On the American Pope and the Limits of Forgiveness


Anti-Catholicism and the American Pope


Anti-Catholicism seems so last century.  Fears of a popish plot to take over America, temperance movements that found the ills of society in Irish and Italian immigrants, a peculiar nativism and Protestant identity politics feel more appropriate in 1918 than in 2018.


We might politely turn our nose at the Pope for being too catholic, too traditional or too authoritarian. But even then, we still crave authorities, whether religious, political or both to speak for us.  Even when we disagree with them, we are saying “no, not this authority but another…”


Some have soured on Pope Francis as he was supposed to be the progressive’s dream of a modern, compassionate Pope.  Much of that was done away recently when the Pope travelled to his home continent of South America and took the side of a priest tangled in a sex abuse scandal. Maybe this isn’t the Pope we were looking for.


But let’s not pretend there are not at least two popes making waves in political discourse today.  Pope Francis and his decidedly conservative American counterpart, Franklin Graham.  You may be a Catholic who squirms with the perceived progressive nature of this pope, or you may be an Evangelical tired of the curious blend of church and state on display in America since the 1980s. But we should recognize that we have de facto heads of the church that are encouraged to speak for the faithful. I am not asking anyone to affirm everything someone else says, even if they purport to speak on their behalf.  My point is that we have long established patterns of looking to a public figure to answer the questions we might have, on a national or international stage.  “I stand by…” might seem the preface to a statement by a political lemming.  But unless we are able to read, digest, and think about every news item, we need people applying various matrices (moral or otherwise) to topics on which they have presumably researched. 


We need informed and engaged public figures to make public statements even when we vehemently disagree with them.  In fact, we might need them specifically because we disagree with them.  People with the gall to consider themselves the leaders of millions have put themselves on stage, surely knowing, that everything they say will be scrutinized, debated, followed, discarded or lazily put into mental filing cabinets for the next family political discussion.  If they make a misstep and are crucified on the altar of public opinion, we might learn to be more careful in private speech.  We need authorities to be lightning rods.  We need them to be courageous in their convictions and willing to face the slings and arrows of outrageous message boards and rabid reporters looking for a scoop.  Unfortunately, this often causes us to wade through dangerous territory in finding our moral authorities. And often this involves making it past the media trolls.



Trolls and Trump fatigue


I can’t stand by a troll, even if I agree wholeheartedly with them, because their language seems at once combative and defensive.  Trolls feed on cacophony and rage.  Trolls inhabit the moderate, center and left news platforms.  Sure, Mother Jones or the Federalist have journalistic integrity and well-intentioned columnists looking for sanity, but too often they play to their bases.  Criticism can be levied, but the retort very often plays to base party politics and vague notions of what we sometimes call ‘the right’ or ‘the left’.  Trolls are no longer just the proverbial "guy in his mom's basement" but also news hosts, politicians and sometimes, even us.


How do we avoid trolling? I don’t assume many columnists start out with the intentions of being trolls, it seems to happen slowly over time.  How might we avoid the slippery slope to troll-dom? Imagine the kindest and most sincere person you know who also happens to disagree with you.  Write to them, or at least with them in mind as members of the audience to whom you write.  Turn down the easy high five and that secret delight we get when outraged.  Engagement on social media platforms and message boards are too easy and feed our tribalism.  Maybe we sit out the next Twitter war, choose not to comment on a Facebook post and assume the best intentions of our ideological enemies.

But all of this is tiring.

I suffer from Trump fatigue.  As I sat down last week to write I found myself unable to write anything that would not be seen as “too combative” by some or “not combative enough” by others. I had decided to not write about current events at all, but burying our heads in the sand will not make it go away.  We need to look at all actions taken by the state on our behalf as concerning us and worthy of our time.  But everything? Surely not everything, and so we must first wade through the news, decide what is worthy of our time and decide which sources are worthy of our trust.  And just as the hundreds of talking heads on television had begun their loud banter inside my brain, the gates of heaven opened and Franklin Graham sat down for an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon.



The American Pope, Don Lemon, and The Limits of Forgiveness

Don Lemon is not Tom Brokaw.  His show can be sensationalistic and loud, at times.  One website has chronicled “A Brief History of Don Lemon Saying Questionable Things”.  Franklin Graham is not the same beloved Evangelical leader his father was and has a history of public controversy.  But amidst the question of the President and alleged moral failings, I welcomed the two into my living room (possibly scratching the secret papist itch I have for authorities making public opinion). When asked about his alleged extra marital affair with pornographic actress “Stormy Daniels” Lemon asked, “Why do you think Evangelicals were so willing to call out say, Bill Clinton's behavior but not President Trump's?”



Graham responded:


"I think that's a very good question, Don. And I appreciate that. The difference is what happened with Bill Clinton, he did this while he was in office and that's the difference and what Kennedy did, the affairs he had was while he was in office. The affairs that Johnson had while he was in office.  These alleged affairs, they're alleged with Trump, didn't happen while he was in office. This happened 11, 12, 13, 14 years ago. And so, I think that there is a big difference and not that we give anybody a pass, but we have to look at the time line and that was before he was in office.  And I think the president has changed quite a bit in the last 11 years, at least I had seen that... And Don, listen, all of us are sinners, you, me, and Donald Trump, there is a lot that we can do to improve. Donald Trump is not perfect." 


Graham is arguing that:


1.     It happened a long time ago

2.     He has changed

3.     Nobody is perfect, anyway


These have become the talking points, agree with them or not.  Furthermore, Graham stands firmly in the pro-Trump camp as a social conservative and also defends the president using the argument from the booming economy to support his praise of the president.  It doesn’t matter if you agree with Graham or not, he is faithfully playing the role of evangelical opinion maker or American Pope.  Graham argues that moral failings might not exclude someone from high office, he’s not the same man he used to be, and even still no one is perfect and we might stop looking for perfection in our presidents.  Maybe he didn’t answer the questions the way you might have, but he gave you a template for when you argue religion and politics with your liberal brother-in-law or conservative cousin.  Graham made declarative statements that we can decide to use as a model for how, or how not, to speak. 


But Graham’s defense of Trump goes beyond opinion making and wades into territory near to the hearts of all Christians.  Graham is essentially saying that the power of forgiveness is so strong, that even alleged affairs and bawdy behavior can be wiped clean by Jesus.  Certainly, all Christians believe that even the chief of sinners is worthy of redemption.  And not a paltry forgiveness at that.  It is the forgiveness that Johnny Cash sings about when he claims that despite their infamy, and our desire for justice:


There’s no eye for an eye

There’s no tooth for a tooth

I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth

We might be tempted to say “forgive the sinner, condemn the sin” and propose a model of expelling an individual from a leadership position.  But at some level this would become the law’s exacting model of an “eye for an eye” and eventually all our civic leaders would be blind.  We have to struggle with public office and the limits of forgiveness.  How radical is this forgiveness? What can be forgiven but disqualifies you for public life? The answers tend to come on a sliding scale and we might want to adjust our knee jerk reactions.


In the meantime, I’ll hearken back to those olden days of American Pope bashing to call on the encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891) and remind us that in spite of plunging global markets or surging domestic stock exchanges, that our fate is not tied to the fates of the temporary authorities in these pilgrim lands but rather our kingdom is not of this world. 


Everything is Going to Be Ok,




Dr. Daniel van Voorhis is the director of The League of Faithful Masks which produces the Virtue in the Wasteland podcast.  He received his PhD in 2008 from the University of St. Andrews and was recently a professor of history and political thought as well as Assistant Dean at Concordia University, Irvine.  He is the author of Monsters: Addiction, Hope, Ex-Girlfriends and Other Dangerous Things.


Daniel van Voorhis