On top of that, Trump’s religious beliefs have now been called into question by a very prominent source, the spiritual leader for more than 1 billion Christians around the world.
Here’s what the pope said: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
Trump’s promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border and to get Mexico to pay for it, has been a recurring message of his on the campaign trail. The pope’s comments, offered in Mexico, suggest that Trump’s preoccupation with building a wall means he is “not Christian.”
Yet questioning Trump’s Christianity seems more inappropriate than questioning his conservatism.
Trump says he is both a conservative and a Christian. When it comes to his conservative credentials, Trump’s critics point out that he has a long and damning paper trail. In the past, he has supported — both verbally and financially — Democrats, as well as the liberal policies they espouse.
Similarly, critics have also expressed skepticism about the genuineness of Trump’s faith, citing character concerns (he appeared to mock a reporter’s disability), his lack of church attendance (despite repeatedly playing up his Presbyterian faith) and his sexual history (e.g. being twice-divorced; boasting that he’s slept with the world’s “top women”).
If Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is right that Trump supports single-payer health care, it would falsify Trump’s claim to be a conservative. But can someone’s behavior discredit a profession of faith?
Within the Christian faith, there is a mechanism — central to the core belief system — that makes bad behavior not ultimately damning: It’s called grace and mercy. By asking God for forgiveness, a sinner is restored to God. Since this dynamic of falling and rising is characteristic of the Christian experience, to judge a person as “not Christian” is to forget that God stands ever-ready to receive us back.
Some religious groups and traditions are much more willing to offer judgment of someone’s spiritual condition than others. Westboro Baptist Church, for instance, has freely offered incendiary judgments of individuals and groups in the most hostile manner possible. Yet for most traditions tracing their orthodoxy back to Jesus and the Apostles, including Catholic and Protestant traditions, religious leaders have historically emphasized a focus on the inner life and belief.
The idea that the pope cannot ultimately know with certainty Trump’s spiritual state cuts across theological lines. For instance, Catholic philosopher Francis J. Beckwith said, “although popes — and ecumenical councils — have always issued pronouncements as to what counts as correct Christian doctrine or practice, I can’t recall any popes, including recent ones, singling out individuals for the particular judgment of not being a Christian.’’
Forgiveness is core to the Christian faith. But someone who wants to switch to being a conservative will not find that similar forgiveness apparatus. Despite registering as more conservative than 77 percent of his fellow members of Congress, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has had to fend off the characterization that he’s not a real conservative. His participation in the 2013 “Gang of 8” immigration reform attempt has left a permanent scar, with many taking it as conclusive evidence he is not a true believer.
For Christians, however, when there is a spiritual failure, grace would come readily available. The late Charles Colson is not judged to have been a nominal Christian — or a “CINO” (Christian in Name Only), if you like — because he once was Nixon’s “hatchet man” and went to jail.
Although another person’s spiritual status is not fully knowable to us, Trump has said repeatedly that he doesn’t need to seek forgiveness, a belief not consistent with Christianity. Embracing Christianity seems to, at the very least, require acceptance of its central grace-dispensing mechanism: asking God for forgiveness.
Pope Francis cites a policy proposal of Trump’s, but the reality is that there are many professing Christians on both sides of the political aisle on immigration, representing the full ideological spectrum. What’s more spiritually relevant for many Christians is the lack of evidence that Trump’s life follows the basic pattern of genuine Christian practice: awareness of one’s own sin, asking God’s forgiveness and embracing a call to change one’s life.
Despite what they might see as a character failing in Trump, many Christians are not necessarily open to final judgments about his spiritual state. Christianity prioritizes one’s inner life to a far greater degree than outward action.
The Christian faith emphasizes thoughts and emotions — belief in God and love for God — in a way that makes confirming someone else’s faith a more difficult, and less acceptable, task. Not knowing the inner experiences of someone else’s life ultimately creates a barrier to making pronouncements about the status of their faith.
Berny Belvedere is a professor of philosophy at Florida International University and a writer from Miami. Follow him on twitter @bernybelvedere.