Pope Francis is not known for speaking clearly in the way that his immediate two predecessors did.
So it’s always a gamble to parse his attempts at communication too deeply. Returning from Mexico, he was asked about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Having been on the religion beat for years, I’m duty bound to point out that early reports of what this pope or that has said are frequently in error or mistranslated. So everyone slow your roll. But here’s how the New York Times put it:
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis said when a reporter asked him about Mr. Trump on the papal airliner as he returned to Rome after his six-day visit to Mexico.
Oh no he di-int! Here’s the full quote:
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this is man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and I will give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Our media, currently in the throes of one of the most damaging co-dependent relationships with a candidate the country has ever seen, immediately ran with headlines about how Francis was definitively saying Trump is not a Christian. If Trump is like an addict whose illness is in part the result of family dysfunction, then the media are his crazy parents who can’t stop enabling him. Francis is playing the role of the out-of-town uncle who thinks he’s helping but is just furthering the dynamic. OK, maybe that analogy isn’t working. But there is no way that Trump suffers from being criticized by the Pope, and the media enablers get to spend even more time obsessed with their favorite subject.
In any case, here are a few problems with Pope Francis’ comments, however well-intentioned they may have been.
He’s Not Exactly Communicator Of The Century
Judging another person’s faith is always risky, and Francis’ straw man approach doesn’t help. He speaks of a person who thinks “only” about building walls. Of course, no person in the world thinks “only” about one thing, so he can say, as he does subsequently, that he is giving Trump the benefit of the doubt. Read the full quote again. It’s a trainwreck: a strawman version of this person isn’t Christian, and he’s not Christian if he has said things like that, and I will give him the benefit of the doubt now.
When you have the world listening to your every word, as Pope Francis does, maybe sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as opposed to mealy-mouthed descriptions of what the gospel is not, might be a bit more helpful. That said, if he really, truly believes that policy differences damnably separate people from the body of Christ, he should get a thousand follow-up questions about politicians who support the legal killing of unborn children, the redefinition of marriage, the fighting of unjust wars, and more.
Of All The Things To Question Trump’s Christianity Over
So Donald Trump seeks limits on immigration and the building of walls — real and metaphorical — as a means to accomplish that. And Pope Francis says that if he “only” thinks about such things, he’s not Christian. That’s what you pick for the ground on which to question someone’s faith?
As a Lutheran, I don’t believe that works justify. Here’s a 30-second Lutheran PSA in the form of Paul Speratus’ great hymn “Salvation Unto Us Has Come” which basically explains this better than I ever could:
Salvation unto us has come
By God’s free grace and favor;
Good works cannot avert our doom,
They help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,
Who did for all the world atone;
He is our one Redeemer.
It was a false, misleading dream
That God His Law had given
That sinners could themselves redeem
And by their works gain heaven.
The Law is but a mirror bright
To bring the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature.
But even if one’s church does teach that good works justify and lead to salvation, one might think of much more fertile ground to target. Such as Donald Trump’s repeated adultery and bragging about same, his multiple divorces, his refusal to honor his own debts, his abortion cheerleading, his constant lying, his gratuitous insults, and worst of all, his belief he doesn’t need to be forgiven for anything.
Differences on policy prescriptions about the flow of immigration are not the ground I would have gone after, if I were to judge a self-professed Christian’s faith. (Which, again, I would not. Worry about yourself, and all that.)
The Comments Enabled Trump’s Feigned Indignation
Donald Trump quickly responded to Francis’ comments with a Facebook post that read, in part:
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, unlike what is happening now, with our current President. No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.
Ooft. Yes, Donald Trump’s religious depth is on full display there. Not that Americans care or even necessarily should care, in political terms. And pay no mind at all that this is the same man who spent roughly 110% of last week claiming Ted Cruz is not a Christian. For example:
How can Ted Cruz be an Evangelical Christian when he lies so much and is so dishonest?
Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 12, 2016
See, judging another self-professed Christian’s faith is not such a good look, no matter who is doing it.
Are We Sure Building Walls Is Bad?
There is absolutely no question that Christians are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. How we manifest that love when it comes to others is actually open to some debate. Consider how you manage your own home. If you’re Christian, you should believe in caring for those who are impoverished. Very few would argue, though, that this means you must open your home to everyone who seeks shelter. Prudence is also a virtue that helps guide the Christian. This is complicated even more when you deal with the reality that the United States might be inhabited mostly by Christians but does not set policy according to the New Testament.
There is an entire book of the Old Testament (Hint: It’s Nehemiah) about a godly man who is called to Jerusalem to, wait for it, … build a wall around it. There are walls around portions of various cities, including the Vatican and Jerusalem. There are walls around our dwelling places. And there are even metaphorical walls that enable us to have healthy relationships. So no one thinks “only” about walls (except Nehemiah, hey-oh!) and walls aren’t even necessarily bad, Biblically speaking.
Two Kingdoms, Y’all
People always say that this is a Protestant doctrine, but really it goes back to Jesus and was well expounded first by Augustine. Basically, the church and earthly government are different. The business of the church is to preach the Gospel, forgive sins, deliver mercy. The business of the government, and of heads of state, is to be the means through which God provides temporal order. So the job of the president includes, importantly, keeping citizens safe. Christians can disagree about all manner of how to enact any policy, when Scripture doesn’t mandate a particular one, but they should always be motivated by love of neighbor. And, as I discussed previously, there are all sorts of thoughts on how to rank concerns for neighbors. One’s obligation to your nearest neighbor of wife and infant daughter are more pressing than obligations to neighbors in other countries.
So if Donald J. Trump becomes president, his primary responsibility would be to those who are entrusted to his care, namely U.S. citizens. As a Christian, he should pray for everyone throughout the world and show love to them in his vocation as a Christian, but in his vocation as president, his duty would be to keep Americans safe.
On Being A Disciple
Let’s leave with a good word from Ignatius of Antioch, the church father who was born around the time of Christ’s death. This was a man every Christian should aspire to emulate. He was enthusiastic, self-sacrificing, and utterly fearless in defense of the Christian faith. He cared about those under his care and was vigilant against heresy. He prayed unceasingly that those under his care would have faith and courage in the hour of their persecution. This bishop was also martyred for his faith in Christ. And when he faced death, about to be martyred in horrifically violent fashion, he said, “Now I begin to be a disciple.”
If Ignatius of Antioch could speak this way about becoming a disciple of Christ, how much more do we have to learn? So let’s worry less about the faith of others and more about our own. In what ways can those of us who profess to follow Christ begin to be his disciples?