Pope Francis addressed the United States Congress today and while polite, his speech touched on several core issues that successive U.S. administrations and governments have failed to address.
In the first ever speech by a pope to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis talked about various subjects at length: U.S.-inflicted armed conflicts around the world, refugees, abolishing the death penalty, poverty and homelessness and wealth distribution and last but not least climate change.
The pope said in the speech that armed conflicts continue worldwide as a result of greed and money. According to the National Priorities Project group, the U.S. has spent more than US$1.6 trillion on wars since 2001, including more than US$6 billion on its coalition against the Islamic State group in Syria. The U.S.-led invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq have so far cost Washington more than US$700 billion for each war.
Pope: Deadly weapons are sold to those who inflict suffering on individuals and society, simply for money that's drenched in innocent blood.— Negar نگار (@NegarMortazavi) September 24, 2015
The last 15 years have seen two U.S. invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan that were based on fabricated evidence and justified as revenge. Armed solutions have been at the center of U.S. politics as Democrats tend to support more controlled military actions, while Republicans are mainly in favor of full military attacks and boots on the ground strategies.
A recent example would be the Iran deal and how the U.S. President Barack Obama pushed for a diplomatic solution with Tehran over its nuclear deal. Most Republicans in both the U.S. Senate and House voted to strike down the deal and expressed support for military action against Iran.
While Obama attempted to formally stay away from the Syrian conflict, which in a large part has escalated due to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and lack of security there, he did finally conceded to Republican demands that Washington should get involved. In September last year, he initiated an airstrikes operation against the Islamic State group. The U.S. however also supported armed opposition groups in Syria.
As Europe and many countries in the Middle East are receiving and hosting millions of refugees, mostly Syrians fleeing the conflict, the U.S. remains one of the countries in the world to take in the smallest number of Syrian refugees. The U.S. has only taken in about 1,300 Syrians since the beginning of the conflict four years ago.
Pope Francis, in the gentlest voice, declares "most of us were once foreigners" in Congress, to mixed applause.— Ishaan Tharoor (@ishaantharoor) September 24, 2015
Calling himself "the son of immigrants" from Italy who settled in Argentina last century, the pope called on the U.S. to accept more refugees from around the world as many are trying to “build a better future” for themselves across the world. The U.S has in recent weeks pledeged to take in more refugees over the next few years, though the numbers are still very compared to millions in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.
The second issue that the pope highlighted was the death penalty as he said that he was an advocate for abolishing it based on his belief in the need to protect human life. He indirectly called on the U.S. Congress, the majority of whom are Republicans in favor of the death penalty, to end the practice.
Since the modern death penalty began in 1976, a total of 1,414 prisoners have been executed in the U.S. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court in effect removed barriers to carrying out executions when it gave the go-ahead for the use of a controversial drug, midazolam, in death protocols – thus clearing a legal barrier that had been holding several Republican-governed states in the south of the country back for several months.
Also, the U.S. is the only country in the world that still sentences juveniles under 18 to life without parole, with some 2,500 people currently serving life sentences for crimes they committed as children.
Toning down his opposition to capitalism, which he expressed during his visit to South America earlier this year, the pope called on the U.S. lawmakers gathered for his speech to end poverty and to push for greater wealth distribution.
In the U.S., the richest 1 percent of the population have the equivalent wealth of the bottom 90 percent. Education in the U.S. is the most expensive globally and many university graduates continue to pay tuition debts decades after they finish school. During the 2008 economic crisis, due to the greed of corporations, millions in the U.S. ended up unemployed or homeless, while corporate bosses made billions as they sold stocks and filed bankruptcies.
In 2013, 19.9 percent of all children lived in poverty in the U.S. In the same year, 45.3 million people lived in poverty, about 14 percent of the population of one of the wealthiest countries today.
The issue of poverty is also a contentious issue in the U.S. as right wing Republicans oppose raising taxes on the rich, free heath care and education. Meanwhile, in recent years Obama and his Democrats in Congress have been pushing for more taxes and free healthcare.
In citing Dorothy Day, the pope gave us a wonderful example of the never-ending struggle for justice in our country and the world.— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 24, 2015
Obamacare has been one of the first government-funded healthcare systems in the history of the nation. It fails to provide heath to all those in need but nevertheless, the program is seen by Republicans as an attack on private enterprises and a government infringement on “freedom”.
Finally, the Pope touched on the issue of climate change. He spoke of the need to "redirect our steps" in order to avoid “the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.”
While at times the current U.S. administration has been hailed for its steps on climate change, Obama and his team do not seem to have a sincere vision on the issue. Obama is pushing for several projects that are deemed by environmental groups, and even lawmakers from Obama's party, as disastrous for global warming and climate change.
Obama's administration granted permission for Shell to start drilling in the country's Arctic, which environmental groups and campaigners say would constitute a significant setback for action on climate change as it would unleash enough carbon dioxide gas to heat the earth by at least 5 degrees Celsius over the next few decades.
“There is a very obvious contradiction between meaningful action to address climate change and continued exploration for remote and difficult hydrocarbon resources,” said Michael LeVine, Arctic campaigner for Oceana.
While many of the issues that were brought up by the pope speak against the core values and agendas of the Republican party in the U.S., they also go against the very culture of favoring corporate interests over individuals by successive governments in the U.S – Republican or Democrat.