(RNS) Back when the legendary Tom Landry was nearing his record 20th consecutive winning season as an NFL coach, I sidled up to a cluster of men surrounding Landry after a church service in Dallas. One guy seemed to be describing a new play he wanted the Cowboys offense to try.
Fool, I thought. Giving Tom Landry advice on football is as arrogant as suggesting military strategy to Napoleon or offering guidance on wealth acquisition to John D. Rockefeller.
But that was before the rise of talk radio and social media, which have built platforms beneath all comers and deluded idiots into considering themselves experts. That may help explain why America’s political culture has shifted to one in which opinion routinely subordinates fact and bluster trumps reason.
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Even so, people ought to know whose turf they’re treading upon when they offer up opinion. It’s there, I think, that people reach differing perspectives on this week’s dispute between developer-turned-politician Donald Trump and Pope Francis. Your view probably depends on what ground you think the billionaire and the pontiff are standing upon.
Were Trump and the pope talking about politics? There, The Donald is dominant these days. Or were they discussing morality and, specifically, Christianity? Even Donald Trump, he of the towering ego, might not want to presume himself superior to Francis in that realm. Or maybe, astonishingly, he does.
Francis, remember, is a man who lived and worked among the poor of Argentina, who moved into a small guesthouse rather than a palace when he assumed the most powerful post in Christendom, who spends hours in prayer every day. He has spoken out against consumerism, greed and intolerance. He is a man of breathtaking humility.
He is, in short, thoroughly un-Trumpian.
On his flight home after a visit to Mexico that culminated with a Mass at the U.S.-Mexican border, Francis was asked whether a Catholic could vote for “a person like” Donald Trump, given the candidate’s description of Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists and his plan for a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Speaking in Spanish, the pope said he wouldn’t tell people how to vote, and he insisted, “We must see if he said things in that way, and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.” But what got attention was this part of his response: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.”
Trump quickly responded by denouncing the pope, calling him “disgraceful” and a “pawn” of the Mexican government. It wasn’t Trump’s usual ad hominem attack, but rather a scripted statement that carefully returned to his campaign’s dominant theme of the peril outsiders pose to the United States.
It is outsiders, of course, whom the pope has always stressed are most in need of his church’s comfort: poor people, refugees, people with diseases, those in prison. This focus of Francis’ is no surprise to students of the gospel, since the coterie surrounding Jesus was itself motley and unpopular, including a tax collector and a bunch of fishermen. If you transposed Trump’s view of “greatness” to that era, none of the 12 would qualify.
Trying to woo the Christian evangelicals so important in Republican primaries, Trump has called religion “a wonderful thing” and presented himself as a devout Presbyterian, and a lot of religious folks seem inclined to give him, as Francis would say, the benefit of the doubt.
Taking on the pope on the eve of the South Carolina primary isn’t going to hurt Trump in the Bible Belt. There’s a harsh strain of anti-Catholicism among evangelicals, and smacking down somebody those on the right may see as just another leftist from a lesser nation could resonate with those already drawn to Trump’s brawny rhetoric.
In a few weeks, though, when GOP primaries will be staged in states with Catholic concentrations — like New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — it may seem less wise. At some point, people who claim to embrace a faith that emphasizes reconciliation and love for one’s fellow humans surely will raise questions about a candidate who embraces torture and praises ruthless dictators (Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein) while denigrating a religious leader whose moral integrity clearly outshines his own.
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit writer, noted Friday that one of the pope’s many titles is “Pontifex Maximus,” a Latin term literally translated as “greatest bridge-builder.” Bridges, of course, bring people together, even as walls hold them apart. Trump has quite clearly stated his preference for the latter. On political ground, that may sell. In the realm of morality, it does not.
(Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union in Albany, N.Y.)
(A version of this commentary appeared earlier at the Times Union. Share your thoughts at http://blog.timesunion.com/editors.)