Donald Trump has gotten away with campaign indiscretions that have brought down other, regular candidates and he is likely to survive the Thursday spat with Pope Francis as well.
South Carolina Republicans, who are overwhelmingly Protestant evangelicals, won’t let the exchange determine their vote in the primary on Saturday, and Trump’s rivals backed him up too.
Pope Francis started the spat, to be fair, telling reporters, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
He didn’t name Trump, but the reporter had in a question during a news conference aboard the Pope’s official aircraft on his way back from a visit to Mexico, and the border.
Trump has promised that if elected he will build a wall along the border with Mexico, which, he said, will be paid for by Mexico, to stop illegal immigrants from entering the US.
It’s been a popular issue for him, and has been adopted even by his rivals, but it has, equally, made him unpopular across the border in Mexico, and the Pope probably heard it.
Trump, never one to back down, hit back at the Pope saying, in a statement, “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian.”
He pressed on, reading from a written statement at a rally, which he rarely does: “No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.
“They are using the Pope as a pawn and they should be ashamed of themselves for doing so, especially when so many lives are involved and when illegal immigration is so rampant.”
Those were strong words he used for a popular religious leader who has impressed the world with refreshingly progressive views on gay marriage and contraception.
But Trump is no progressive and knows his religion and his politics. He is a Presbyterian, a denomination of the Protestant Christianity, which formed after a schism in the Anglican Church.
While 70% of Americans are Christian, most of them, 46.5%, are Protestant, who are not affiliated to the Vatican, and only 20.8% are Catholic, for whom the Pope is their religious leader.
Trump is safe, therefore, in taking on the Pope, politically.
South Carolina is at the bottom of the table of states with catholics, and while the Pope is respected as a religious leader, Trump is unlikely to be punished for being unkind to him.
“I think if you are a fan of Mr. Trump’s, it doesn’t matter what anybody says, even the Pope, about his views,” said Andy Shain, a politics reporter for local daily The State.
“If you’re a fan of Mr. Trump’s, you’ll feel like the immigration problem here in the United States is gone awry, you feel like that America’s not safe from terrorists. So to a certain degree, they’re going to say this is just another world leader chiming in to say – to offer an opinion.”
Rivals for the White House, even those bitterly opposed to him, supported Trump. Jeb Bush, a Catholic, said faith is between god and the follower, and no one should be allowed to intervene.