Religion and the religious language used by candidates and their supporters is a common topic of debate and analysis during most American election seasons. We’re still eight months away from the election, but so far the 2016 Presidential campaign season has featured a significant amount of rhetoric from Republican candidates making appeals to the Christian Right while also detailing what religious groups aren’t welcome in the U.S. Although Democratic candidates will occasionally address religious groups or talk about their faith, their comments on this topic generally don’t elicit headlines.
That’s what makes Bernie Sanders’ appeal to Pope Francis’ comments on immigration in Nogales, Arizona on March 19th stand out.
While the crowds for Sanders were smaller than those for the Pope, and the two men spoke in different states, Sanders’ decision to speak in front of the border wall sends a powerful message about their stances on immigration. In many ways, it symbolically links Sanders’ immigration platform with the Pope’s appearance at the border, which was ultimately as political as it was spiritual. At the very beginning of his speech, Sanders set the tone for the rest of his message by paraphrasing the Pope. Sanders explained that Pope Francis said, “that ultimately, the solution is going to be compassion, not hatred. It is going to be good public policy not bigotry. And I agree, very much, with what Pope Francis said.”
Standing in front of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, Sanders invoked Pope Francis twice while discussing his platform for immigration reform. The son of an immigrant, Sanders denounced the immigration stings that have taken place in recent months as well as the splitting apart of families. In his speech, he highlighted the contributions of immigrants to the United States, calling attention to his own father’s immigrant status. While speaking on immigration broadly, Sanders emphasized the sadness, fear, and frustration felt by Latino immigrants in the U.S by referring to individual stories he has heard while on the campaign trail. In many ways, this reflected the Pope’s sentiment that we should “measure” the crisis of forced migration “with names, stories, families” rather than “numbers and statistics.”
The Pope’s visit to the border in Juárez, which drew an estimated 200,000 people, included comments that framed the ongoing immigration crisis as a “human tragedy” and a “humanitarian crisis.” When he voiced his opinion on Donald Trump’s plan to deport large numbers of Latino immigrants, Republicans took offense to the Pope’s comment that those who think “only about building walls…and not building bridges” act in a way that “is not Christian” — a phrase which members of the media were more than eager to take out of context. On the border, Sanders framed his rejection of Trump’s proposal using the Pope’s language saying, “Pope Francis has made the point that we should be building more bridges, not more walls. Pope Francis is right. Donald Trump and Sheriff Arpaio are wrong.”
Only time will tell if Sander’s choice to echo the Pope’s call for bridges instead of walls will have a lasting impact on Catholic and, specifically, Latino Catholic voters. Regardless of the political outcome, Sanders’ rhetorical choices strategically link the candidate’s political concerns about immigration policy to larger spiritual concerns for human dignity. Appealing to a specific faith, in this case Catholic, is an uncommon tactic for Democratic candidates in the current election cycle . Instead, their mentions of religion are generally inclusive of a variety of faiths and can perhaps best be described as pluralistic. Given that Sanders’ platform emphasizes social and economic equality, using the language of a widely respected Pope who is largely perceived to be an advocate for those same goals may be a way for the Sanders campaign to demonstrate that the candidate’s goals share some rather holy company.