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.”
That’s Great, But It’s Not Enough
Many people, and undoubtedly many who consider themselves Christian, share this basic belief: if I’m a good person, I will get into heaven when I die. So long as the good deeds outweigh the bad, who really cares if I’m not perfect?
According to Christian doctrine, God cares—and He cares a great deal. The Bible clearly states that everyone sins, and the punishment for sin is death. Worse, God only allows entirely perfect people to enter His heavenly kingdom, and the number of entirely perfect people was zero, until a certain carpenter showed up in Galilee.
John 3:16 is probably the most oft-quoted verse in the Bible, but it’s hard to find a more succinct rendering of what Christians call “the Gospel.” “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” God wanted to redeem human beings from the punishment they deserved, but in order to do that, someone else had to take the penalty on himself.
Jesus died on the cross to provide that redemption. Christians believe that, in doing so, he opened the way for people to restore their broken relationship with God and enter heaven. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus consistently preaches a message of good news and faith—but he always emphasizes repentance. The love of Christ comes at a cost. He had to die, and you have to confess your sins and believe in him.
The Importance of Confession and God’s Forgiveness
A central doctrine of Christianity is the idea that only God can truly forgive sin. If I steal from you, for instance, I have not only wronged you, but also wronged God my maker. I should repent and return what I stole, but you are not the only aggrieved party. Since I have a duty to God to love my neighbor as I love myself, I must apologize to Him and ask forgiveness, even when it seems like I have only wronged you.
Every Christian tradition follows Jesus’s commandment to remember his death and sacrifice until his second coming. This is commonly known as “Communion,” and Trump referred to it when he said “I drink my little wine and have my little cracker.”
Catholics are not supposed to take part in communion unless they are in a “state of grace,” which means they have not committed any major sins. Before taking communion, a Catholic must attend confession—where she confesses her sins to a priest and God grants forgiveness through that priest.
Most Protestant churches have a public confession, which everyone says before they take part in communion. In the Anglican church I attend, we confess that “we have sinned against [God] in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.”
Trump’s comment 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,” might show that he vaguely remembers asking for forgiveness in a corporate prayer. His initial response, however, “I’m not sure I have ever asked God’s forgiveness,” hints that, when it comes to communion, Trump goes through the motions of praying the confession, but does not really confess in his heart.
In short, Trump may be the kind of Christian who goes to church, says and does the right things, but does not take his relationship with God seriously. It goes too far to say he is “not Christian,” but it seems unlikely that his personal faith guides and directs his life.
When it comes to the business of making and enforcing laws, this may not be such a bad thing. A general sense of morality may be more important than true belief in a public figure. But for the self-described evangelicals who say it matters whether a candidate “shares your beliefs,” Trump seems an odd fit.