Pope Vs. Trump Isn't a New Phenomenon
Many years ago, when Oliver North was running for the Senate from Virginia, I received a call from a reporter. She told me that some church groups in the commonwealth were praying for North’s election. Then she asked if their behavior violated the separation of church and state. I explained to her that as separationism is a rule of constitutional law, only the state and not the church can violate it.
My answer got on her nerves.
That story came to mind with this week’s news that Pope Francis, returning from his visit to Mexico, had said some, um, controversial things about presidential candidate Donald Trump. Much of the commentary has focused on the likely effect of the pope’s comments on the Republican nomination battle. I’ve found more interesting the voices questioning whether the pope should have said anything at all.
Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning. Contrary to what I kept reading on the Chyron, the pope didn’t actually say that Trump isn’t a Christian. What Francis said was: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
As so often in this papacy, the proof is in the parsing. The reference to building bridges is plainly metaphorical. This suggests that Francis also had metaphor in mind when he spoke of building walls. In other words, he was speaking less of Trump than of the human heart -- all of our human hearts. This interpretation is consistent with what Francis has said about immigration, and many other challenges, from the start of his papacy. It has long been his habit to take the questions asked by journalists traveling with him and turn them into teaching opportunities. I think that’s what the pope was up to here, and the press simply missed his point.
But let’s put that aside.
Let’s take it that I’m wrong, and Francis indeed announced that in his opinion, Trump isn’t a Christian. Is there supposed to be something wrong with that? Religious leaders have been raining anathemas on the heads of politicians for as long as the U.S. has existed. There are always people who don’t care for the practice, but it’s a part of the electoral landscape.
Back in 1990, when Cardinal John O’Connor was warning of possible excommunication of pro-choice Catholic politicians, liberals trembled with fury, but New York Mayor Ed Koch famously shrugged: “That’s his job.” Three decades earlier, when Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel of New Orleans threatened to excommunicate several pro-segregation legislators, many conservatives were furious, some managing to place the blame on the Catholic president sitting in the Oval Office.
The preachers of the Social Gospel in the early 20th century told their flocks to vote for representatives who would support a fairer distribution of the nation’s resources. People who “call themselves Christians,” wrote a leader of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in 1929, should not “live in comfort, accepting the dividends of industries where women toil for ten hours a day in the heat and noise of a factory for thirteen dollars a week.”
We can go back a lot further. Here’s the Rev. Charles Finney, the most prominent among the abolitionist clergy, preaching about the 1860 election: “I should be very prone to think that no one ought to cast his vote against [a slave’s] liberty for the mere sake of money or office.” Everybody understood that he meant for his listeners to vote for Abraham Lincoln. Another prominent abolitionist, the Rev. Theodore Parker, had included in an 1854 sermon a list of names of politicians who should be voted out of office because of their support for slavery. “Call meetings, bring out men of all parties, all forms of religion, agitate, agitate, agitate.”
The pro-slavery side rejected such interference in politics. When during the 1850s a group of Protestant ministers petitioned Congress, contending that no Christian could support slavery, Senator Benjamin Butler complained that the signatories “have dared to quit the pulpit and step into the political arena.” Senator Stephen Douglas agreed, dismissing them as “political preachers” who “ought to be rebuked, and required to confine themselves to their vocation.”
Not every critic of the abolitionist preaching was pro-slavery. During the 1820s, for example, the great Baptist iconoclast Alexander Campbell condemned engagement with politics. Christians, he wrote, should simply submit themselves to those who had charge of earthly government, not try to change them. But even Campbell included a proviso: “unless where any of their commands might require a breach of the law of Christ.”
The truth is, you can pick an era you like, and you will find clergy denying that any Christian can hold a particular political position. It’s all part of the tumult and diversity that is America. When the pope wades in, perhaps the news media pay more attention. But all Francis is doing is what clergy have always done.
Rummel actually did excommunicate three activists who resisted integration of the Catholic schools, but none held public office at the time.
The sources for this and most of the other quotations in the next few paragraphs may be found in my book “God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics” (2000).
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