The controversy over Pope Francis’s comments on Donald Trump may have just completed the front-runner’s coronation as the Republican nominee for president.
Americans admire the pope. Catholics do too, despite his liberal opinions. He is their religious leader and the living embodiment of their faith. But by being perceived as effectively excommunicating Trump from the Christian religion, Francis may have built sympathy for a candidate who has commanded respect from the massive numbers of Republicans who back him — but who now may add “I feel sorry for him” to the list of reasons to back him.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel,” Francis said during a flight that took him from a nearly week-long stay in Mexico back to the Vatican. “This man is not Christian if he talks that way,” the pontiff said.
Catholic League President William Donohue noted that the pontiff’s comments, as reported, might not accurately reflect the pope’s sentiments. “Quite frankly, the pope was set up by the reporter,” Donohue said. “Because the question that was the lead-up to the question to the pope was, ‘What about if somebody wants to deport 11 million illegal aliens, separating families?'”
Donohue noted that Trump has explicitly said he does not want to separate families. “He’s asked to comment about what Trump said, when he gets an incomplete analysis,” Donohue said.
But whether the pope’s feelings are misconstrued or not, the perception is that Francis has cast Trump as anti-Christian. It is label that would also be applied to millions of Americans who ardently share Trump’s view that excessive and illegal immigration must come to an end and a wall must be built. That includes many Catholics. Many of those who have been harmed by immigration are working-class Catholics who are struggling economically and who, while still loving their pope, may themselves be offended by such words.
That means that those who think Francis has harmed Trump have it backwards.
Trump’s battle with the pope may play well with some evangelicals, among whom remnants of past antagonism toward Catholicism probably abides. That could help Trump a bit in states with large Republican evangelical voting blocs, such as South Carolina and the many southern states that will participate in the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries. Big wins for Trump in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday will all but seal his nomination for the presidency.
Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Marco Rubio, who may be tempted to stay in the race until the March 15 primaries in their respective states, Ohio and Florida, may not get any respite if they’re hoping the larger Catholic populations there will rally behind the pope and help save them. Polling suggests Americans, and even Catholics, aren’t much influenced by the pope’s views on political matters.
“The pope’s ability to shape U.S. public opinion may be limited,” the Associated Press reported Thursday. An October AP poll found that just 14 percent of Americans, and just 32 percent of Catholics, had closely followed the pope’s visit to the U.S. in September, despite the tremendous media coverage.
The AP poll found most Americans had no strong opinion of the pope’s handling of immigration issues.
“Among all Americans, 24 percent approved and 14 percent disapproved of his handling of immigration, but more than 6 in 10 Americans said they neither approved nor disapproved, or had no opinion,” the AP wrote. “Among Catholics, 37 percent said they approved and 16 percent disapproved, but nearly half had no strong opinion either way.”
The poll “found no impact on the views of American Catholics or Americans generally on climate change after his visit, which focused largely on global warming as a moral issue.”
Trump, in classic fashion, shot right back.
“For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful,” Trump said. “Who the hell cares?” he added. “We have to stop illegal immigration, massive crime.”
Trump, who is Presbyterian, said he is a Christian “and proud of it.” He said the pope may not be aware of “the crime, the drug trafficking, and negative economic impact” that too much immigration from Mexico has caused the United States.
Americans do not approve of anyone from overseas lecturing them about U.S. policy. And that sentiment, in all likelihood, applies to Pope Francis as well — as Rubio and Kasich are about to find out.