A Scholar of American Catholicism Responds to Jerry Falwell’s Remarks About the Pope

Senator Bernie Sanders Speaks At Liberty University Convocation

Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, has endorsed Donald Trump. And now Falwell Jr. is defending Trump against remarks made by Pope Francis that the New York businessman and GOP presidential candidate is not a Christian because of his views on immigration.

Here is a taste of a piece at Newsmax:

Further, said Falwell, “I think the Pope is mistaken. I think John F. Kennedy would be rolling over in his grave right now if he could hear what the Pope was saying, because that’s a man who fought to be president against lots of prejudice, because many Protestants in this country did not want to elect a Catholic president, and he broke down those barriers.”

Jesus said to “render under Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” Falwell continued. “And that means to choose the best president. Here’s the Pope saying we have to choose the leaders — sounds like he’s saying this — that share his faith. Or share the Christian faith.”

Julia Byrne, the Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman Endowed Chair in Catholic Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, responded to the Pope-Trump-Falwell controversy at her Facebook page.

Here is what she wrote:

• A lot of Roman Catholics support Trump, and will continue to support him here. (I have to  get numbers, and the class breakout.) Stephen Prothero has been saying that Trump is if nothing else a masterful politician, and I am starting to agree.

• Among many many white US Roman Catholics–all classes–and this is part of the legacy of JFK’s legitimizing and mainstreaming–Catholic is currently a word that means 1) my family/community connections optionally including religious practice; 2) valorization of white-ethnic identity including historic formation alongside the Roman church, life-events sanctioned by it, and identifying Catholic material culture like saints and crucifixes; and/or 3) “normal American,” i.e. Christian Smith’s “moral therapeutic deism,” not anything specifically theologically Catholic.

• This “normal American” way of using the word Catholic is also how many many white Protestants use the word Christian. Which since JFK has led, as we know, to previously unthinkable levels of collaboration between Protestants and Roman Catholics on issues of policing what normal in America means.

• As a scholar of religion, none of this is “not religion,” “not Christian,” or “not Catholic” to me. People are whatever they say they are. So I guess I … agree with Donald Trump?!

• But I do witness what Pope Francis said, and what many other Christians including Catholics try to say, as their identifying words change public meaning in directions they don’t like. Which is basically, we wish Christian including Catholic meant something else.

• But a lot of what they wish is exhorting a past that never existed, nostalgia for when everyone only ever used the words to reflect a reality of robust specific knowledge, sincere religious practice, and accountability to traditions that called you beyond your own self. Which was, for the vast majority of Christians including Catholics, never.

• Still, there is a difference between past times, when US Roman Catholics and Protestants defined themselves in opposition to each other, and now, when many alliances have erased differences, while a Roman pope trades on general Christian goodwill toward him to pronounce on the Christianity of a Presbyterian presidential candidate who then claims to be a better defender of the Vatican than the pope, and prominent Protestant Republican Falwell uses Catholic Democrat icon President Kennedy to chastise the pope.

And a bunch of RCs will agree with Falwell.

What happened in the US Roman church between then and now?