Heading into the South Carolina primary, the already bonkers GOP presidential race has gotten particularly nasty. However, the candidates were mostly unified in their response to Pope Francis’s claim on Thursday that Donald Trump is “not Christian” because he supports building a big, beautiful wall between the U.S. and Mexico. They agreed that it’s wrong (or at least misguided) to question another man’s religious beliefs — unless that man happens to be running against you for president of the United States.
None of Trump’s rivals joined in Pope Francis’s attack, but Ben Carson came close, telling Fox Business Network’s Neil Cavuto, “I am not going to judge Donald Trump in terms of whether he is a Christian or not. Some of the things he does may not be suggestive of Christianity, but then again all of us have weaknesses and shortcomings. That is what it is all about.”
After an initial bout of denial, John Kasich, who grew up Catholic and is now Anglican,* said he’s “pro-pope” at a CNN town hall on Thursday night. But he went on to defend Trump’s immigration policy, saying, “We have a right to build a wall, but I’ve got to tell you, there are too many walls between us.” Fellow Catholic Marco Rubio used a similar tactic earlier in the day. “I think the Holy Father recognizes, or should recognize and I believe he does, how generous America is,” he told CNN on Thursday afternoon. “So when it comes to accepting both refugees and immigrants, no nation on this planet is more welcoming, more open, or more compassionate than the United States.”
Trump’s two primary nemeses came down on opposite sides of the Trump vs. pope feud. While Cruz avoided the issue, telling reporters, “Listen, that’s between Donald and the pope,” Bush came to the front-runner’s defense. “I don’t question people’s Christianity. I think that’s a relationship they have with their — with their lord and savior and themselves,” he said at the CNN town hall. “So I just don’t think it’s appropriate to question Donald Trump’s faith. He knows what his faith is. And he has a — if he has a relationship with the lord, fantastic. If he doesn’t, it’s none of my business.”
It was an impressive example of Bush taking the high road, especially since he’s Catholic, too. Or rather, it would have been, had Bush not said the exact opposite last month. When asked about the strength of Trump’s Christian beliefs after he won the endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr., Bush said, “I don’t know what [religion] he is,” adding, “I don’t think he has the kind of relationship he says he has [with God] if he can’t explain it any way that shows he is serious about it.”
In Bush’s defense, he was just trying to get in on a hot trend in the 2016 race. Scott Walker and Rick Santorum pioneered the maneuver more than a year ago when they hinted that they subscribe to the popular theory that President Obama is only pretending to believe in Jesus Christ.
But unsurprisingly, it was Trump who brought the once-taboo accusation into the mainstream. He started in October with a dog whistle to conservatives who don’t believe that Seventh Day Adventists, such as Ben Carson, are Christian. “I’m Presbyterian. Boy, that’s down the middle of the road folks, in all fairness,” Trump told a crowd in Florida. “I mean, Seventh-Day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”
In January, Trump moved on to Cruz, who’s Southern Baptist, telling Iowa voters, “to the best of my knowledge, not too many Evangelicals come out of Cuba, okay? Just remember that … just remember.” In case anyone didn’t catch his meaning, Trump got rather explicit in recent days. He tweeted on Friday:
On Monday, he called Cruz a liar again, saying, “he goes around saying he’s a Christian. I don’t know, you’re going to have to really study that.” Then on Tuesday he added, that Cruz “holds up the Bible and then he lies about so many things.”
So without even getting into the larger problem of Trump’s disparagement of non-Christians, his pope retort is pretty interesting. “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful,” Trump said. “I am proud to be a Christian and as president I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now, with our current President. No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.”
But of course, it’s the pope who’s the hypocrite here. As many noted on social media, he lives in a city surrounded by walls!
… Which were built hundreds of years ago … and today millions of people roam through Vatican City every year … and generally they’re only separated from their families if they get swept up in a pack of tourists.
* A previous version of this post said Kasich is Catholic. He was raised Catholic and is now a member of the Anglican Church in North America. We regret the error.