Yesterday’s big news: Pope Francis questioned Donald Trump’s faith. While flying home to the Vatican after a trip to Mexico, a reporter asked the Pope, “Can a good Catholic vote for [Donald Trump]?” Pope Francis answered, “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 says things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”
Trump responded with a big word salad about the evils of Mexico, and also made this statement: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian and as President I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now, with our current President. No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.”
Let’s stop to think about that for a minute. Religious leaders have no business questioning another person’s faith. Really? What would that look like?
Sadly, I know exactly what that looks like. It’s our current reality. It looks like the loudest, shrillest people holding up a toxic caricature of religious faith and calling it truth. It results in Christians being viewed as angry, hateful hypocrites who condemn everyone who doesn’t believe and practice exactly like they do. Mahatma Ghandi is widely quoted as having said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Whether or not Ghandi actually said that is disputed, however no one can deny that the idea this quote expresses resonates for a lot of people. In response to a question about how to naturalize Christianity into India, Ghandi did (indisputably) reply, “I would suggest first of all that all of you Christians, missionaries and all begin to live more like Jesus Christ.”*
Christians not acting like followers of Christ is not a new problem in Christianity. Why are so many Christians so unlike our Christ? Could it have something to do with the fact that we’re so invested in the idea of a personal faith that no one is willing to ‘speak the truth in love’ as it were?
I realize this is dangerous territory, because no one, including Pope Francis (whom I respect tremendously), is authorized to be the final word on who is a Christian and who is not. To be fair, Pope Francis didn’t try to be that final authority. He was humble in his response, allowing for the possibility that he may not know all the facts or that he may misunderstand what he has heard. What he did was to point out that Trump’s statements about building walls and demonizing segments of the population are contrary to the gospel. Those whose words and actions are contrary to the gospel of Christ by definition are not Christian. And not only do I think it was appropriate for the Pope to respond in this way, I think it would have been a dereliction of duty for him not to.
All Christians, not only Christian leaders, need to keep the gospel central to their lives. And when someone who claims to be Christian is doing or saying something inherently unchristian, we have a responsibility to point that out. Anonymous people doing or saying things that are unchristian should not be included in this, because they’re not claiming to represent the Christian faith or be a living witness. But Donald Trump claims to be Christian, is proud of his Christianity, and has vowed to defend Christianity if he is elected President. Given that, it is more than appropriate to look at his words and actions, and see if the Christianity he represents and is going to defend shares anything in common with the principles and teachings of Christ.
Saying you’re a Christian doesn’t make you a Christian. Words matter–that’s my blog’s tagline, for crying out loud–but where faith is concerned, words are not enough.
Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car. That’s only geography, and it has nothing to do with how your live your life. Rachel Held Evans wrote an insightful piece on what happened when Donald Trump–who claims to be Presbyterian–actually attended worship at a Presbyterian church in Iowa last month. In many ways she’s saying the same thing the Pope said, and as a well-known Christian writer and speaker, she’s doing the responsible thing.
Being pious and moral doesn’t make you a Christian. Piety for piety’s sake is works-righteousness and possibly idolatry, depending on how far you take it. And it’s quite possible to be highly moral and ethical without being a Christian. I know several atheists, agnostics, and people of other faiths who have proven this time and time again.
Aligning with a certain political party or choosing a single issue as a litmus test for a candidate doesn’t make you a Christian. The February 3, 2016 issue of The Christian Century included a blurb in its ‘Century News – People’ section about the passing of Ed Dobson, a noted conservative Christian who helped to build the Moral Majority and was once an aide to Jerry Falwell. What The Christian Century found most intriguing about him, however, was the year he spent “living like Jesus” and how that changed him. He realized that despite disagreeing with him on abortion, Barak Obama “was closer to the essence of Jesus’ teachings–compassion for the poor and the oppressed, being a peacemaker, loving your enemies, and other issues.” For one of the architects of the religious right, this was huge. I strongly recommend watching this brief interview with Dobson in 2009, where he explains what it was like for this faithful former pastor to engage in intentional gospel living for a year.
A lot of people claim to follow Christ, and with that claim they represent him and the religion that is centered on him to the rest of the world. Such a claim deserves to be questioned, begs to be questioned, and anyone who makes that claim should welcome such a questioning. That goes for Donald Trump, Pope Francis, me, and anyone else who applies the label Christian to themselves.
* Jones, E. S. (1925). Christ of the Indian Road. India: Hodder and Stoughton.