By now you undoubtedly know the basics of the story:
Earlier this month Pope Francis made a historic six-day visit to Mexico during which he used all of his spiritual and moral influence, as well as international star-power, to lift up and decry the humanitarian crisis of forced migration northward. At the end of the trip a reporter asked Francis whether he thought American Catholics should vote for Donald Trump for president, given his stated intentions to deport 11 million immigrants and build an additional 2,500 km of fencing between the United States and Mexico. 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 hours later that it was “disgraceful” for a religious leader to question another person’s religion, and he reiterated that he was indeed a Christian, a church-goer, and a Presbyterian. I go to church “whenever I can,” Trump has said, “a lot.” (Meanwhile, Marble Collegiate Church of New York—the congregation Trump said he attends—released a statement saying that although the Trump family has a historical connection to the congregation, Donald Trump is not an active member.)
A couple of days later, Vatican spokesperson Rev. Federico Lombardi clarified that Francis’ remarks were not meant to be personal, and that his holiness frequently and correctly speaks about building bridges, not walls. Trump, too, softened his rhetoric, saying that the Pope’s remarks about him were probably “a little bit nicer” than first reported in the media, and that he thought the Pope was “great.”
This leaves us, it seems, without a political controversy, but still perhaps wondering, “If a Trump does not walk, smell or talk like a Christian, is he a duck—I mean, a Christian?” Probably the more important question is “Who is really Christian anyway?” It’s not a simple question, and the stakes are high because, beyond the political capital that has traditionally accrued to candidates who identify as Christian in America, being a Christian—really being a Christian, as Pope Francis seems to be defining it—has profound moral and concrete behavioral implications for individuals and society and, in much of traditional Christian thought, decides where you will spend eternity.
This is why I like to make a gentle little distinction at the beginning of any conversation about religious identity’s eternal implications: There is difference between being a child of God and loved by God—a status that includes everyone—and specifically “being a Christian,” which is an historical, spiritual, and theological identity that is both given and claimed.
What? There’s a difference?
Yes. But we keep forgetting.
In Christian understanding, God is the creator of all things. And this creator loves the creation and calls everyone to live in right and loving relationship with God. The capstone of this narrative is a promise that in the end, creation will be made new, and the redeemed will dwell with God forever.
This promise of dwelling with God forever has traditionally been called “being saved,” and in a lot of thought, this status was reserved for Christians: people who had taken on the specific identity of being followers of Christ. Yet this is where I would make a distinction. God loves all people, and is at work in their lives. Clearly, all people are not Christians—just take a look at your good-hearted Jewish and Muslim neighbors—and many people are not believers of any sort. But, as a Christian, I see God at work in these lives as well. No one is lost to God.
So, by questioning Donald Trump’s identity as a Christian, was Pope Francis saying that Trump is lost to God? I think not. Donald Trump is beloved of God and the object of God’s redeeming work—as are all humans, whether or not they are Christians. I wager everything that God is this gracious. Let me offer an example of what I mean.
A few months ago I presided at the funeral of my friend “Connor,” who died in an accident. His fiancé, whom I’ll call “Keiko,” asked me to do the service for her. She trusted me to bring a certain religious decorum to the ritual while honoring the fact that she and Connor were agnostic.
Two of Connor’s boyhood friends, devout Southern Baptists, flew in from North Carolina to California for the service. They were dismayed not only by the non-religious nature of the funeral, but also by several shared memories and stories indicating that Connor had let go of their shared childhood faith. Nonetheless, these two grieving friends told me afterwards that they knew Connor had accepted Jesus, and that deep in his heart, he still believed. In other words, they hoped that Connor was “saved” (specifically as a Christian) and that he had met the requirements they considered essential, if only barely, to get into heaven.
But if you were to ask me, “Was Connor a Christian?” I’d say, “No, he wasn’t.” That’s not a moral judgment; it’s what he would have said about himself. But is he saved? Or, is Connor with God? I am sure the answer is “yes”—even surer of it than his childhood friends. And I am confident not because of Connor’s faith in Jesus, but because of Jesus’ faith in him.
I believe that God’s saving love triumphs in the end, for every creature and all of creation. Anything less, and God is not all-in-all. God is for everyone—even Donald Trump. But not everyone is a Christian.
So what’s being a Christian, again? Well, it begins with God’s gracious invitation to us to be in relationship with God. And it encompasses both believing and trusting. Christians trust in a love relationship with God, received in faith, out of gratitude for sins forgiven and grace bestowed. We trust our lives to this God who is the parent of Jesus. Because Christians live in this trust, being a Christian is also about doing—bearing good fruit, as Matthew’s gospel puts it.
Being a Christian is to follow Jesus Christ in the here and now. Believing and trusting in Jesus means walking in his steps. Followers of Jesus turn the other cheek, pray for their enemies, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend to the sick, visit the imprisoned, and generally, in the words of Pope Francis, build bridges, not walls.
Does any of this sound like Donald Trump? No. But we could well ask if it sounds like any of us. And most of us would have to admit that we try and fall short. However, maybe the point is not to locate the precise line between “Christian” and “non-Christian” on a spectrum of good works—finding, like Zeno, that it ever slips just a bit further away—but instead to declare, along with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, that “we know it when we see it.”
For example, while I cannot locate the precise point at which one becomes unlike the other on a spectrum, if I were asked to choose whether Donald Trump or Jimmy Carter better models the Christian life, I would choose Jimmy Carter without hesitation. Anyone would. That’s what Pope Francis did—he pointed to Donald Trump’s life and said, “That ain’t it.”
But is that the end of the conversation? Has Pope Francis condemned Trump to the fiery pits of hell? Not so fast, friends.
This is where the distinction between being “Christian” and being “saved” matters in our everyday lives and ministries. If we trust that God really is infinitely gracious and determined that all should be saved (John 3:17), we can have faith that all will, in fact, be saved. This belief allows us to live and minister ever more gracefully. We can let go of anxiety about that which is ultimately beyond our control and concentrate on God’s call in the here and now.
And yes, actually being a Christian matters. This is not an “if everyone’s saved then who cares?” moment. To Christians fall the task, quite literally, of saving the world: Working for justice and peace. Creating equitable structures and policies. Acting with mercy and sharing hope. But this calling is not ours exclusively. We join all people of good faith and concern in effecting this earthly salvation. Here, another of Pope Francis’ controversial remarks comes to mind:
And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. “But I don’t believe, Father. I am an atheist!” But do good. We will meet one another there.
The question of whether Donald Trump is a Christian matters because he claims that he is one, and right now he has an astonishingly loud microphone and the eyes of the world are upon him. It matters because Christians are called to do everything in Christ’s name—including to “do good.” If Trump thinks that it is “doing good” to build walls to keep desperate and hungry neighbors out (neighbors who are hungry in part because of NAFTA; neighbors fleeing violence caused in great part by United States drug war polices), and if he thinks that deporting eleven million people, destroying lives and tearing families apart, would serve the common good, then Christians must call this out as a lie. We must say what it is: not Christian.
Donald Trump says he is a Christian, and whether, in his heart, he believes or trusts Jesus (even a little), I cannot say. Let me stay with Pope Francis again on this one: “Who am I to judge?”