At last week’s first Republican debate, John Kasich delivered a solid performance that distinguished him as the “compassionate conservative” alternative to his rivals. I argued that his inclusive message even suggested that he could be the GOP’s Pope Francis candidate.
If that’s the case, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump has a big Pope Francis problem. His values, attitude, and policies stand in profound contrast to the 78-year-old Argentinian pontiff. Last week’s debate made that all the more clear.
Pope Francis says we must build bridges to make a home for the excluded. Donald Trump’s response? “We need to build a wall, and it has to be built quickly.”
Francis — who supports equal pay for women — hails “the indispensable contribution which women make to society.” Trump, on the other hand, has a history of sexist behavior. On Friday, he appeared to suggest that Fox TV’s Megyn Kelly asked tough questions during the debate because she was having her period. (Trump has vehemently denied that was his meaning.)
This isn’t the first time Trump has presented himself as a foil to the popular universal leader of the Catholic Church.
Trump announced his entry into the race with a controversial June 16 speech in which he castigated Mexicans who immigrated into the United States illegally, calling them rapists and drug dealers. Last month, he questioned John McCain’s military accolades: “He’s not a war hero,” said the candidate. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
In response, Politico’s Ben White tweeted:
“Jesus Christ was a dope for getting crucified by the Romans. I like classy saviors who don’t get crucified.” – Donald Trump, probably
— Ben White (@morningmoneyben) July 19, 2015
Despite White’s quip, the billionaire real estate mogul has remained at the top of the polls — largely due to the support of white Republican evangelicals, a traditional kingmaker in the Republican primary.
But if Trump wants to turn his early lead into an eventual primary victory, he’ll need to win over conservative people of faith in Iowa, South Carolina, and throughout the nation. One way to do that is to talk about his personal faith in a compelling way. The last GOP candidate to do that well — George W. Bush — won the White House.
An early analysis of the candidacy of Trump, a practicing Presbyterian, suggests he has a lot of work to do.
On his first Sunday after his election, Pope Francis said, “The Lord never grows tired of forgiving us, but at times we get tired of asking for forgiveness.” Donald Trump never got the memo. Instead of asking for forgiveness when he makes a mistake, Trump said at July 18 Des Moines event that he’ll “just go on and try to do a better job from there.”
“I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
Trump clarified those remarks a few minutes later: “When I go to church and when I drink my little wine and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of forgiveness. I do that as often as I can because I feel cleansed. I say let’s go on and let’s make it right.”
This still didn’t sit well with many Christians. Eric Teetsel, the executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, a conservative Christian advocacy group, tweeted:
— Eric Teetsel (@EricTeetsel) July 18, 2015
Another Iowan who attended the event was even more blunt: “Well, I was turned off at the very start because I didn’t like his language,” she said. “He sounds like he isn’t really a born-again Christian.”
In an interview the following week, CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Trump if “asking for forgiveness” was a prominent part of his faith life.
“I try not make mistakes where I have to ask forgiveness,” Trump responded.
He later added: “Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes? I work hard, I’m an honorable person.”
Such a theological worldview might make one successful in the rough and tumble of the New York City real estate market, but in the GOP primary, where proper deference to God remains a highly sought attribute, this way of thinking and speaking is a sure path to make Donald Trump — in his own words — a “total loser.”
Trump’s inability to communicate his faith and values well stands in stark contrast to some of his other GOP rivals, most notably Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker.
Although Jeb Bush criticized Pope Francis’ encyclical addressing climate change, he understands faith messaging very well. In 2009, he said:
“As a public leader, one’s faith should guide you … In the United States, many people think you need to keep your faith, put it in a security box, if you’re an elected official — put it in a safety deposit box until you finish your service as a public servant and then you can go get it back. I never felt that was appropriate.”
Rubio, a practicing Roman Catholic, speaks eloquently about his devotion to the Church and the Eucharist:
[While attending evangelical churches], I craved, literally, the Most Blessed Sacrament, Holy Communion, the sacramental point of contact between the Catholic and the liturgy of heaven. I wondered why there couldn’t be a church that offered both a powerful, contemporary gospel message and the actual body and blood of Jesus.
Scott Walker began speaking from the pulpit at the age of 2 and preached occasional sermon in his teens. In April, he told The New York Times:
“My relationship with God drives every major decision in my life. Our walk of faith helps us prepare for those decisions and provides us comfort as we seek to do God’s will.”
The ability of Kasich, Bush, Rubio, and Walker to talk about matters of faith well could be a key factor to winning the GOP nomination.
To date, it’s unclear whether Donald Trump can do that. If this doesn’t change soon, he could be the GOP’s “flavor of the week” instead of the party’s nominee in 2016.