of voter registration rolls.

Even as Republican governors worked to stop Syrian refugees from coming to the United States, Christian evangelicals in red states opened their homes and churches to those fleeing violence and terror. In addition, a growing number of pro-life, conservative Christian leaders now oppose the death penalty. And while the debate over how to respond to climate change remains politically charged, Francis’ environmental encyclical is reaching an audience beyond the converted progressive choir. A study from Yale University, conducted before and after the encyclical was released, cites the pope for helping to reframe the public conversation about the issue.

Religious voters, of course, are big news every four years. Candidates sprinkle speeches with Bible verses and make lofty appeals to Catholics over pancake breakfasts in parish halls.

We face a particular temptation to put faith in politicians and elections. Politics is vital even when it’s messy, and national elections do have real consequences. But our tattered democracy won’t ultimately be rewoven from the top.

As Francis told poor Bolivian farmers and laborers in a fiery speech a few months before he came to Washington, the future of humanity is not only shaped by great leaders. It’s in the hands of ordinary people and their ability to organize.

The hardest and most vital work begins the day after the election. Keeping faith in democracy can never be a spectator sport.

(John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, and author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church”)

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