Walls Aren't the Problem with Donald Trump's Faith

Pope Francis made headlines last week, raising questions of whether real estate tycoon and Republican frontrunner Donald J. Trump is “not Christian.” The pontiff made a mistake going after The Donald’s faith, but he made a bigger mistake in attacking Trump’s immigration policy, rather than his personal statements.

When asked about Trump, Francis made it clear he did not want to engage in American politics, saying “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.” But the pope did insist that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” This statement did not explicitly question Trump’s faith, but it did insinuate that the tycoon’s belief may not be genuine.

Trump’s faith itself is something of an enigma. The thrice-married owner of casinos and a blustering son of the Big Apple says he wants to give Christianity “power.” Despite his success in running gambling establishments, Trump himself refrains from all forms of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, due in part to the death of his brother Fred from alcoholism.

Perhaps due to this straight-laced life, he has stated numerous times that he is hesitant to ask God for forgiveness, or that he cannot remember ever having done so. In Christian terms, this is a much bigger weakness than any immigration stance he could take. Even if Trump were to specifically target Christians for deportation, it would say less about his faith than this.

Religious Traditions and Judging the Faith of Public Figures

Faith is a personal matter, so attacking it in any context always comes with a great deal of risk. For evangelical Protestants, an individual’s relationship with God is strictly a matter of conscience—something others can guess at by judging your actions, but something ultimately hidden from everyone but you and God.

For Roman Catholics, this is not the case. For Catholics—and those in more “high church” denominations—a person’s relationship with God comes through his relationship with the church. According to Catholic doctrine, the path to heaven consists in the “Sacraments,” dispensations of God’s grace given through the auspices of the church.

Catholics like Pope Francis have more ground to evaluate a public figure’s life than Protestants, but all Christians can use their understanding of scripture and tradition to test a public figure’s faith. Since Trump won among the 76 percent of South Carolina voters who said it matters “a great deal” or “somewhat” that “a candidate shares your religious beliefs,” an analysis of his faith may be considered fair game.

What Trump Said About Forgiveness

Last July, focus group guru Frank Luntz asked Trump if he had ever sought God’s forgiveness. The Donald replied, “I’m not sure I have ever asked God’s forgiveness. I don’t bring God into that picture.”

Trump added that, “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.”

When asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper a few days later if “asking for forgiveness” is central to his faith life, Trump replied, “I try not to make mistakes where I have to ask forgiveness.”

When pressed, he added, “I think repenting is terrific,” but seemed confused as to the necessity of doing so. “Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes?” Trump asked. He added, “I work hard, I’m an honorable person.”