There has been some debate generated by the response Pope Francis gave to a journalist over Trump’s platform. Here’s the quote:
A “person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. Whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he says things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”
In this particular statement, one gets a sense of the care and caution Pope Francis uses. He is not merely talking about Trump. He could be talking about many of the candidates running for president. Of course the journalist wanted it to be about Trump. Pope Francis wanted it to be about the issues. So let’s look at the issues.
I wrote a post about this last year on ISIS and I raised a distinction that could be helpful here. There are descriptive accounts and normative accounts of religion. I said:
“A descriptive account would seek to downplay any claims about an ideal” religion. It merely gives us some key identifiers, practices, beliefs that one can go down the check list to see if it qualifies or not. But the major world religions have claimed something more. They have claimed to affect a moral transformation in people. They have an ideal, a vision of how they envision themselves and the world to be. They are not merely a checklist of beliefs and practices.”
If you were to do a descriptive account you get a mixed bag. Trump doesn’t appear to be a regular church goer, does not seem aware of many church practices, seems unaware of significant themes in Christian thought. On the other hand he says he keeps formal membership in the Presbyterian Church USA though no congregation is able to verify that being the case. And he has talked on many occasions about his love of the Bible.
Of course many presidents from Reagan to Obama have not kept formal church membership though both have had previous experience of it and seemed aware of what it entailed. Many evangelicals will want to look at what “is in the heart” which is not accessible to anybody besides the individual in question. I don’t think a descriptive account can go there. It can only look at external practices that are readily identifiable.
But if we grant that Trump is descriptively Christian, it is not the same as to say his ideals, his platform is Christian in a normative sense.
- To make fun of the disabled is to deny that everyone is made in the image of God. Same with denigrating Muslims, Latinos, and women.
- Same with threatening violence or nod and wink at it with his rallies. Same with calling for torture and targeting civilians with military violence.
- To reject refugees and call for the biggest population transfer in US history is to ignore both basic norms of hospitality, international law, and the scriptural injunctions of welcoming the foreigner. “For you were once foreigners in Egypt”
Now some argue that this fits modern American evangelicalism so well that it couldn’t possibly be not Christian. So many Christians end up agreeing with these stances that at some point, you have to ask whether we have moved from a descriptive account to a normative account. One that would locate norms in the majority of Christian attitudes. Ones rooted in a separation of the saved and damned, one drawn to a vision of a strong man whether that is located in God or in their politicians.
I’m not prepared to say that this is a majority view. Especially when we include the African American church, Catholics and mainline Protestants. It could be the majority view within in evangelicalism, if you include those who are not active in the church. But I think there are certain individuals, because of their background and knowledge, who are equipped to morally reflect on the ideals of the Christian faith.
And I happen to think that Pope Francis is one of those individuals. That does not mean I will always agree with Pope Francis. I certainly did not with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict. As someone who is gay and protestant that should be a given. But it means that I ought to be attentive to their insights, their ideas. Their background, knowledge, and yes to some degree, their office suggests that they ought to have a voice in the collective moral discernment of the church.
And I think that discernment is important. Not because we should be heresy hunting or desiring to remove people from Christianity. But rather that moral discernment provides boundaries. Boundaries that are meant to protect people from harm. In this case, Pope Francis is doing so by making cause with refugees around the world. Mainline Protestantism’s commitment to LGBT equality comes from the same basis.
This happens in other communities as well. I think of the censure Richard Dawkins has received. Not because he is not an atheist. But his ideals, as it has related to women and Muslims are not fitting the ideals of humanism. And any number of individuals and organizations, that I respect, have “called him out” on this.
Who are they to assume that role? They are morally sensitive individuals, who because of their background, their influence, their roles in humanistic groups, their reflective thoughts, are voices that ought to be heard. They can be disagreed with. Certainly. But they should be thoughtfully considered. Not dismissed or shouted down.
The discussion within atheism, within Christianity, within Islam is one of collective moral discernment, designed to mitigate harm against people. They are not heresy hunting. After all, heresy hunting can shut down conversation as well. The point is to open the conversation up. As along as there are individuals willing to take ideas to hurt others, this is not an area we can vacate. Our voices are needed!
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma