On Thursday 18th February, Pope Francis added his soporific voice to the American Presidential Election soap-opera by openly criticising Republican front-runner Donald Trump. Francis stated "a person who thinks only about building walls wherever they may be and not of building bridges is not a Christian. This is not the gospel." Predictably, Trump hit back saying "I am a very nice person, and I am a very good Christian... For a religious leader to question a person's faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian, and as President, I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened."
Obviously, there is a big political drive behind Trump's aggressive rebuttal, given that the first bible-belt state, South Carolina, held its primary votes this weekend. However, it also raises some interesting questions about what it means to be "Christian".
What Does it Mean to be "Christian"?
The bedrock of Christian faith is the narrative that c.2000 years ago, God the Creator took human form in the man of Jesus, who lived, taught, died on a cross, and three days later rose to life. The bible teaches that all people have turned away from God to try to live life their own way, rather than God's way- what the bible calls "sin". The consequences of sin, it maintains, are death and eternal separation from the God. At the cross, Jesus takes the place of humanity, taking the punishment for their sin, thus affording everyone the opportunity to be reconciled with God, and live eternally in paradise with Him.
According to biblical theology, a "Christian" is simply someone who has accepted Jesus' offer of reconciliation with God, by stopping living life their own way, and deciding to live life God's way- the bible calls this "repentance".
Is Trump Right?
Therefore, I think Trump is right in one regard (a phrase rarely heard from a Brit). Being a Christian is doctrinally seen as a personal decision involving the individual and the God they believe in. It would therefore seem impossible for one person to judge whether another is truly a Christian or not. They can have a good guess, based on what the individual professes and whether their actions match up. However, not even the Pope would claim to have the ability to look into someone's heart and analyse their true view of God.
Is Francis Right?
Nonetheless, Francis also has a point. If someone has accepted Jesus by choosing to live life God's way, in accordance with the bible's teaching, their actions should follow suit. The greatest commandment Christians are taught to follow is: love God and love your neighbour. And in Luke 10:25-37, when Jesus is asked "Who is my neighbour?" He replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan. This is a poetic story of unconditional compassionate love between two members of racially segregated, historically unamicable social groups. If one compares this teaching to Trump's rhetoric regarding Mexicans, Muslims, and many other minorities, a conceptual chasm emerges. Christians are told to love the people around them, not ban them or build walls to keep them away.
Is Trump a Christian?
From a theological perspective, Trump's rebuttal to the Pope's attack seems, to a certain degree, to be warranted. Christian theology gives no-one the right or the ability to decide whether someone is a Christian or not. However, if Trump really is a Christian, who has committed his life to living in accordance with biblical teaching, there is a lot he could do to act like it. If he is not a Christian, he is insulting a large proportion of the American electorate by misrepresenting their religion for political gain. And if he is a Christian, I think he should read his bible a little bit more.