President Donald Trump does not seem to be a religious man. He professes the Presbyterian faith, a legacy from his Scots mother, and has said he attends the Marble Collegiate (Presbyterian) Church in New York “a lot”. The church, however, issued a statement in 2015, as Trump began his presidential campaign, that “he is not an active member of Marble”.
His most enthusiastic endorsement of religion was for Norman Vincent Peale, a preacher at Marble for 52 years (he died in 1993). Peale’s book, “The Power of Positive Thinking”, was a forerunner of the “prosperity gospel” popular with evangelicals; it contends that adherence to the religious life can bring wealth. Peale seems to have appealed to Trump more on the practical, money-making level than the spiritual one – or at least convinced him, as he did the many business leaders who attended Marble, of the connection between the two.
The man Trump met in the Vatican on Wednesday cleaves to a quite other, and much older, interpretation of the Christian message. Jose Mario Bergoglio, who took the name on his election to the papacy, vowed allegiance to a life of poverty on joining the Jesuit order in 1960, a vow he has kept, eschewing the plush papal apartments for a small suite in a Vatican hotel for visiting clergy, telling an audience soon after his election that “I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor”.
In Catholic terms he is a liberal: his attitude to homosexuality, abortion and divorce all emphasize forgiveness – though he is not interested in changing doctrine which sees these as sins. He is passionate about preservation of the environment: its destruction, he has proclaimed, is a sin. His most noted confrontation with Trump – if at a distance – was when, during the presidential campaign, Francis said that anyone who would build a wall between the United States and Mexico “was not a Christian” – remarks that Trump characterised as “disgraceful”.
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Francis was an Obama-age Pope. In one thing, though, he is closer to Trump than to the former president. Both are populists, of a kind, reaching out for direct contact with their followers, over the heads of their establishments – Catholic theologians, or the Republican Party. Both wish to be seen as uncommonly common men more mindful of those left behind than the doctrinal boundaries of their faith, or politics.
This unspoken similarity may have softened the tone of their meeting – which was never, as had been eagerly forecast, going to be explosive or abusive, and was steered into safe channels of agreement on peace, the sanctity of life and religious freedom. They parted with a mutual exchange of reading matter – the Pope gave Trump his writings on various issues, including the environment; Trump, unusually humble, gave books by Martin Luther King.
The trip – at least until the NATO meeting in Brussels – saw Trump the diplomat, a role in which he most approached the normal behavior of an American president on a high-profile trip abroad. He flattered his hosts, praised peace and reconciliation and proposed the United States as their promoter.
Yet the whistle-stop trip he undertook through the Muslim (in Saudi Arabia), the Jewish (in Jerusalem) and the Christian (in Rome) faiths may have been too superficial, too crowded with protocol, to register. It showed, more vividly than before, how threadbare are his positions. He has blamed Saudi Arabia for the attack on the Twin Towers and sought to ban Muslims from the United States. He then made Saudi his first foreign visit, and in a speech sought to enroll it, and Islam, in a fight against “evil” and “violent ideology”.
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In Israel, he described Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as equally avid for peace, a line quite different from the hostility he had shown to Muslim leaders during his campaign. In Rome, he lavished praise on a liberal Pope – though his chief adviser, Steve Bannon, described in a 2014 talk beamed into the Vatican the “war of immense proportions” with radical Islam – a radically divergent approach from the Pope’s insistence on dialogue and understanding among the faiths.
This week this president without a compass returned to Washington, a large part of which is trying to impeach him or at least make his presidency a nightmare. He faces the important – if still vague – accusations arising from his and his aides’ relationship with Russia, and his firing of the FBI director, James Comey.
Will he – a man of no apparent fixed intellectual or political abode – retreat into the solitary place that feeds his Twitter rage and turns him into the ungovernable destructive force he has often been in the first months of his office?
Or, now that he’s seen up close the power of ideas, ideologies and faiths, will he have gained some inkling of the complexity of the world? And if he has, will it be followed by an understanding of the real limits of his position and the allure of a saner presidency?
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics.”(Constable).