Last week, Donald Trump took considerable public offense at remarks from Pope Francis that apparently questioned Trump’s sincerity as a Christian over his remarks about immigration. The war of words cooled quickly, with both sides de-escalating the issue within a day. CBS’ John Dickerson brought it up yesterday on Face the Nation to question Trump’s declaration that no world leader should “question another man’s religion.” Hadn’t Trump done exactly that with Ted Cruz while campaigning in heavily evangelical South Carolina?
Not at all, Trump replied (via Cortney O’Brien):
Last week, Pope Francis suggested Trump was “not Christian” for his comments about building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. At the time, Trump said, “No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.”
But Trump has been similarly critical of Cruz’s faith.
Asked by moderator John Dickerson how he squares those two positions, Trump said he never questioned Cruz’s faith.
“No, I never questioned Ted’s–anything having to do with his religion,” Trump said. “I just said you can’t lie and hold up a Bible and you can’t do that, you just can’t do that, it’s not appropriate.”
Well, that’s not entirely true, as CBS’ Emily Schultheis pointed out afterward:
How can Ted Cruz be an Evangelical Christian when he lies so much and is so dishonest?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 12, 2016
That’s not much different from Francis’ remarks about immigration hardliner rhetoric, except that it’s actually more specific to a candidate:
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis said. “This is not in the Gospel.”
Not having heard Trump’s border plans independently, Francis said he’d “give him the benefit of the doubt.” But he added:
“I’d just say that this man is not Christian if he said it this way.”
There is no difference, except that in the latter case, it was Trump’s ox that got gored. Trump seems to sense that this is not exactly fertile ground, shifting away from his clash with the Pope and emphasizing how nicely Francis treated him afterward. That’s a stretch, too; the Vatican merely stated that the remarks weren’t meant as a personal judgment and that they had no desire to instruct Americans on whom to support in the election. It was Trump who hit reverse and started talking warmly about Francis, perhaps hoping to de-escalate the situation as the campaigns turn the corner toward states with more Catholic voters in the mix.
Trump’s probably right that the flare-up with Pope Francis was a net neutral in the race in South Carolina, though, and so will be his clear hypocrisy in offense over religious criticism. The attack on Cruz may have helped push him into third place, a very disappointing finish for a team whose reliance on evangelicals was seen as key to his hopes of eclipsing Trump. Besides, anyone expecting that an inconsistency with Trump will even put a small dent in his momentum has not paid much attention to the race thus far. The only way either Cruz or Marco Rubio beats Trump is if the other drops out and the remaining candidate successfully engages the angry populism that is dominating this primary, and the Democrats’ as well.