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Pope Francis' Inclusive Tone Speaks To Hot Button U.S. Political Issues


Pope Francis is now in the U.S. A cheering crowd welcomed him when he landed this afternoon at Joint Base Andrews. President Obama and Vice President Biden were there, along with both their families. And true to his humble persona, Pope Francis was driven away in a small car - a Fiat.


The pope has a pretty quiet evening ahead of him. But over the next few days, his schedule is pretty packed. He starts tomorrow with a White House visit. He's already stirred up both Catholic and national politics, and many are anticipating what's next. Joining us here are NPR's religion correspondent Tom Gjelten and national political correspondent Don Gonyea. And, Tom, this is the first time Pope Francis has set foot in the United States. I mean, tell us what he wants to accomplish on this visit.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Well, you're right, Kelly. He's never been here before. He's 78 years old, but apparently never had a great desire to visit the wealthiest, most powerful country on the planet, and maybe that tells you something about him. He's from Argentina - first pope not from Europe in a thousand years - and very much sees himself as representing the global south. He knows Europe no longer holds the future of the Catholic Church, and to the extent the Catholic Church has a future here in the United States, it'll largely depend on those Catholics who have come here from other parts of the world. Those are the people he represents. So if there's one theme to his visit, it's likely to be him showing that he identifies with these nontraditional Catholics - the poor, the immigrants, the marginalized. His aides say he sees himself coming here symbolically as a migrant. So throughout this visit, he's likely to be saying I'm with them.

SHAPIRO: Well, Don Gonyea, the pope is not trying to stray into partisan politics, but he's meeting with the president. He's addressing Congress. What are the politics of this?

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Politics hang over everything when a pope and a president meet and when a pope comes to Washington and when a president goes to the Vatican. This White House clearly sees this pope's agenda as being right in line with some of the most important things on its agenda. Let's just - going to tick them off one at a time. The White House likes to talk about income inequality. The pope said more when he climbed into that little Fiat 500, that tiny little car for his motorcade ride off of Joint Base Andrews, than he ever could have said in a speech. So he does it, not just with words, but he does it with his bearing and how he carries himself. Let's talk about social issues. The way this pope talks about gays and lesbians and same-sex marriage - he famously said, who am I to judge, early on in his papacy. What pope has ever said something like that before? Democrats, the White House, are just thrilled and they smile when they hear things like that. Then there are the issues like climate change. His position is that humans are impacting climate change. And he embraces the science. So again, the Democrats and the White House check that one off. And finally, as Tom said, in issue like immigration reform - he talks about compassion and opening doors. And he doesn't talk about putting up walls, so there's all that.

SHAPIRO: Well, Tom Gjelten, you've been talking to a lot of different constituent groups, interest groups, religious groups. What are people most looking to hear from the pope when he speaks to the United States?

GJELTEN: Well, there are a lot of things, Ari. I mean, he's hard to pigeonhole ideologically. So you'll have people waiting to see if they can claim his allegiance on any number of things. So Don's right. Liberals will be happy if he talks about climate change. But they shouldn't be surprised if he takes a hard line on abortion. He did exactly that in Cuba. Women will be waiting to see if he indicates any flexibility with regard to their role in the church. I'll tell you one thing I'm going to be listening for. It'll be interesting to hear if he speaks out specifically about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere. He's done this before, but it would have special resonance if he were to do it, for example, in his speech before Congress in part because the Obama administration seems to be reluctant talking narrowly and specifically about what Christians in particular are facing.

GONYEA: And if he does that, it'll make conservatives here very, very happy. They've talked about that a lot on the campaign trail, including persecution of Christians right here in the U.S.

MCEVERS: All right, so, Don, well, what about Republicans? I mean, what are they expecting from the pope?

GONYEA: Well, they're - they'll be listening carefully and they'll be listening for things they can feel good about and that they can say nice things about. The White House - the speaker of the House, John Boehner, invited him to speak to the Congress. He is a very devout Catholic. So he is - he is very proud of this moment obviously. But at least one Republican representative is boycotting the speech. Again, because of the pope's position on climate change. But it presents a dilemma for a lot of Republicans. Some are really kind of quick to push back against the things he says that they don't like. He's been called a Marxist. He's been called anti-American. But a lot of Republican Catholics, they see how much he is loved and how much he has stirred up the faithful. So they're much more diplomatic.

MCEVERS: Well, Tom, you know, potentially, hundreds of thousands of Catholics are expected to turn out in hopes of seeing the pope in Washington, D.C., or New York or in Philadelphia. I mean, what are U.S. Catholics going to be listening for?

GJELTEN: Well, you know, Catholics are split on these big issues like climate change and immigration just like the rest of the U.S. population. The more substantive split in the Catholic community is over church doctrine with respect to family issues. And Catholics will be paying attention throughout this trip to what the pope says about marriage, about sexuality. So far, he's kind of finessed those issues, saying it should be easier for divorced Catholics to receive communion, but not saying they're entitled to it. He's saying he's reluctant to judge gay Catholics, but he hasn't moved the church position on sex marriage. It's mostly been a matter of tone. And I think liberal and conservative Catholics alike will be listening either hopefully or fearfully - depending on their own views - to see whether he gets more specific on these issues.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR religion correspondent Tom Gjelten and national political correspondent Don Gonyea. Thanks to both of you.

GJELTEN: You bet.

GONYEA: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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