Pope Francis has said that Donald Trump is not a Christian because he wants to build a wall along the Mexican border and deport 11 million illegal Mexican immigrants. I have to leap to Trump’s defense. After all, he is an affiliated Presbyterian. Last I heard, Presbyterianism is a Christian denomination.
Maybe what the Holy Father meant is that Trump isn’t a good Christian, and it may seem hard to quibble with that. Bombastic narcissism, blatant sexism, and vicious racism aren’t characteristics one normally associates with being a Christian. Well, maybe the blatant sexism. Historically, of course, the church was not above what we would call racism. Look at what the native populations in the Americas suffered at the hands of Christians, both lay and clerical. And then there is the record of Christian anti-Semitism. True, after the Holocaust, mainstream Christian churches have bent over backwards to root out anti-Semitism in the Christian message, but it persists among some Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists. Christian Zionism is arguably both theologically anti-Semitic—Jews who don’t ultimately accept Jesus are going to Hell—and politically anti-Arab.
And there have been Catholic leaders of oppressive regimes who were never excommunicated for having people tortured and murdered. Look at Franco in Spain or Pinochet in Chile. Both of them attended Mass every day.
Trump is getting a sizable section of the evangelical vote in the Republican primaries. These so-called value voters don’t seem to be turned off by his vengefulness and penchant for hurling obscenities at foes or his tendency to collect trophy wives.
Maybe the Pope Francis’ harsh words about Trump’s uncharitable attitude toward illegal Mexican immigrants will damage Trump in the eyes of non-Latino Catholic voters, but I doubt it. There are plenty of Catholic Republicans with harsh, right-wing beliefs and attitudes. Paul Ryan, the devout Catholic Speaker of the House of Representatives, is an ardent follower of Ayn Rand, an avowed atheist who promoted a philosophy based on the notion that selfishness is a virtue. People are good at compartmentalising.
It will be fascinating to see how all this plays out, but I suspect the Pope’s attack will actually help Trump with right-wing Christians, even right-wing Catholics. Pope Francis is emphasizing aspects of Catholic social teaching that don’t sit well with Catholic Republicans, many of whom are quite unfamiliar Catholic social teaching and just assume the Pope is a socialist. Let’s face it, if Jesus suddenly came back today, the American right would condemn him as a bleeding heart liberal at best or as a dangerous communist at worst.