As Trump takes office, the Pope’s year-long lessons on mercy face a test. That’s because Trump tends to evoke judgment, not mercy. His post-election comments suggest he has not been mellowed by the glow of victory. In words and deeds, he moves into the White House as the most unpresidential president of modern times, or maybe ever.
Many of the policy promises that won him election — on immigration, the environment, Muslims, cross-border trade, international relations — are unsettling. But every change in leadership comes with promises, and some are even kept. Aside from that, it’s the man himself who poses a significant challenge for Christians.
How do you respond with mercy and compassion, with patience and hope, with charity and forgiveness, when the president’s public pronouncements are often boastful, insulting, false and threatening? As the planet’s most powerful leader, Trump has an incredible opportunity to advance the common good, not only for America but for the world. But instead of words to encourage global peace and prosperity, his rhetoric continues to promote a self-centred America that, among other concerns, threatens the vulnerable with walls and deportations.
His blustery manner and acidic tongue are contributing to the decline of an already faltering level of civic debate. Perhaps the oval office will soften him, but for now Trump is the poster boy for a 21st-century tendency towards combative and impolite public discourse.
Which Trump policies become reality is for America to decide. But his operating style, the example he presents, is another matter. That is something all of society should overwhelmingly reject. Reacting to Trump by becoming like Trump is not a Christian option.
Christians are called to answer meanness with kindness, deceit with honesty, arrogance with humility, conflict with peace, judgment with compassion, despair with hope and oppression with justice. Yes, those are many cheeks to turn. But turn they must, because a terrible outcome of a presidency short on compassion and decorum would be for those attributes to become universal.
It is already too common in public arenas to shun honest, intellectual debate in favour of confrontations that are personal, disparaging and often dishonest. We live in a world of hyperbole, name-calling and Twitter shaming. Sadly, instead of respectful differences of opinion, the trend is towards rudeness and obstinacy.
In that sense, Donald Trump may be a man of the 21st century, and the Pope’s lessons in mercy were delivered just in time.