Who Trumped God? Reflections on the Debate between Donald Trump and Pope Francis

Who Trumped God? Reflections on the Debate between Donald Trump and Pope Francis February 22, 2016

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According to, “To trump is to outrank or defeat someone or something, often in a highly public way.”

Who trumped God this past week—Donald Trump or Pope Francis? Both public figures made public pronouncements on faith. When asked about Trump’s call to have Mexico build a wall between its borders with the U.S., Pope Francis claimed that someone fixated with building walls rather than bridges is not Christian. Trump shot back that the Pope has no right to question another person’s faith.

Is it correct that one cannot question another man’s spiritual condition? Do human pronouncements about a person’s spiritual condition, even by the Pope, trump or replace God? After all, it’s God’s job to judge, right? Or is it the case that relegating faith and spirituality to the private sphere (as Trump’s and other politicians’ remarks in response to the Pope’s claim suggest) trumps or displaces God?

Before proceeding further, let’s relay the two leaders’ statements, as recounted by CNN:

“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel,” the Pope told journalists who asked his opinion on Trump’s proposals to halt illegal immigration.

Trump immediately fired back, calling Francis’ comments “disgraceful.”

“No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith,” he said in statement.

The tensions softened between the two leaders and their camps as qualifying remarks to statements were made. Trump later spoke of his appreciation for the Pope, and a spokesperson for the Vatican indicated that the Pope did not intend his statements to be directed personally at Trump or an indication of how to vote. See “Donald Trump Tones Down Fight with Pope Francis.”

But still, the point/question still stands as to whether or not a religious leader can address someone’s spiritual state given social and political positions. In his initial response to a reporter’s query, the Pope referenced Aristotle who viewed all humans as political animals. If Aristotle was correct (and the Pope thinks he was correct), how could the Pope not be political in some manner? He’s human. But should the Pope take off his “hat” as the Holy Father, when addressing political concerns, or can he speak as a religious leader to political matters?

It would seem that Jeb Bush (a Roman Catholic) would argue that the Pope has no jurisdiction in public affairs bearing on politics. Based on remarks Bush has made, the Pope should only inform discussions on one’s spiritual life, and not political matters; but then, he comes across as suggesting that the Pope should not speak about that either. In spite of his personal tension with Trump, Bush believes the Holy Father should not address Trump’s spiritual condition. I found his quoted remarks quite confusing. The Tampa Bay Times reported:

Former Florida Jeb Bush told reporters in Columbia, S.C., that he doesn’t question Trump’s Christianity nor anyone else’s, “because I honestly believe that’s a relationship you have with your creator.”…

“As far as Francis’ weighing in on a political debate, Bush said what he said in June before the pope weighed in on climate change.

Bush, who is Catholic, says “I think it’s okay to get my guidance as a Catholic from the pope. But certainly not economic policy or environmental policy.””

So, Bush is to take guidance from the Pope on spirituality, but the Pope cannot address one’s spiritual state, or political stances either? What can the Pope speak to, then?

The preceding discussion of private and public reminds me of Immanuel Kant’s essay “What Is Enlightenment?” where he differentiates between the private and public roles of religious leaders on matters of faith. The church pertains to the private sphere. In the sphere of the church, the religious leader must conform to the religious institution and operate in accordance with official religious symbols. However, in the sphere of the academy (or another public domain, no doubt), the religious leader can reinterpret and critique the religious symbol in accordance with the public use of reason.

While I find Kant’s separation of private and public discourse on religious symbols problematic, nonetheless I have greater appreciation for his view set forth elsewhere that certain religious beliefs can function to promote and preserve morality. See my discussion of Kant pertaining to these themes of private and public in the following two posts: “Religion, Church and Private Language Games” and “Are We Really More Than Matter? Reflections on Kant’s Two Story Universe”; see also the article titled “Immanuel Kant: Philosophy of Religion” at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

If we turn to Jesus (who serves merely as a moral archetype for Kant, to my chagrin), we find someone who is not content to be relegated to the private domain of pious affections. The biblical account of Jesus would also take issue with Kant’s symbolic construal of Jesus and the privatization of his faith community and religious language. Jesus, his kingdom and his kingdom community do not belong to this world, and so does not operate according to this world’s political tactics. Such biblical claims should not be taken to suggest privatized faith. Rather, Jesus, his kingdom and kingdom community stand over and intersect the world order at every turn as ultimate truth and justice (John 18:36-37). Jesus’ kingdom politics move forward publicly by way of the cross and redemptive bridge-building, not retribution and wall-building. Moreover, Jesus declares that Pilate and those who have handed Jesus over to Pilate are guilty of grave wrong, and must give an account for their transgressions in handing Jesus who is truth and justice over to an unjust death (John 19:10-11).

Where do all these reflections take us? Is it wrong to question someone’s spiritual state based on public determinations and actions? Yes, IF faith is in the private domain, but it is not.

One reason why faith and religion must speak into politics is because the priest as prophet is not swayed by opinion polls; such was Martin Luther King, Jr., and so now is Pope Francis. Consider the politicians aiming to win primaries and general elections these days; such public opinion is often a weighty temptation to change their positions on immigration reform. While religious leaders can be swayed by public or congregational opinion, I am grateful that there are figures like Pope Francis and Dr. King who demonstrate prophetic resilience rather than be swayed by opinion, even in their own circles (Like Trump’s team, Charles Hurt pointed the finger at the Pope for criticizing Trump on the call for erecting walls while the Vatican has its own towering walls; see his article, “Pope Hurling Stones at Trump from Glass Vatican.” Perhaps Hurt fails to realize that the Pope has come under attack from within the church hierarchy for progressive moves in breaking down walls with those outside the church in various ways; see “The Rebel of St. Peter’s Square: Where Is Pope Francis Steering the Church?” Who knows? Maybe the Vatican’s walls will come down in the end, too?)

Pope Francis and Dr. King have weighty precedent in that the author of the Epistle of James spoke out against marginalization in his own Christian community, no doubt impacting negatively his popularity with the more well-to-do in his midst. The Epistle of James challenges those (then and now) who privatize faith and oppress the poor to consider that faith apart from works is not biblical faith. It is dead. In other words, talk is cheap.

It is one thing to privatize property or business. It is quite another thing to privatize faith and God. In America, it is almost impossible for us to limit privatization’s reach or see its dangers for morality at various turns; after all, we don’t want to appear unpatriotic, and that seemingly regardless of what it means for loyalty to God.

Here it is important to account for James’ own take on the relation of the state of one’s faith to one’s actions. The same James who claims that biblical religion involves personal purity as well as care for the orphan and widow in their  distress (James 1:27, which is coupled in the Old Testament with care for the alien—Deuteronomy 10:18, 27:19 and Jeremiah 7:6) claims that internal faith is demonstrated through external care for those in physical need:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17; ESV)

While the Pope did not specifically state that Trump is an unbeliever, he did rightly convey that building bridges to people in need rather than building walls is a mark of true believers. Of course, political leaders need to concern themselves with protecting their populace from harm; however, they also need to make sure they balance such concern for their own populace with care for humanity generally (for a balanced approach to immigration reform, see the “Evangelical Immigration Table”); after all, we are more alike than different from those who seek refuge here. America is an immigrant nation, whose populace hails from other shores. See for example “Pope Francis’ Message on Immigrants Humanizes Debate.” Politicians, religious leaders and everyone else who claims to be Christians must guard against isolating America from the world or their faith from personal and public virtue. Mere mention of being a Christian is no trump card. According to James, faith working through virtuous action on behalf of the poor is the only card that wins out with God in the end.

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