I had already written “How Would Jesus Govern?” (posted here a couple of days ago) when the imbroglio between Pope Francis and Donald Trump temporarily took over the news cycle February 18.
Other matters now figure prominently in the news, yet the Pope’s criticism of Trump’s wall serves to illustrate the point that it is much too easy for politicians and religious figures to play the “Christian’s Can’t” trump card, combining theological categories with political possibilities (pun intended).
Pope Francis, critical of Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to prevent illegal immigration, said that while he gives Trump the “benefit of the doubt,” nevertheless “A person who thinks only of building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
This is the trump of all trump cards, in that the Pope goes much further than saying a Christian should not favor physical barriers on international borders or that the Christian should favor open borders between nations. Instead, he went so far as to say that those who would consider a border wall are not Christian.
In orthodox Christian belief, most would agree that the one who denies that Jesus came in the flesh is not Christian. The one who denies that Jesus is God is not Christian. The one who denies that Jesus is the only way of salvation is not Christian. The one who denies that Jesus earned righteousness and bore man’s penalty for unrighteousness by dying on the cross is not Christian.
These matters, and a few others, relate to the fundamentals of the faith, where fundamental means an aspect of the faith that is necessary for it to remain the same faith.
However, one will search long in the Bible (our guide to faith and practice) for any hint that one’s perspective on international politics and immigration is necessary to saving faith, or even remotely determinative of whether one inherits eternal life.
Border policy, in terms of theological litmus testing, might just rank below the number of angels who could fit on the head of a pin and the sequence of end times events.
So, what did the Pope mean, and why should Christians — particularly Protestant Christians — care about it?
It is possible that the Pope’s declaration, given a generous interpretation, bears some truth.
In a sense, a spiritual barrier or chasm (“wall”) exists between sinful humans and the holy God. This chasm must be “bridged” by One who is both holy and human, the man Jesus Christ. And those whose way to God has been bridged by Jesus Christ are set on the task of helping others find the bridge, as well.
In fact, a popular evangelistic tract uses this bridge imagery to great effect.
In this sense, then, Christians should be in the business not of building bridges but of declaring the bridge between God and man, and of building not physical bridges but relational bridges between man and man.
Whatever truth might inhere to the Pope’s statement, though, he offered it in reference to Trump’s border wall policy. Because context is key, his statement must mean something with regard to physical walls and bridges.
But if he was not speaking in a purely spiritual sense, which the context suggests, his statement becomes quite incoherent, and eminently impractical.
This is so because we all build or use walls every day, when we enter our homes. Walls designate which is your space and which is mine, and prevent unrestricted and unauthorized travel between them. Walls keep inmates in their cells, convicts in prison, thieves out of Fort Knox, and assassins out of the White House.
Additionally, very few of us have had even a minor hand in building an actual bridge. Is the Pope calling on believers to change vocations?
And, as many have pointed out, the Pope himself benefits from a wall around the Vatican, which, like the walls in our homes, prevents unrestricted and unauthorized travel by those outside to the spaces inside.
Was the Pope, then, being intentionally vague? He did seem to relish the opportunity to show himself a “political animal.” We expect politicians to make statements that lend themselves to favorable interpretations by all constituents, much like the message in our fortune cookie or daily horoscope can fit virtually any situation.
But we should not expect such imprecision from as prominent a religious figure as the Pope.
Pope Francis has committed what I like to call the “Bread & Butter Fallacy,” in which a statement from the Bible, or spiritual truth, is offered as proof that one must support a certain conclusion related to civic life, just as directly as one would spread a pat of butter right on a slice of bread.
The Pope equated building a border wall with building a spiritual wall, and equated building a spiritual bridge with removing (or not building) a border wall.
Here are a few additional examples of the Bread & Butter Fallacy: Jesus said “turn the other cheek,” therefore, we should all be pacifists; God said “love your neighbor as yourself”, therefore, we should provide free college education; “God loves a cheerful giver”, therefore, tax rates should be high.
In these examples, the conclusion is deemed self-evident from the premise, but errors are made because crucial steps of reasoned application are omitted especially failing to recognize the difference between personal and governmental application. (This type of reasoning might also commit the faulty appeal to authority, apples-to-oranges, and non sequitur fallacies).
Biblical truth might occasionally support the civic conclusions reached by those who propose them, but Christians should avoid the Bread & Butter Fallacy, and should be able to detect when others are making it.