Donald Trump’s attacks this week on Pope Francis follow a familiar pattern: The pope is getting media attention when Trump craves it most. Much to Trump’s chagrin, Francis is probably the only person in the world who can garner more media attention for a single comment than Trump can.
This week the pope made a high-profile visit to the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border to highlight the plight of migrants and refugees. This papal trip, like Francis’s American visit last year, drew intense media coverage, at a crucial point in Trump’s presidential campaign. In advance of the pope’s U.S. visit, in August, Trump called Francis — who had already made caring for migrants and refugees a cornerstone of his papacy — “political.” He warned that if the pope were to speak to him about the evils of capitalism, he would tell him, “ISIS wants to get you. You know that ISIS wants to go in and take over the Vatican.”
“You know that’s a dream of theirs, to go into Italy?” Trump said to CNN’s Chris Cuomo at the time.
In those weeks before Pope Francis’s U.S. visit — during which he was invited to address lawmakers by then-House Speaker John Boehner — Trump was first undergoing scrutiny for his lack of religious bona fides. He told an Iowa audience that he rarely asked God for forgiveness. He compared himself to the iconic evangelist Billy Graham, even though, when asked, he couldn’t think of a single Bible verse that inspired him.
Fast forward to last week, as Trump was courting South Carolina’s evangelical primary voters: He again called the pope “political” and accused him of not understanding “the danger of the open border.”
Pope Francis is political, but not in the way Trump means. When Trump accuses the pope of being political, he means being in the pocket of a supposedly powerful interest. Case in point: last summer he said Francis was only interested in visiting the border because “Mexico got him to do it because they want to keep the border just the way it is. They’re making a fortune, and we’re losing.” Rather, Francis is politically savvy — he knows when a moment affords him a chance to make a point, but he parses his words carefully enough to stay above the electoral political fray.
Which brings us to the comment that so upset Trump this week: On the papal plane home from Mexico, Francis told reporters that “building walls instead of bridges is not Christian; this is not in the Gospel.” The authoritative Vatican coverage at Crux reports that the Pope claimed to have not heard about Trump’s wall plan (which seems doubtful), but that he’d nonetheless give the candidate “the benefit of the doubt.”
“I’d just say that this man is not Christian if he said it this way,” Francis added.
The problem is that Trump is notorious for waving around a Bible when he thinks it will help him, but showing no evidence of having looked inside the cover. As World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, points out, the Bible refers dozens of times to helping, housing, feeding and otherwise showing compassion to the “stranger” — or immigrant.
It’s almost as if Trump sees himself as the Henry VIII of reality TV (though he didn’t need any permission for his divorces). He’s hinting, not too subtly, that allowing immigration would tie the country closely to Rome, an ugly insinuation given the history of anti-Catholicism in American politics. He wants to divide — Catholics from each other, Americans from Catholics, immigrants from “real” Americans — and create a new American church, one in which he is the divinely ordained King, and reading the Bible is optional.