Donald Trump versus Pope Francis

Despite the fact that a recent poll shows that voters support Trump even though they see him as being the least religious candidate, commentators often have trouble getting away from the idea that religion drives the politics of the Republican Right. The situation is not so simple.

Last week when Pope Francis, answering a journalist's question about Donald Trump, replied "A person who thinks only of building walls anywhere--rather than building bridges--is not a Christian." He referred of course to Trump's endorsement of the scheme to build a wall on the southern border of the U.S. with an eye to halting the arrival of undocumented workers.

Multiple news outlets in the U.S. responded with speculation about how this criticism would play with prospective Trump voters, assuming Francis's observation might sway them away from their candidate. Some even queried how this critique would play with Trump's base of "evangelical Christians," revealing their ignorance about the nuances of religious politics.

Such comments are wrong-headed on a number of fronts. First, they collapse together distinctive religious communities. The pope is the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and as a result one and a quarter billion adherents worldwide look to him as a spiritual leader. Evangelical Christians belong to one of a number of Protestant churches historically at odds with the Catholic Church. A more recent détente between the two, as seen in shared views on abortion, has not turned evangelicals into followers of the pope. It is not all that long ago, that some fundamentalists labeled the pope the anti-christ.

Second, the pope exercises far less influence over political opinions than such speculations supposes. Despite the adulation aimed at the pope by a wide spectrum of Americans during his September tour, he is not in fact able to dictate political positions to all American Christians. Indeed, many Americans in his own church ignore his social teachings, as they have those of previous pontiffs. The Catholic laity in the United States uses birth control and supports the death penalty, to take but two examples. The pope as an arbiter of political opinion--even within his own church--carries little influence.

Finally, the fact that the pope preaches a message opposed to that of Trump is so self-evident as to make the discussion in that particular news cycle down right silly. Pope Francis' own message has consistently described a Christian faith quite the opposite of Trump's message and his demeanor. Francis promotes humility, a turn away from material things, and care for the poor. Long before the pope pointed out that his brand of Christianity supports bridges over walls, his many statements have implicitly challenged Trump's politics.

If Trump speaks the language of any particular faith tradition, his message aligns most clearly with the prosperity gospel movement. Non-denominational and often associated with megachurches, this movements presents wealth as a blessing from God, bestowed upon the most deserving. Such a view can encourage, according to its evangelical (and other) critics, sinful pride and a disregard for the poor. If any Christians look to Trump as a fellow Christian, this group would appear to be the most likely.

In fact, however, a recent Pew poll found that voters widely perceive Trump as the least religious candidate. Given these results, it would seem that the pope simply observed what voters already know: his appeal cannot be found in the realm of religion; it is not, as the phrasing has it, "faith based." They didn't need the pope to tell them not to look to Trump for humility and compassion, an obvious point that seems to have alluded commentators.