Friday, February 19, 2016

Donald Trump and the Pope: Walls and Bridges, Faith and Politics

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”
Luke 6:46-49

It was weird.

Even by the standards of this year’s very strange presidential campaign, it was weird.

Not long after Pope Francis celebrated mass on the border between Mexico and the United States, and commemorated those who had lost their lives trying to make that crossing, as he was traveling back to Rome, the Pope was asked what he thought about Donald Trump’s proposal to deport eleven million illegal immigrants and build a wall along the border. Could an American Catholic vote for Trump?

On the issue of whether or not a Catholic could vote for Trump, he gave no papal directive, but he did comment on Trump’s proposals.

“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” said Francis. “This is not in the Gospel.”

When asked “if an American Catholic could vote for a person like this?” Francis responded, 

“As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote,” he commented, “I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he says things like that.” 

Then, more reflectively, he added, “We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”

Trump’s response was swift and certain. He called the Pope’s comments “disgraceful.”

We will pause now to reflect on the supreme irony and apparent total lack of self-awareness in Mr. Trump calling what someone else said, disgraceful.

This is the same man who began his campaign by slandering all Mexican immigrants, who spoke first of Fox commentator Megyn Kelly, and then of Hillary Clinton, and still later of Ted Cruz, in language that cannot be repeated in polite company. This is the man who said that John McCain was not a war hero and insisted that thousands of American Muslims in New Jersey were cheering as the twin towers went down on September 11. Disgraceful has become the Trump brand.

In his official response, Trump began with an imaginary scenario that sounds like an idea for a television movie:

“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 because this would not have happened.”

How weird is that?

Roughly translated, I think he is saying that if the Pope really understood what is at stake in this election, he would be praying for Trump to win the presidency.

Somehow, I doubt it.

In the closing paragraph, Trump tells us what he finds disgraceful in the Pope’s remarks:

“For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian . . . . No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.”

On a positive note, it’s clear that Mr. Trump does not have an army of public relations professionals massaging his statements for either style or content. His written comments, like his speeches, seem totally void of critical reflection.

A few weeks ago Mr. Trump said that he could shoot someone in broad daylight in New York City and his supporters would still be behind him. By that standard, calling the Pope disgraceful is nothing. Not surprisingly, his comments caused no defections from the ranks, and his supporters took to social media to voice their approval. It was a landslide.

As one news commentator summed it up at the end of the day, “Trump 1- the Pope 0.” 

Two serious observations:

First, I don’t think the Pope was questioning Donald Trump’s faith. He was only commenting on Trump’s policy proposals and public statements. We cannot know what is in another person’s heart. Trump is right about that, we shouldn’t question another person’s faith. Public statements and policy proposals are another matter. 

Second, the Pope did not say that American Catholics should not vote for Mr. Trump. He made an important distinction between criticizing some of Trump’s policies and declaring his candidacy off-limits to faithful Christians. Like the Pope, I am deeply troubled by some of Mr. Trump’s proposals. I am also troubled by his bullying tactics. But deciding for whom we will vote is a complex matter of weighing many competing issues, and fundamentally it is a matter of conscience. Though it is tempting, that is a place where we dare not judge.

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