MRBlog | Donald Trump, Pope Francis, and the Death of Nuance

Pope Francis

By Thomas J. Whitley

Pope Francis made waves on his plane today when he said that Donald Trump is not Christian. Well, that’s not exactly what he said, but why let facts, nuance, and close reading get in the way of sensational reporting? Here’s a sampling of the headlines for stories about the Pope’s statement.

Pope Francis Calls Donald Trump ‘Not Christian’ on Immigration | Wall Street Journal

Asked about Trump, Pope Francis says anyone who wants to build a border wall isn’t Christian | Dallas Morning News

Pope Francis: Donald Trump is ‘not Christian’ | Mashable

Pope suggests Trump “is not Christian’ | CNN

Pope Francis: Donald Trump is ‘not Christian’ because he wants to build a border wall | The Week

In forgetting to contain their glee at Pope Francis’ comments, the media also apparently forgot how to read statements closely and report important nuance. So what did Francis actually say?

A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel. (emphasis added)

The “only” is a key word in Pope Francis’ response, as is his admission that he is rather uninformed regarding Donald Trump’s immigration policy proposals. The Pope did not say “Donald Trump is not Christian.” Rather, he claimed that if a person only ever thought about building walls and not also about building bridges, that person would not be Christian. Yes, the implication is that Trump is that person and that Trump only thinks about building walls and not bridges, but that is not precisely what Francis said.

Francis ends his response to the question addressing the question of whether he would advise American Catholics to vote for Trump.

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 these things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt. (emphasis added)

The Pope’s entire response is but a paragraph long, but that still may have been too much for the news organizations that saw the words “this man is not Christian” and forgot to see what else Francis said. Francis was not damning Trump to hell or offering a definitive take on his faith. He simply responded to the question asked by Reuters reporter Phil Pullella. Now, Pullella did not ask Francis whether he thought Trump was a Christian and Francis added the commentary about whether such policies could be held by someone who was a Christian or not himself, but he also left himself a few very important words of nuance.

Francis’ rhetoric is smart, subtle, and full of nuance, but you’d never know that by reading most of the headlines and hot takes that are flooding your feed. The Pope may yet say definitively that Donald Trump is not Christian, but it’s much more likely that the Vatican walks this response back over the next few days adding even more nuance than Francis did initially. But if that happens, don’t hold your breath for the media to report that development as gleefully as they (mis-)reported this one.


Image via Wikimedia Commons