When Pope Francis responded to a question about the extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric that has come to define Republican politics, the 2016 presidential race took a wild turn.
But it wasn’t the pope who turned it.
It was Donald Trump.
Asked about the proposal to build a wall separating the United States and Mexico, which has been a central theme of Trump’s presidential campaign, the pontiff said Thursday, as he traveled from Mexico to the Vatican, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the Gospel.”
The pope was not making an endorsement. Nor was he urging Americans to vote for one candidate or another. He was even giving Trump space, specifically explaining, “I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and I will give him the benefit of the doubt.”
However, Trump took the moral pronouncement from a religious leader and immediately turned it into campaign fodder. The perpetually offended candidate, of course, took offense. “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian,” the billionaire announced as he campaigned in South Carolina, where he is mounting an over-the-top campaign for the votes of evangelical Christians. “No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.”
It was immediately noted that Trump has questioned the faith of others, including his closest challenger in a number of polls, Texas Senator Ted Cruz. But to little avail.
If hypocrisy was disqualifying, Trump and most of his opponents would be out of the running. But this is a contest where facts regularly lose to fantasy.
What was far more significant was the next thing that Trump said.
“I’m proud to be a Christian,” he announced, “and as president, I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now with out current president, OK? Believe me.”
There will be a tendency to consider this dust-up as a dispute between the pope and Trump. In that contest, the pope should come out well. There are a lot of Americans who will share Vice President Joe Biden’s view.