September 29, 2015

Did you watch Pope Francis’s speech to Congress last week? Do you think papal consultants conducted polls and employed focus groups to test the popularity of appeals to “the common good”? I don’t either.

But if you watch, hear, or worse, read an American political speech you commonly will endure language that is not so much well thought out as well tested. So it is on immigration.

In a New York Times Sunday Magazine article The Unwelcome Return of ‘Illegals”, Emily Bazelon detailed how consultant Frank Luntz laid out the basics of how to talk immigration in a memorandum to Republicans a decade ago (link in Bazelon’s article). Don’t call them “illegals” Luntz cautioned! Polls show that “illegals” is too harsh and Latinos will be turned off. Instead call people crossing the border “illegal immigrants.” Ms. Bazelon is dismayed that Republicans like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have gone off script and resorted to “illegals.”

In politics it is a great sin to go off message; it may encompass the coordinate sin of thinking and expressing oneself in a thoughtful manner. (This is not always so. See Donald Trump. Yet those who think he “tells like it is” may be reflecting hunger for someone who does not mimic talking points). Mr. Luntz and Democratic consultants regularly brief party caucuses on the most effective words to trigger emotions in the electorate. I always find it depressing to hear otherwise accomplished and intelligent lawmakers sound like parrots. The Luntz memo circulates all the drivel words that have defined GOP talk about immigration for the past decade. Once supplied the words, politicians and the public can dismiss further thought.

By contrast Pope Francis spoke to Congress “as the son of immigrants.” He explained our obligation: “when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past.” He cherished those who journey from Latin America in search of a better life:

On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).

I do not know if the Golden Rule has ever been asked of a focus group or included in a poll. It is older even than Luntz’s advice and like his language the biblical passage has a powerful effect on us. When politicians imitate Luntz, listeners are pacified but not challenged to think in moral terms; and so we do not fully take those politicians seriously. Should the consultants find a more effective message, we’ll be hearing that for the next decade. In the case of Pope Francis’s speech however, the message persists and is universal. The pope can rely not only on his own popularity but on the consistent teachings of an institution, the Catholic Church.

The late political scientist Wilson Carey McWilliams said that America has two languages: that of the individual, market, and commerce is the first and dominant language. But the second, said McWilliams, is the language of Scriptural morality and community. The language of individualism has governed our public lives for centuries now; religious speech is private. Yet as Pope Francis reminded us last week, the second language still beckons us.

Almost immediately upon the closing of Pope Francis’s speech Congress returned to the language it knows, our first language. Still, perhaps even the language of the market may move us forward on immigration. Minister Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, recently noted that evangelical churches are filling with Latin immigrants. Dr. Moore criticized Trump’s attacks on immigrants and advised the GOP, “Even if one doesn’t have a sense of morality, one ought to have a sense of demography to know this is self-destructive.”

immigration, Russell Moore, Frank Luntz, Pope Francis

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