Trump versus Francis: When religious leaders call out politicians for poor theology

UpdatedWhen it comes to the intersection of faith and politics, Americans live in a strange land.

The evangelical right forged a political coalition thirty-plus years ago, and sanctions everything from prayer breakfasts to  local flag pole rallies to political action committees. Many in this sphere refuse to acknowledge the conversion experience and Christian faith of their president because (issues of race aside) they worked and voted for the other guy.

Mainline Christians, who are frequently shocked at the raw partisanship of their evangelical sisters and brothers, seem more used to the idea that the job of religious leaders is to critique the powers that be. We remember the fact that the civil rights, and other movements towards equality, environmental stewardship, and peace are led by clergy and people of faith.

So what do we make of the current kerfuffle between Pope Francis and Donald Trump?

Yesterday, on his way home from Mexico, the Pope assailed the views of the Republican presidential candidate on immigration as “not Christian,” prompting the billionaire businessman to reprimand the religious leader as “disgraceful” for questioning his faith.


In a freewheeling conversation on his flight home from a visit to Mexico, Francis told reporters, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”

Trump, a real estate developer and former reality TV star, reacted during a speech in Kiawah Island, S.C., saying: “If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president.

“For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian and as president I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened,” Trump said.

“No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.”

So what is the role of religious leaders when political choices and campaign rhetoric have moral and theological implications? Do we speak up or shut up? And what do we make of the fact that sometimes religious leaders read the same Bible and come to different conclusions?

Given the fact that we see in the Bible that prophets spoke against some kings, as well as the politics and economics of Ancient Israel, while at the same time holding up certain other kings as ideal, we can see that this tension is neither new nor uniquely American.

The Rev. Stephen Kidd of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Gulfport, Mississippi, talked to WDAM-TV7:

Whether or not the pulpit should be a place for sermons, as well as political speeches, is a controversial debate that Rev. Kidd says goes back to the earliest days of Christianity.

“There has always been a push/pull about how people of faith interact with somewhat secular government,” Rev. Kidd said. “However, the gospel is inherently political. It makes claims on us about what we think, and how we live together, because that’s what politics is for. It’s how we decide to live together. So faith always has something to say.”

Church leaders in the United States have to be careful what they say in order to maintain tax exempt status. But while clergymen can’t endorse or campaign for candidates, that doesn’t mean completely biting their tongues.

“I think faith communities play a critical role because we’re one of the last places in our culture where people who disagree regularly gather. In our congregation, we have people of all political stripes and all political opinions,” said Rev. Kidd.

On the whole, if Trump wants the endorsement from one Christian religious group on the basis of his views, then he should be prepared to hear theological critique for those same views. It is not, as he says, disgraceful. The Pope, like it or not, is doing his job. The importance of the task is not measured by our comfort nor our agreement.

Before Trump and his campaign replied to Francis today, some in the Twitterverse predicted what he would say:

Here is what Fr. James Martin, SJ wrote in the Washington Post about what Francis meant, and did not mean, in his words:

First, here are a few things to bear in mind, so as not to exaggerate his words:

  • Pope Francis was responding to a question in an in-flight press conference, during the return leg of a papal trip, when reporters usually focus on the neuralgic issues associated with the recently concluded voyage. In other words, the pope didn’t raise the topic himself; nor did he mention Trump’s name in his answer. So the notion that he was going out of his way to “attack” Trump is ridiculous. Rather, the pope was answering a question put to him by a journalist as sincerely as he could. (Also, he assiduously reminded people that he was not telling them who to vote for. He couldn’t have been any clearer about that in his brief answer.)
  • The pope seemed not to have known exactly what Trump said, and was reluctant to pass judgment on the man. He said explicitly, “If he said things in that way.” Besides, this is the man who asked, “Who am I to judge?”
  • Like any good Jesuit, who knows that this rule is ingrained in the thinking of Saint Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuit founder, the pope says that he is giving Trump the “benefit of the doubt.” As Saint Ignatius wrote in the “Spiritual Exercises,” “it is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false.” That is, one should always assume the best possible interpretation of a person’s words and deeds. So the pope’s response was couched in explicit terms of “if he said this” and with an implicit “perhaps I’ve misunderstood him.”

But in many ways, the pope’s words are being interpreted correctly. Here are a few things to remember, so as not to water down what he said:

  • Pope Francis is correct. Any person who consistently speaks of excluding people, who trumpets his desire to (literally) build more walls between communities, and who manifests a desire to increase division, is not walking the Christian way. For the desire for unity, for oneness, for community, is an essential part of the Christian worldview. Indeed, this is the concept that lies behind “reconciliation,” of reuniting a person with God and with the larger community. It’s no surprise that one of the pope’s traditional titles is “Pontifex Maximus,” the Great Bridge Builder. More basically, for the Christian there is no “other.” Jesus demonstrates this repeatedly in the Gospels, as he continually reaches out to those on the margins, and even prays in the Gospel of John, “That they may be one.” For the Christian there is no “us” and “them.” There is only “we.”

  • Pope Francis is correct in another way as well. While the pope didn’t address this aspect of Trump’s candidacy, the billionaire businessman has directed hatred against a great many people — migrants of course, but also Mexicans, women, his fellow presidential candidates and on and on. This, too, is not of God. The kind of hatred that issues from Trump’s mouth —from anyone’s mouth — is not motivated by God. Hatred of this sort is motivated by evil; so is contempt for the poor. “Love your neighbor” is not a bumper sticker slogan; it’s an absolute requirement of the Christian life.

  • The pope speaks with authority. If anyone has the right to pronounce on such matters, it is Pope Francis. Learned, prayerful and humble, Francis is someone whom the world has rightly come to trust. As much as we would listen to the Dalai Lama when it comes to Buddhist practice, we would listen to Pope Francis when it comes to Christian teachings. And though people may be more accustomed to hear popes talk about other issues, like matters of sexual morality, Pope Francis reminds us that abortion is not the only issue that matters to the Catholic church. Issues surrounding migration, human trafficking, and more broadly the poor, also matter to the Christian person.

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