Next Wednesday, Pope Francis will welcome President Donald Trump to the Vatican. I am disappointed I was not invited to the meeting as I spend more time writing about the two of them than I do any other two public figures. And, how can I not? It is impossible for me to imagine two people more different from one another than Pope Francis and President Trump, and both are addressing, in very different ways, some of the core questions facing our Western civilization.
Pope Francis is a man of deep learning and spirituality. The range of references he appeals to in his writings evidences a man who has read widely and understood deeply. Spiritually, we saw last week at Fatima this quality he has of being able to enter into a profound, interior conversation with God, with hundreds of thousands of people watching! Pope John Paul II had that ability also. I think of how easily I am distracted during my prayers, and I realize that they reach down deeper, to a place I shall never experience.
Donald Trump has acknowledged he is not much of a reader. With some regularity, he says something that is beyond head-scratching, a comment that shows a thoroughgoing ignorance that is difficult to fathom, such as his comment that "nobody knew health care could be so complicated." As for his spiritual, he does not give any evidence of having an interior life. When asked if he prays and asks for forgiveness, he said, "I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don't think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't." Praying and not asking for forgiveness of one's sins is like going to McDonald's and not getting the fries; It sort of misses the point.
Yet, in one regard, there is a commonality between the two men: Neither the pope nor the president is a fan of neoliberalism. Both have critiqued the current economic structures and systems and done so in ways that are populist in tone and content. But, there the convergence ends: The way they believe we, as a people and a culture, must respond to the crisis of neoliberalism's collapse is wildly different.
Pope Francis discerns in the ideology of money an indifference to human values. He begins his critique of neoliberalism with an affirmation of the essential dignity of every human being, and points to the ways our current economic structures fail to honor that dignity. In some ways, Pope Francis echoes the concerns about modern, consumer society that emerged in the 1950s, and which were articulated so brilliantly by evangelical historian George Marsden in his book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment. A shallowness, a conformity, an intoxication with the material that crowds out the moral and the spiritual, these were the things that theologians and public intellectuals in the 1950s saw emerging and caused them concern. My review of Marsden's book for the Los Angeles Review of Books can be found here.
It is not that Pope Francis sees only a spiritual crisis in the West, nor that he only blames forces external to the church. He saves his harshest language for clergy who treat the People of God in an unmerciful and high-handed way. No, his way is to encourage, to dialogue and, most especially, to go to the peripheries to see how God is at work among His chosen people, the poor and the marginalized. Francis is a kind of champion of the global south, rich in resources both material and spiritual, but heretofore excluded and manipulated or worse by the powerful. He lifts up the lowly and sends the rich away empty. He could not be more countercultural.
Trump, on the other hand, epitomizes the emerging consumer culture of the 1950s that social critics decried. He not only likes glitzy show, it is the essence of his business empire. Trump was once a man who built buildings, but for the past twenty years or so he has mostly built only his brand. He puts his name on golf courses and ties, on steaks and on hotels. (He thinks there is some "value-added" quality to his own name, and the country evidently agreed with him last November.) Everything is over-the-top. Why have silver faucets in a bathroom when you can have gold? Why not have your own plane? At its core, his is a life that celebrates the acquisition of more and more stuff.
"If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick," John Steinbeck wrote to his friend Adlai Stevenson in 1959. Alas, here we are.
Instead of compassion, mercy, and reaching out to the excluded, however, Trump's recipe for coping with the problems of neoliberalism is to become most known for saying "You're fired." He stokes the anger of those who have been left behind by globalization, yet offers tax cuts to the superrich, doubling down on the trickle-down economics that largely got the nation in its fiscal mess in the first place. Instead of building a culture of solidarity, he demeans opponents and mocks the handicapped, and instead of building bridges to the excluded and marginalized, he indulges a kind of social Darwinism, characterizes desperate people as criminals, and seeks to build walls. He is a narcissist mixed with the worst personal traits of both a robber baron and a tinpot dictator, wrapped in marketing paraphernalia and glitter. Regrettably, he is also the president of the United States.
What will they talk about?
The night of his election as pope, I asked a Latin American bishop who knew Pope Francis if the new pope was shrewd. He replied, "I would say he is astute." I suspect that once they are in the room together with only the translator, the pope will put Trump at ease as much as he can, and try to find a point of human connection with him and try and build on that. That is to say, I suspect Pope Francis will behave as a pastor as much as a diplomat.
It would be foolish to expect much from this meeting. There is no reason to believe Trump will change. Quite the contrary. I fear that as he faces his mounting political woes, he will double down on the religiously infused nationalism that was the core of his campaign message. But, one thing will become clear to the pope: Having met this man, and experienced his unique personality traits, the pope will see those bishops in the U.S. who have been making apologies for Trump in a clearer light. And at the level of diplomacy, the Vatican, like the rest of the West, will need to look elsewhere for leadership.
[Michael Sean Winters covers the nexus of religion and politics for NCR.]