Evangelical advisers of President Trump have requested a meeting with Pope Francis to quell criticism from Vatican allies over the political direction of American Catholics.
The dispute began when a Catholic and a Presbyterian leader close to the pontiff accused conservative American Catholics of forming a Christian alliance of "hate" with evangelical fundamentalists when they support Trump.
In July, a prominent Jesuit journal published with the Vatican’s approval criticized conservative U.S. Catholics for joining what it described as the political radicalization of conservative evangelicals.
The authors of the article accuse the groups of seeking a politically expedient alliance to promote a “nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state” and a “xenophobic and Islamophobic vision that wants walls.” One of the co-authors, Antonio Spadaro, the editor of La Civiltà Cattolica and a person who is close to Pope Francis, has said that the Vatican’s Secretariat of State read and approved the piece.
Johnnie Moore, an evangelical advisor to Trump and a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals, sent a letter to Pope Francis requesting the meeting on behalf of some U.S. evangelical leaders, including those close to the president. He sent the request to the Archdiocese of Washington and other intermediaries on Aug. 3.
“Rather than being offended, we have chosen to attempt to make peace,” Moore says. “We would be willing to get on a plane tomorrow to Rome to meet with whoever, whenever to create a space for dialogue instead of conflict.”
Moore acts as an unofficial spokesperson for Trump’s circle of evangelical advisors. The group includes Trump’s longtime spiritual advisor, Florida televangelist Paula White; Baptist pastor Jack Graham; president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference Samuel Rodriguez Jr.; president of the American Association of Christian Counselors Tim Clinton; and past president of the Southern Baptist Convention Ronnie Floyd.
None were specifically named in the La Civiltà Cattolica article, which argued in broad strokes that fundamentalist evangelical and Catholic factions have united over time. The piece did call out White House strategist Steve Bannon and the social conservative group the Council for National Policy. The White House, Moore says, was not involved in his decision to reach out to the Vatican. The Archdiocese of Washington declined to comment about the letter.
The La Civiltà Cattolica article is the latest evidence of a rift between the Pope and the President, and it has spawned extensive debate in Catholic and evangelical circles in recent weeks. The article accuses conservative Catholic and evangelical fundamentalists—who largely supported Trump’s election—of misreading the Bible to promote conflict for their political purposes. The authors caution against the prosperity gospel theology, and the use of anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage values as political mobilizing tools. They contrast the growth of these trends in conservative U.S. religious communities to Pope Francis’ message of inclusion. “Francis wants to break the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church,” they write.
Tension between Pope Francis’ agenda and Trump’s has been pronounced from the start, especially on migration and environmental policy. Pope Francis said it was “not Christian” to build a wall to keep out migrants, contradicting one of Trump’s main policy priorities, and he has also expressed concern that “demagogic” populism has been rising across the world. Last week, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops leadership opposed a White-House backed proposal to create a merit-based immigration system. More broadly, Pope Francis’ leadership has helped to reset Catholicism’s influence in American politics in recent years, as Rome seemed to favor a Democratic policy agenda versus a Republican one.
Conservative evangelicals may have had a more prominent role in Trump’s campaign than Catholics did, but the Vatican and the Trump White House also share commitments on other priorities. Both oppose to abortion, and both Pope Francis and Trump tweeted their support this summer for Charlie Gard, the terminally ill British infant whose case attracted support from social conservative U.S. activists. The Vatican and the White House also both prioritize protecting religious minorities, especially Christians, in the Middle East and in regions controlled by the Islamic State. Top U.S. Catholic and evangelical leaders stood together in the Rose Garden in May when Trump signed an executive order to give religious groups “regulatory relief” from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. Fighting global human trafficking is another shared goal, one that First Daughter and White House advisor Ivanka Trump promoted when visiting the Vatican earlier this year.
“We think it would be of great benefit to sit together and to discuss these things,” Moore’s letter to Pope Francis reads. “Then, when we disagree we can do it within the context of friendship. Though, I’m sure we will find once again that we agree far more than we disagree, and we can work together with diligence on those areas of agreement.”
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the religion of the authors of the La Civiltà Cattolica article. One is Catholic and one is Presbyterian, they are not both Catholic.