COLUMBIA, S.C. — The popular wisdom that opposites attract is true in both romance and politics.
But rarely do adages prove so profoundly — and absurdly — true as during the recent, media-created dialogue between Pope Francis and Donald Trump. Set aside for a moment that this mini-uproar, spawned by a reporter’s question and poached by scandal-mongers, has largely been put to rest.
The episode was a stellar (celestial?) example of the pitfalls of today’s culture-media-politics complex — a constellation of supernovas exploding in an accelerating universe in which a repulsive force counteracts the attractive force. Guess who’s who?
Much distilled and slightly paraphrased, here’s how the “conversation” between Trump and Francis went for a news cycle or two:
Pope: Anyone who wants to build walls instead of bridges is not a Christian.
Trump: Questioning someone’s Christianity is disgraceful.
Pope: If that’s what Trump really said.
Trump: If ISIS gets the pope, which is the group’s ultimate goal, he’ll wish I had been president because it wouldn’t have happened. ISIS would have been destroyed.
Pope: It wasn’t a personal attack but the Gospel.
Trump: I think he said something much softer than was originally reported by the media.
Heaven forbid, I think Trump may be right. At first, the exchange, all of which took place through stories ricocheting and pinging around the vast media-verse, seemed a bit nasty. But as the conversation continued and messages began bubbling up in the Magic 8 Ball, things seemed less hostile — and even more ridiculous.
Meanwhile, South Carolinians, whose Republican primary was just a couple of days away when the cycle started, wondered why the pope was getting in their business.
The simple answer is that Reuters reporter Phil Pullella specifically asked the pontiff about Trump’s position on immigration as well as insults aimed at the papal leader: “Republican Donald Trump, in an interview recently said that you are a political man and he even said that you are a pawn, an instrument of the Mexican government for migration politics. Trump said that if he’s elected, he wants to build 2,500 kilometers of wall along the border. He wants to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, separating families, etcetera. ... What do you think of these accusations against you and if a North American Catholic can vote for a person like this?”
To which Francis replied:
“Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as ‘animal politicus.’ At least I am a human person. As to whether I am a pawn, well, maybe, I don’t know. I’ll leave that up to your judgment and that of the people. And then, 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. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. 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 in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”
You can see why quotes get trimmed. But important to note, Francis didn’t say Trump isn’t a Christian; he did reaffirm that the church doesn’t get involved in elections. Most important, he said the immigration problem can’t be solved by only building walls.
Thus, it was hardly an indictment but an observation related to the Gospel. Otherwise, the flurry that followed focused on Trump’s own inferences based on what he was told. Many in the media, knowing full well the extent of Trump’s several disgraceful remarks about a variety of issues and people, rationally drew their own inferences. That’s context, too.
Invariably in such matters, we reach a consensus that one shouldn’t judge another’s religious beliefs. We can’t know another’s heart, we dutifully say at the end of such superficial purges.
While this isn’t precisely true — Jeb Bush and John Kasich talk incessantly about their hearts — it is a fine, guiding principle. Given this, why is it that Republican candidates speak so tirelessly of religion? What an excellent question for the Magic 8 Ball.
Wait, here comes the answer:
Morality is a continuum of ethical actions, not a proclamation of beliefs and intentions.
I made that up, but it’s brilliant, don’t you think?
Herewith a moral for the story: Let the pope be popey, let Trump be Trumpy, and let the rest of the bunch follow their faiths without fanfare.
Kathleen Parker is a columnnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.