The Pope and the Pagan

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Their differences go way deeper than immigration policy. Photo: Evan Vucci/AFP/Getty Images

The contrast between a grim-faced pope and the grinning president at the Vatican this past week was not lost on the press or late-night TV. But they missed the mark, it seems to me. They noted merely that the two leaders profoundly disagree on, say, the dignity of immigrants, the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, or the urgency of tackling climate change. While these disagreements exist, they are, it seems to me, merely symptoms of a deeper chasm — the vast, empty, and dark space that lies between Donald Trump and anything resembling Christianity.

I don’t believe that there is a Christian politics as such — there is plenty of scope for disagreement about how to translate a Christian worldview into secular politics, or whether to translate it at all. But I do believe there is a Christian set of core human virtues and values, rooted in what we Catholics still think of as the truth, and that those virtues are rooted in the Gospels. We all fail the virtue test, of course, including yours truly, perhaps more than most. But Trump is a special case — because when you think about those virtues, it is very hard to see Donald Trump as anything but a living, breathing, shameless refutation of every single one.

Trump is not an atheist, confident yet humble in the search for a God-free morality. He is not an agnostic, genuinely doubtful as to the meaning of existence but always open to revelation should it arrive. He is not even a wayward Christian, as he sometimes claims to be, beset by doubt and failing to live up to ideals he nonetheless holds. The ideals he holds are, in fact, the antithesis of Christianity — and his life proves it. He is neither religious nor irreligious. He is pre-religious. He is a pagan. He makes much more sense as a character in Game of Thrones, a medieval world bereft of the legacy of Jesus of Nazareth, than as a president of a modern, Western country.

He loves the exercise of domination, where Christianity practices subservience. He thrills to the use of force, while Jesus preached nonviolence, even in the face of overwhelming coercion. He is tribal, where Jesus was resolutely universal. He is a serial fantasist, whereas Jesus came to reveal the Truth. He is proud, where Jesus was humble. He lives off the attention of the crowd, whereas Jesus fled the throngs that followed him. He is unimaginably wealthy, while Jesus preached the virtue of extreme poverty. He despises the weak, whom Jesus always sided with. He lies to gain an advantage, while Jesus told the truth and was executed for it. He loathes the “other,” when Jesus’ radical embrace of the outsider lay at the heart of his teaching. He campaigns on fear, which Jesus repeatedly told us to abandon. He clings to his privileged bubble, while Jesus walked the streets, with nothing to his name. His only true loyalty is to his family, while Jesus abandoned his. He believes in torture, while Jesus endured it silently. He sees women as objects of possession and abuse, while Jesus — at odds with his time and place — saw women as fully equal, indeed as the first witnesses to the Resurrection. He is in love with power, while Jesus — possessed of greater power, his followers believe, than any other human being — chose to surrender all of it. If Trump were to issue his own set of beatitudes, they would have to be something like this:

Blessed are the winners: for theirs is the kingdom of Earth.

Blessed are the healthy: for they will pay lower premiums.

Blessed are the rich: for they will inherit what’s left of the earth, tax-free.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for oil and coal: for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciless: for they are so, so strong.

Blessed are the liars: for they will get away with it.

Blessed are the war-makers: for they will be called very, very smart.

Blessed are those who support you regardless: for theirs is the Electoral College.

Blessed are you when others revile you and investigate you and utter all kinds of fake news about you. Rejoice and be glad, for the failing press is dying.

The week Trump visited the Vatican, a transcript of his April 29 phone call with the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, leaked. In it, Trump tells Duterte that his extrajudicial murders of hundreds suspected of being in the drug trade was “an amazing job.” Trump’s proposed budget, released this week, would eviscerate basic support for the poor in order to reward the already stupendously superrich, and would lay waste to the natural world so that our collective wealth, already greater than any country’s in human history, could be goosed some more. His party’s health-care plan would throw 23 million people off their insurance, even as he pretends it will cover everyone. Every pillar of Trump’s essential character is a cardinal sin for Christians: lust, gluttony, greed, envy, anger, and pride. We are all guilty of these, of course, but there is in Trump a centrality to them, a shame-free celebration of them, that is close to unique in the history of the American presidency. I will never understand how more than half of white Catholics could vote for such a man, or how the leadership of the church could be so terribly silent when such a monster stalks the earth.

Then there was his choice to visit Saudi Arabia as his first foreign trip. Of all the countries! Most presidents have begun their foreign excursions with Mexico and Canada, democratic neighbors and trading partners. Not Trump. He picked a gruesome, militarized, misogynist dictatorship, that makes Margaret Atwood’s Gilead look like a feminist playground. It is a country that imports millions of foreign workers in what amounts to near-slavery conditions and that refuses to cooperate in efforts to restrain human trafficking. In a week when extreme Sunni terrorism claimed yet more lives in Manchester, Trump visited the country that was central to spreading Wahhabist ideology and Salafist theology throughout the world in the first place, that funded the precursor to ISIS, that denies minimal freedom of religion, and that gave us the perpetrators of 9/11. While Obama prudently leveraged the Shia-Sunni conflict by engaging Iran as well as the Sunni states, Trump has returned to the pro-Sunni and pro-Israeli playbook.

This was particularly weird on the same weekend that Iran — the focus of Trump’s ire — actually held an election, in which both men and women voted. Yes, of course, the choices were constrained by Tehran’s theocracy —but the reelection victory of Rouhani, the architect of the nuclear deal, was striking. Seventy percent of the country turned out, and Rouhani won by a near-20-point margin against his hard-line opponent. He has a mandate for more liberalization, and picked up momentum in the final weeks of the race by emphasizing more liberal themes. This is, of course, Obama’s long game vindicated. The former president gambled that by engaging Iran and getting a nuclear deal, he could buttress the resistance movement that fueled the Green Revolution, and slowly pull Iran back into a more moderate path. While the mullahs’ grip holds, it’s remarkable how successful Obama’s strategy has turned out to be:

Despite controlling most unelected councils, the conservative clerics and Revolutionary Guard commanders have suffered a string of political defeats, starting with Mr. Rouhani’s election in 2013. That led to direct talks with their archenemy, the United States, and ultimately to the nuclear deal, which they opposed. Then moderate and reformist candidates made strong gains in last year’s parliamentary elections.

Among the more profound shifts in Iran under Rouhani has been the opening up of superfast internet access, giving ordinary Iranians instant exposure to the West. Can you imagine an election in Saudi Arabia much less one in which women were allowed to vote and the internet operated as a key pillar of an open media? And the potential for further change only opens up further as the 78-year-old Supreme Leader faces mortality.

Of course, the U.S. relationship with the Saudis is worth keeping; and the arms sales are lucrative. I’m a realist. But to throw the American lot entirely in with the Sunnis in the regional Sunni-Shiite war, to embrace the Saudis so openly in Trump’s first trip abroad, to effectively deepen the U.S. involvement in the brutal assault on Yemen that the Saudis have launched, and to punish Iran for its internal liberalization and adherence to the nuclear deal makes absolutely no sense to me. Yes, it serves Israel’s interests, which is why Netanyahu is happy. It enables him to isolate Israel’s key rival in the region, while he further entrenches Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. But it is not at all clear it serves America’s.

On May 31, 1982, this magazine published the first report on “a mysterious new disease” that was afflicting gay men in New York City. Earlier this month, 35 years later, the BBC reported on a new study in the Lancet that found that an HIV-positive 20-year-old who started anti-retroviral treatment in the past decade can now be expected to live for 78 years — indistinguishable from a normal life span. From a survival rate of a few months or even weeks after diagnosis in the early 1980s, we have finally arrived at the effective end not just of a plague but of an illness.

This is the kind of news, of course, that never gets to be news. It’s one of the greatest success stories in the history of human medicine — the first successful checking of a sophisticated retrovirus — and yet few noted this landmark moment. But a landmark it is. In the mid-1990s, I was taking up to 30 pills a day. Now I take two — with far fewer side effects. The credit for this goes to those activists who refused to give in to complacency, to the scientific and academic researchers who pioneered deep research, to the doctors who persevered through unimaginable loss, and, yes, to the evil drug companies who formulated every single one of the treatments, and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. I remember when I was privileged to write an essay marking the end of the plague experience, in 1996 — and was subjected to a tsunami of criticism, denial, and hostility for pointing out the now-established empirical truth. Good news is often first rejected, then taken for granted, and then finally forgotten. And this, of course, is the ultimate irony. Gay men in their 20s have no idea of what happened in their own communities only 25 years ago — and they care even less.

Last August’s Carnival Week theme in Provincetown — one of the enclaves utterly devastated by the virus a few decades ago — was, I kid you not, “Back to the ’80s.” It was as if a Jewish community decided to put on a parade whose theme was “Back to the ’30s.” And almost no one even noticed. Gay men do not have gay biological parents, and so the usual ways in which history is remembered — the passing down of memories through the generations within families — are weirdly absent. The AIDS epidemic is as real to today’s gay 20-somethings as, say, the American Civil War. Maybe this is a good thing — it prevents trauma being passed down as well. But it also stings to remember the faces of the dead and the trauma of the survivors and know that almost none of this matters to gay men any more.

“Always Forget.” It’s a strange moniker for a community that only a couple of decades ago was in an existential crisis. Perhaps it’s a mercy that the dead are no longer here to note the callowness of it all.

See you next Friday.

The Pope and the Pagan