It would be difficult to find a group more devoutly aligned with Christianity — as a brand — than the candidates campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, and harder still to think of a group whose public utterances are less likely to answer the question, What would Jesus do?
But this week’s war of words between Pope Francis, the world’s foremost authority on the WWJD question, and Donald Trump, America’s most pugilistic Presbyterian politician, triggered a surprisingly thought-provoking debate over another question: Who has the right to question another person’s faith? As leader of the world’s largest church, is it not the pope’s right — maybe even his moral duty — to question someone’s faith? And if not him, who?
“I think he actually has not just a right but a responsibility to say what kind of behavior Christianity calls for,” said Sally Vance-Trembath, professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University in Northern California and a lifelong Catholic. “Donald Trump can say he is conceptually a Christian: He agrees there is a God, there’s this guy named Jesus, and he disagrees that there is an Allah. But functionally, he is not describing a recognizable Christianity.”
The brawl erupted Thursday on the morning of a Republican presidential town hall, and further roiled the waters of an already storm-tossed primary campaign.
“This sort of engagement by somebody who’s not an American only helps Donald Trump,” said Jon Fleischman, former executive director of the California Republican Party. “The pope doesn’t get to vote for president of the United States, and when people outside of America start opining about who our leaders should be, it’s largely met with resentment here.”
To the astonishment of anybody who has watched Trump torment Jeb Bush on the stump, it was Bush who rose first Thursday to the bombastic billionaire’s defense, saying faith was between each individual and “the Creator.” That sentiment was echoed by Ali Sheikholeslami, a lay leader at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California in Oakland, Calif.
“Because you’re questioning somebody’s relationship with God,” Sheikholeslami said, “I think it’s not right to question a person’s faith. Only God knows what is in his or her heart.”
Like others, however, Sheikholeslami believes faith isn’t something that can simply be declared, like registering as a Republican. “If someone says they’re a Muslim or Christian, but doesn’t take any action that represents that faith,” he said, “you could question whether that’s in line with the values that faith tries to promote.”
This was not the first time Pope Francis created a furor during an airborne news conference. Returning from a trip in 2013 to Brazil, he responded to a reporter’s question about gays in the church by saying, “Who am I to judge?”
“Well, now he’s judging and everybody’s pounding on him, telling him, ‘You can’t do that,’?” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter in Washington, D.C. “The poor guy can’t win.”
Vance-Trembath noted that Francis “does not do pope-speak,” which many members of his flock regard as a refreshing change from the doctrinaire papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. “He doesn’t pretend that Christianity has nothing to do with politics,” she said. “Because the gospel of Jesus Christ actually expects you to make the world a better place.”
Reese, who also serves as a visiting scholar at Santa Clara University part of the year, suggested the Holy Father might have made his point inelegantly. “If I was writing his press release, I would probably do a little editing,” he said.
“But I think the pope’s response is quite legitimate. There are some people who believe only God can judge. And there’s some truth to that. But, you know, Hitler was baptized (a Christian) too. Can you imagine if the pope was asked about Hitler and he said, ‘Who am I to judge?’ ”
Just as Jesus questioned the faith of the Pharisees, the pope’s critique of Trump was interpreted by some as an exercise of one of the central tenets in the faith leaders’ manual.
“One of the roles of religion is to comfort those who are afflicted, and afflict those who are too comfortable,” said Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif. “Part of our tradition is to say that discomfort is a good thing, and that people should be challenged on their moral and ethical stances.”
But the pope didn’t say Trump was a bad Christian — he asserted the former reality-TV star isn’t a Christian at all. That was reminiscent of the ancient Jewish practice of herem, a form of shunning or excommunicating someone from the community of faith.
“But that doesn’t happen much anymore,” said Prosnit. “Bad as he was, Bernie Madoff wasn’t put in herem. But even in herem, I don’t think that person would become not a Jew.”
“Not a Christian” is now Trump’s cross to bear before the voters, who remain as unpredictable as ever.
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