Someone should remind Donald Trump that Pope Francis is the religious leader of 1.2 billion Catholics and the sovereign of the Vatican City. Trump is simply a businessman running for president.
The Catholic church has been around for almost 2,000 years, and the church is the master of the long game. A day before the Pontiff and the Donald exchanged salvos about whether or not those who build walls, and not bridges, are acting religiously, Rev Frederico Lombardi called Trump’s previous criticism of Pope Francis and immigration “very strange” and said that Trump could use a dose of the global perspective. Just a day later, it’s clear that Trump is not the only person who knows how to get the internet going.
For American Catholics who are conservative, this dust-up presents an interesting choice: side with church teachings on helping the stranger, or embrace the protestant who wants to build a wall to keep out immigrants, many of whom are Christian?
The usual Republican suspects lined up to side with Trump, chastizing Pope Francis for insinuating that the candidate isn’t Christian. (Trump responded: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.” If nothing else, Trump does understand Protestantism.)
Rush Limbaugh, the de facto pope of Republican purity, reminded his listeners that the Vatican has a wall akin to the one Trump proposes for Mexico. Jerry Falwell Jr, president of Liberty University and Trump supporter, said: “Jesus never intended to give instructions to political leaders on how to run a country.” No matter that Falwell’s father, Jerry Falwell Sr, was co-founder of the Moral Majority and often tried to influence politics from his bully pulpit at Thomas Road Baptist church. No doubt he is is rolling in his grave over his son’s newfound support for the separation of church and state.
It’s worth noting that this Protestant-Catholic dynamic has been a problem throughout America’s history. Protestants attacked Catholics during the 1844 Nativist riots in Philadelphia. Guess what that was about? Anti-immigrant sentiment. Back then, it was the influx of Irish Catholics into the city. Now, it’s Donald Trump clinging to a bygone notion of protestant ascendancy and nativist sentiments, when mainline Protestantism is on the wane in the US.
This war of words and belief will most likely help Donald Trump in the short term as he campaigns in South Carolina and the southern primary states. Trump’s defense of white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism is gathering those who support him into a strong solidified base. Since the election of Francis, Republicans have been very wary of the Pope, attacking his liberal statements on homosexuality, global warming and capitalism.
Immigration is just one more thing they consider the Pope to be wrong about, and the Pope’s prayers at the Mexico US border are for them, part of religious practice, and not a symbol of faith in action. Trump’s remarks will galvanize his voters, who are white, mostly protestant and against immigration.
The war of words over Trump’s Christianity may not have immediate implications for the presidential primary – any bump Trump gets out of the scuffle could well be balanced out by other constituencies – but it does have long-term implications for Donald Trump and the Republican party.
Republicans will need to get votes from Latino immigrants, Catholics and others if they hope to regain the White House in November. With Donald Trump as their leading candidate, a nativist who wants to build an expensive wall between the US and Mexico, that seems to be a losing proposition.
Pope Francis 1, Trump 0.