How one letter changed the story in Pope v. Trump

In keeping with the rich tradition of religious ambiguity, Pope Francis made a provocative and vague statement directed at Donald Trump that dominated headlines Thursday. News outlets, primarily broadcasters, ran with the most sensational interpretation, which played into the hands of Trump’s outrage strategy and was less charitable to Francis, and probably less faithful. A fairer reading could  have prompted an entirely different conversation. 

Francis was flying to the Vatican from Mexico, where just several hours earlier he’d conducted Mass before 200,000 near the border, close to El Paso, Texas. In that speech, and then in speaking with reporters from the aisle of his plane, Francis addressed contraception ethics in response to the Zika virus as well as anti-immigrant hostility. He was asked:

 

Donald Trump, in a recent interview, said you are a “political man” and that maybe you are a pawn of the Mexican government as far as immigration policy is concerned. He has said that if elected, he would build a 2,500-kilometer-long wall along the border. He wants to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, thus separating families, etc. I would like to ask you, first off, what do you think of these accusations against you, and if an American Catholic can vote for someone like this.

 

He replied, in part:

 

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.

 

It’s worth reading the question and response in full. The pope’s ambiguity comes down to the fact that “Christian” in English is both an adjective and a noun. Was the pope saying Trump is not a Christian or Trump’s behavior is not Christian? The latter, as an adjective, is a stern rebuke. The former, as a noun, challenges the validity of Trump’s claim to the faith. It distantly echoes excommunication. Even from a pope, the appearance of condemning someone as not (a) Christian is striking. Questioning that person’s understanding of Christian teaching, on the other hand, though perhaps still open to debate, is hardly incendiary. It’s difficult to make the case, for instance, that getting married three times is “in the Gospel.”

No matter the interpretation, a stern message from the pope about a presidential candidate is undoubtedly big news. But in a rush to make that news maximally inflammatory, media mishandled the pope’s statement in five key ways.

  1. News reports across the board presumed the noun reading, the one that would call Trump’s faith into question. To make this version more explicit, one would add an “a” before “Christian.” In fact, broadcasters did just that. Sean Hannity of Fox News previewed a segment in Thursday night’s program: “Donald Trump responds to the pope saying he is not a Christian.” The ambiguity inherent in the statement was never acknowledged, nor was the context of the pope’s comment. The troublesome “a” was used repeatedly that night. One guest, Evangelical leader and Trump advocate Jerry Falwell, Jr., said, unchecked, “I think the pope is confusing people by asking, Is this person a Christian, or Is that person a Christian?” Interviewing Vice President Joe Biden, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow twice inserted an “a” in reference to the pope’s statement.
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  3. Although print outlets surveyed didn’t go so far as to embellish the pope’s statement into “a Christian,” many advanced that interpretation, underscored by excessive paraphrasing. A New York Times report filed “from aboard the papal airliner” begins, “Pope Francis on Wednesday suggested that Donald J. Trump ‘is not Christian.’ ” In truth, a subtle distinction is crucial—that the pope suggested Trump’s wall policy is not Christian. It’s the difference between whether something is properly Christian and whether its identity is Christian. The Associated Press story, also written from the plane, starts, “Pope Francis declared Thursday that Donald Trump is ‘not Christian’ if he wants to address illegal immigration only by building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.” (Discrepancies in the day attributed to the comment apparently reflect confusion over time zone.) The provocative phrase “Trump is not Christian” was too much to pass up in the interest of nuance. The New York Daily News put it bluntly: “Donald Trump has been declared ‘not Christian’ by the world’s foremost expert on the topic.”
  4. That popular interpretation played right into Trump’s messaging and media strategy. It allowed him to hammer home signature themes about Mexican immigrants and the danger of ISIS. Many reports referenced or linked to his response on Facebook, which Friday morning showed more than 180,000 likes. Although fighting back against the pope is an audacious move for anyone, Trump’s indignation garners more sympathy when his faith is under attack (something “disgraceful,” he says) as opposed to his political views.
  5.  

    In response to the Pope:If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate…

    Posted by Donald J. Trump on Thursday, February 18, 2016

     

  6. Journalists reduced the event to a cliché head-to-head or back-and-forth, a “dust-up” in ABC News’ words. Trump’s disregard for institutions, from the news media to the Catholic Church, apparently, insulate him in such a clash. The Trump v. Pope treatment also distracts from the actual critique, which, most journalists neglected to note, applies to all GOP frontrunners, who compete to prove themselves most unsympathetic to illegal immigration.
  7. Breathless coverage that drums up the square off and blows by the ambiguity doesn’t adequately maintain the attention of journalists or their audience. Just after midnight Friday, Hunter Schwarz, a political reporter at Independent Journal, tweeted:
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    And this (sarcastic?) observation came from Politico reporter Glenn Thrush during that rush:

     

 

If comments from Francis are significant enough to garner major coverage—and they are—then it’s stunning to suggest they’d be adequately analyzed within a daily news cycle. It seems a clear case of media feverishness outpacing a reasonable rate of consumption by the public, and reporters instinctively reducing a complex debate to the day’s campaign fodder.   

The pope’s statement can be read multiple ways, but most news reports present a single, simplistic, sensationalist takeaway. Francis’ cooperation with journalists reflects good faith, and it wasn’t reciprocated.   

Danny Funt is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt