Why It Was Once Unthinkable for the President to Be Seen With the Pope

President Trump and Pope Francis managed such pleasantries seemed unthinkable a year ago.

As the 2016 campaign progressed, Donald Trump avoided igniting additional feuds with Francis. Although analysts believed that the candidate had a “Catholic problem,” Trump did quite well with Catholic voters on Election Day. He not only won white Catholics, but he increased the GOP’s share of Catholic voters over 2008 and 2012.


The much-anticipated meeting between President Donald Trump and Pope Francis – the third stop on the first overseas trip of Trump’s presidency – proved successful. Reports from the Vatican note that after “some initial awkwardness” the two men managed to exchange “smiles and pleasantries,” even amid their well-documented disagreements on issues ranging from immigration to the environment.

That the two men could even manage such pleasantries seemed unthinkable a year ago.

In February 2016, the pope criticized Trump’s central campaign pledge of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Francis suggested that Trump “is not a Christian if he said things like that.”

The response by Trump and his supporters moved the conversation beyond policy specifics. They raised the broader question of the pope’s involvement in politics. While reminding audiences that he is “proud to be a Christian,” Trump attacked Francis for being a “very political person.” In the campaign’s suggestion that the pope was interfering in U.S. politics, some observers heard echoes of older religious bigotry. One commentator wondered if Trump was “bringing anti-Catholicism back.”

This was not an unreasonable question to ask.

As the author of “Saving Faith,” a book on the efforts to develop a culture that respected religious pluralism in the United States a century ago, I recognize the issues at stake here: For the better part of a century, the GOP was the political home of anti-Catholicism in the U.S.

History of anti-Catholicism

During the late 19th century, large numbers of Catholics immigrated to the United States. Republicans frequently espoused open hostility to the newcomers. In 1884, a prominent supporter of the GOP’s presidential nominee denounced Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” Campaign rhetoric that year suggested that Catholics were a destabilizing force in American society.

More generally, observers proclaimed that Catholics maintained allegiance to the church first and to American values and institutions second. Anti-Catholic cartoons suggested that Catholics would use political power to dismantle the nation’s institutions. This baseless fear had circulated in the U.S. since the arrival of Irish Catholics several decades earlier. It often centered on the belief that Catholics, at the pope’s behest, would try to dismantle the nation’s public education systems.

Anti-Catholic rhetoric became especially heated when Catholics ran for public office. In 1928, Democrats nominated the first Catholic candidate for president, Al Smith. A wave of bigotry followed. As in the late 19th century, critics argued that the Catholic Church was too political. The Vatican would use a Catholic president as a way to meddle in U.S. politics.

Following Smith’s defeat, 32 years would pass before Democrats nominated another Roman Catholic candidate: John F. Kennedy. Before Kennedy won the close election, though, he also faced questions about whether he was loyal to the U.S. or to the pope.

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