The Pope and Donald Trump
According to news reports, Pope Francis has declared that, based on statements U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump has made about immigrants and Muslims, he is not a Christian. Actually, the pope’s declaration was more nuanced than that, pointing more toward certain apparent attitudes expressed by Trump’s policies and plans than toward Trump himself—as to whether he is saved or unsaved. As I interpret the pope’s words, he was not damning Trump to hell but simply making the theological judgment that if and insofar as Trump actually believes what his words indicate, his mind and heart are not formed Christianly, conformed to (or even moving toward) the mind and heart of Christ.
“The Donald” reacted negatively, as one might expect, stating that a religious leader has no business declaring someone not a Christian.
It is that statement—Trump’s in response to the pope’s—that I want to reflect on momentarily. Is it ever the case that it is right, rather than wrong, for a Christian leader (or any Christian) to state the opinion that a person is not a Christian? How can it not be the case?
Does Trump believe that everyone who claims to be a Christian is automatically thereby truly a Christian? I doubt it. Maybe I’m wrong; he might be that stupid. I don’t know. However, I would very much enjoy it if some reporter would ask Trump “Do you think Hitler, a member of the Catholic Church, was a Christian? And, if not, do you think the pope of that time should have declared him ‘not a Christian’?”
Now, to forestall a weak-minded but predictable criticism, I am not comparing Trump with Hitler! To think so would be to misunderstand analogies entirely. I am not comparing Trump to Hitler; I am comparing Pope Francis with people who say Hitler was not a Christian, in spite of his membership in the Catholic Church (I am not aware that he ever renounced it), and Trump with people who would say a Christian leader had no business declaring Hitler not a Christian. I suspect the latter comparison would fail if Trump were specifically asked about whether he thinks Hitler was a Christian and whether he thinks that pope should have said so.
In other words, I doubt if Trump really meant what he said—that a Christian leader has no business declaring someone not a Christian. What he really meant, I suspect, was that a Christian leader has no business declaring him not a Christian. But, in that case, he ought to bring out his Christian credentials and more than simply his membership in a Presbyterian church.
Do I think Trump is a Christian? Well, as often, I have to say “it’s complicated.”
First, what does “Christian” mean in that question? In one sense there is no doubt that Trump is a Christian—insofar as “Christian” simply means “member of a Christian church.” Apparently someone has looked into the matter and found that, true enough, as he claims, Trump is a Presbyterian. So, technically, formally, at least nominally, he is a Christian. So was Hitler. (No, I’m not comparing Trump with Hitler except in the sense that both were/are members of Christian churches and, as I will go on to say next, that alone does not count, for me, as proof or even evidence of authentic Christian commitment.)Second, insofar as “Christian” means more than simply “membership in a Christian church,” the authenticity of Trump’s Christianity is open to examination and question and who better to do that than a Christian leader (or theologian)?
Third, no doubt the pope judges “true Christianity” by some other standard than “membership in a Presbyterian church.” Almost certainly he uses a criterion based on conformity of the mind and heart to the way of Jesus Christ. What is that way? Well, Pope Francis has said it is mercy. So I think it is reasonable to conclude that when the pope declared Trump not a Christian, even in the nuanced manner in which he clearly meant it—as explained above—what he meant was that Trump’s publicly stated policies and plans reveal an attitude inconsistent with mercy.
So, back to what I think. I have no idea what Trump believes doctrinally because membership in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is no clear indicator of that. So I cannot judge Trump’s orthodoxy or lack of it. (If you question my qualifications to say that about the Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.] I will tell you that I served for three years as associate pastor of such a Presbyterian church and worked within its presbytery and can say with confidence that doctrinal orthodoxy is not essential to being a member of such a Presbyterian church.)
However, when it comes to disposition I agree with Pope Francis that mercy is a crucial indicator of the authenticity of a person’s Christianity and the only way to measure that is by a person’s words about the vulnerable. I do not believe a person can be a Christian in the truest and fullest sense and at the same time have no mercy toward the vulnerable, the disadvantaged, the outsider and stranger, or any group of human beings in need. Does Trump have mercy toward those people? I can’t read his heart or his mind; all I can do is go by his public statements. Based solely on them, I do not think Trump is a Christian. But neither is Sanders—by other criteria (and he doesn’t claim to be)—so I am not making a political non-endorsement with regard to Trump. I am only making a theological judgment in agreement with Pope Francis. And it has nothing to do with whether Trump is “saved” or not; that is solely and exclusively God’s judgment to make. I never make such judgments about anyone.