Who Is A Christian?: The Donald, The Pope, and the Rhetoric of Religion

Donald Trump smiling

Donald Trump received some criticism from an interesting corner this past week when Pope Francis all but declared Trump “un-Christian,” an assessment rendered in response to the latter’s planned policy to build a wall between the US and Mexico if he is elected President. Predictably, Trump fired back with a series of remarks alleging that if ISIS were to attack the Vatican (a possibility in a world without Trump as President, he surmised), then the Pope would seriously regret his words. Although both offered more conciliatory statements later, the spectacle that remained exposed some of the very interesting seams of social identity, seams that should be particularly intriguing to anyone interested not just in the study of religion, but also in the dynamics of public life.

As a scholar of religion with an eye for social theory, one of the first rules of engagement that I use when analyzing a situation such as this is to presume that labels like “Christian” are more shifting descriptors of a particular group’s interests and place in a society rather than a finite, essentialist definition of them. In other words, there is not a single thing that characterizes all people who call themselves “Christian,” and so what intrigues me about the use of the term is why and how we use it when we do, rather than assuming that it is a neutral, self-evident category that objectively describes the world.

So while I want to momentarily consider why the Pope decided to make this pronouncement at this time, let’s first take the conversation between Trump and the Pope at face value and presume that there is a self-evident, measurable state called “Christian.” If this were the case, then the Pope’s words were hardly surprising. As the leader of about half of the world’s Christians, many who find the Pope authoritative likely presume that the Pope knows a Christian when he sees one. For his own part, Trump has fallen far short of meeting many moral markers commonly espoused by Christians: he has been upfront about being a serial adulterer, has repeatedly made statements that eschew compassion and kindness towards outsiders and the poor, and his own religious knowledge seems so imperceptible that he has managed to make a mockery of himself (think of the “2 Corinthians” debacle) in front of religious audiences.

So was the Pope’s statement really all that earth shattering, if taken simply at face value? Probably not, since, by popular standards, I’m not sure that the Pope said anything that many people weren’t already thinking.

The interesting thing, then, is to consider what sort of rhetorical work that the word “Christian” is performing in this context. After all, there’s no need for Trump to be a Christian in order to be President, according to the Constitution. Moreover, while he’s certainly more brash than many candidates, there are plenty of other famous people (and particularly politicians) who have said inaccurate things that seriously lack compassion, who break every last Christian sexual more, whose religious pedigree has been invented by a particularly creative staffer, and who say extremely controversial things in order to get votes. And then there’s the painfully obvious fact that Bernie Sanders is Jewish, something that the Pope hasn’t felt the need to bring up.

No, what strikes me as most interesting about the remark about Trump’s Christianity is that I suspect it wasn’t literally meant to interrogate his religious affiliations, despite what many thought the Pope was saying. Rather, the Pope’s inclusion of religion into the conversation was a very commonplace tactic to de-legitimize Trump’s social worth (and thereby his candidacy) by using the language of a seemingly unquestionable authority: Christianity. That may seem overly simplistic if not obvious, but in the often bare bones game of social affiliations (what Bruce Lincoln calls sentiments of affinity and estrangement) we tend to praise those who we think are like us and degrade those who aren’t. Yet because we can’t come out and say “to be good, you must be like me!” without encountering some social sanction of our own, the language of religion does that job for us by displacing our cultural preferences off onto a realm that seems separate, inviolable, unquestionable.

Certainly this works both ways, for while the Pope has de-Christianized Trump in order to solidify the superiority of his own position, many American evangelicals who might otherwise be put off by Trump’s clear lack of conformity to Christian values have themselves reinterpreted the category “Christian” such that it need not describe Trump’s person but his political positions (which they also share). Once again, when politics (meant both narrowly as “governmental dynamics” and widely as “social power relations”) constrain one’s agency in particular ways, the easiest and most effective method of combatting those barriers is to renegotiate the terms one uses and simultaneously render them both self-evident and beyond critique. In this sense, Trump v. Pope throws open the very common ways in which conversations about ideological affiliations (which is how we popularly, if problematically, define religion), may really be mere markers of the constant contest that is society.


photo credit: businessinsider.com

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