Donald Trump vs. Pope Francis: Game-changer in South Carolina?

Pope Francis's suggestion that Donald Trump isn't Christian, over his position on immigration, adds a wrinkle to the South Carolina GOP primary, where Evangelicals dominate. 

Max Rossi/Lane Hickenbottom/Reuters/Files
Pope Francis leads the First Vespers and Te Deum prayers in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Dec. 31, 2015, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (R) holds up a copy of the Bible he said his mother gave him as a youth during a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Dec. 29, 2015. Pope Francis assailed Trump's views on immigration as "not Christian" on Thursday, prompting the billionaire businessman to assail the religious leader as "disgraceful" for questioning his faith.

Has Donald Trump met his match?

When Pope Francis suggested to reporters Thursday that Mr. Trump “is not a Christian,” because of his tough approach to illegal immigration, a firestorm ensued. Trump responded as he always does: by going on the attack.

“For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful,” said Trump, who is Presbyterian, in a statement.

Later on Thursday, at a rally, Trump said of the pope’s comment, “Who the hell cares?... We have to stop illegal immigration, massive crime.”

Throughout his improbable presidential campaign, the brash billionaire has made one intemperate comment after another, and always seemingly comes out on top. But now, it’s Trump vs. the pope – and by extension, the Roman Catholic Church – and all bets are off.

The effect in South Carolina, which holds its crucial “first in the South” Republican primary on Saturday and where Trump leads in polls, may be minimal. The state, after all, is only 7 percent Catholic.

“But there could be a downstream effect to this that could come back to haunt [Trump],” says David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C.

Even people who aren't Catholic "have a lot of reverence for the pope and the church and what he stands for,” says Professor Woodard, who is also a GOP consultant and neutral in the presidential race. “I don’t think they’d want him picked on by a politician."

Trump’s appeal to the faithful in America has been one of the curiosities of this unusual presidential race – and South Carolina, in the heart of the Bible Belt, is no exception. Two-thirds of the state’s Republican primary electorate self-identify as “evangelical” or “born-again Christian,” and polls show Trump winning this cohort by margins even greater than his overall lead. The latest CNN/ORC poll in South Carolina shows Trump leading Texas Sen. Ted Cruz by 16 percentage points, 38 percent to 22 percent. Among Evangelicals, his lead over Senator Cruz is even bigger: 42 percent to 23 percent.

Trump may seem an unlikely choice for social-conservative churchgoers. He is twice divorced, married three times. He has used profane language on the stump (though has promised to stop). He referred to a book of the Bible as “Two Corinthians.” And as recently as last year, he spoke positively about Planned Parenthood.

But this campaign isn’t about social issues. It’s about a larger anger and frustration with Washington dysfunction. The politicians Americans send to the capital become captive of the “system,” and don’t bring the changes they promise, GOP voters say.

“He talks very matter-of-factly, very plain,” says Dianne Lawson of Ridgeland, S.C., at Trump’s rally Wednesday in Walterboro. “He says what a lot of us want to say but are afraid to say. You know, I think he’s very smart, otherwise he couldn’t have made the fortune that he’s made.”

The rally, held at a hunting ground in the state’s “low country,” focused on Second Amendment gun rights, but Trump recited his other usual lines – including his promise to build a big, “beautiful” wall along the southern US border, and have Mexico pay for it. That promise is part of what the pope objects to in Trump’s message, though this was the day before the pontiff’s comments.

“Donald Trump has not always been on the up and up, but neither has any other politician,” says Ms. Lawson, who is Southern Baptist and works at a federally funded health-care facility. “I think he’ll do the right thing. I think that’s what spirituality is about – doing the right thing.”

Others at the Walterboro rally, hosted by the “Lowcountry Sportsmen for Trump,” also defended Trump from a religious perspective. What about his three marriages? “The pope says it’s OK to remarry,” says Christopher Gardner of Santee, S.C., who calls himself Christian.

And the cursing? “I do it,” says Mr. Gardner. “I’m sorry for it, and I ask for forgiveness. We all do it.”

“Trump tells us he loves us. I’ve not seen another candidate who says that,” says Kent Gardner, his father. In running for president, “he’s giving up a lot. He’s sacrificing for us.”

Another rally-goer, Randy Huggins, a retired ad man from Ruffin, S.C., says he’s 90 percent sure he’ll vote for Trump, but his reservation has nothing to do with faith. It’s Trump’s recent criticism of former President George W. Bush – seeming to blame him for 9/11 and accusing him of lying his way into the Iraq War – that gives Mr. Huggins pause. Mr. Bush, whose brother Jeb is struggling in his own presidential campaign, is still popular in South Carolina.

“My only hesitation with Trump is that he sometimes, I think, will speak before contemplating what he says,” says Huggins, whose second choice is Cruz.

Cruz, more than any of the other candidates, has gone all-in for the evangelical vote. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, too, is making a special appeal to young Evangelicals, in particular. But it’s Cruz, the son of a preacher, who is most overtly religious, incorporating talk of scripture into his stump speech and calling on his supporters to “awaken the body of Christ that we may pull back from the abyss.”

On Thursday, Cruz released a list of more than 300 South Carolina pastors and faith leaders who have endorsed him for president.

But Trump, a political novice, is still winning that demographic, according to polls.

“One thing Trump has done very well is to really hit the issue positions a lot of Evangelicals are concerned with – not on the social issues so much, but everything else,” says James Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and an expert on the religious right.

Evangelicals tend to be less friendly toward immigrants and more hostile toward Muslims, particularly Evangelicals with just a high-school education, he says.

“Their faith is part of their nationality, in a way, and people who are outside of one or the other clearly are evaluated less favorably,” says Professor Guth. “The polls show that.”

The pope’s insertion into the presidential race, via the immigration issue, only raises the stakes. Nationally, 25 percent of the American electorate is Catholic, and this pope is popular, both inside and outside the church. Eight months after entering the presidential race, Trump may have overstepped an invisible line with his rhetoric. Or maybe not. Only one aspect of the 2016 race has been predictable, and that is it’s unpredictability.

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