Congressman Paul Gosar traveled to Nevada to visit Cliven Bundy when the renegade rancher was fighting the Bureau of Land Management over the grazing fees he has refused to pay for years and years. Apparently, the Arizona Republican has no problem going out of his way to see Bundy, a man who shirks his debts, thinks the federal government is a fiction and says black people were better off living as slaves, but Gosar refused to walk over to the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday morning to hear a historic speech delivered by Pope Francis.
In a Time magazine essay, Gosar said “media reports” led him to believe that Francis would lecture the special joint meeting of Congress about the perils of climate change, a concern that Gosar thinks is bogus. It’s a good guess that the “media” voices Gosar listens to are the howling pundits on Fox News and right-wing talk radio. No one in the credible news media was claiming to know what would be in the pope’s script.
Quite a few other members of the House Republican caucus share Gosar’s views about climate change (and probably about Bundy), but they managed to show up for the pope’s speech and sat there without their ears falling off. As it turned out -- and as any rational person would have expected -- Francis did not deliver a jeremiad about global warming. That is not his style nor the singular focus of his agenda during his visit to the United States. In fact, he never uttered the words “climate change” or “global warming.” What he did say was this:
“[The] common good also includes the Earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. In [the encyclical] Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.”
Those three sentences were all Francis had to say on the subject that scared the congressman away. There were other passages Gosar might not have liked, such as the pope’s plea for an end to the death penalty and his call for refugees and immigrants to be treated with compassion, but most of the address was a lofty meditation on the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” sentiments with which only a social misfit would disagree. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the presidential candidate, looked misty-eyed as he listened to the pope and House Speaker John Boehner battled to fight back tears.
Gosar is a low-wattage politician whose presence was not missed, but his attitude reflects the reactionary impulse that is a significant factor in contemporary American politics. That impulse has manifested itself, particularly, in Donald Trump’s push for the GOP presidential nomination; a campaign that stokes anger, hyped-up fears, misinformation and a malign view of alternative ideas.
Pope Francis may not have had American politics in mind, but a passage in his address spoke directly to the dangers of extreme political division:
“[T]here is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within.”
Let’s hope the representatives and senators who did turn out for the pope’s speech were listening.