Today’s post comes to us from David Mislin. David is a historian of American religion who teaches in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University. His first book, Saving Faith (2015), explores the embrace of religious pluralism by liberal Protestants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He is currently at work on a study of the idea of evil in American culture from the Revolution through the present. You can follow him on Twitter @dmislin.
President Trump left today’s much-anticipated meeting with Pope Francis with peace on his mind. The Vatican statement on the event noted that the two discussed “the promotion of peace in the world.” As part of their meeting, Francis gave Trump some art in the shape of an olive tree meant to symbolize peace.
The message seemed to stick, at least for the moment. “We can use peace,” the president told reporters. Before his plane took off for Brussels, he expanded on this idea on Twitter. “I leave the Vatican more determined than ever to pursue PEACE in our world.” Trump tweeted.
This interest in peace is notable for a president who during his campaign promised to kill not only terrorists but their relatives as well. Since taking office, Trump has proposed increasing funding for the military and overseen the dropping of the U.S.’s largest non-nuclear bomb on Afghanistan.
But even taking Trump’s statement at face value and crediting him with a newfound commitment to peace, he might find the pope holds him to an uncomfortable standard.
It’s worth noting that in recent years, popes have been extremely helpful in fostering peace agreements that the U.S. has supported. Francis was instrumental in brokering the deal to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba. He thereby ended one of the last remnants of the Cold War. In 2016, he stepped in to revive the U.S.-backed peace process in Colombia after voters narrowly defeated an agreement to end the conflict there.
But in the past, when popes publicly spoke of peace, it was often as a direct challenge to U.S. presidents.
In the early 1960s, with tensions rising between Buddhists and Catholics in South Vietnam, the U.S. government asked the Vatican for help dealing with the country’s Catholic ruler. Instead, Pope Paul VI repeatedly announced his willingness to negotiate a peace treaty. President Lyndon Johnson, who did not think Americans would accept any settlement that came out of such talks, was forced to sideline the pope. Otherwise he would face the embarrassment of rejecting the prospect of peace.(1)
Both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush faced opposition from Pope John Paul II for the two wars in Iraq. In 1991, during the first Gulf War, the pope frequently called for peace. Despite widespread support for the military response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the pope denounced the war as casting “a shadow over the whole human community.”
Twelve years later, as the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq, John Paul II again spoke out. But this time he was even more forceful. In the months before the 2003 invasion, the pope insisted that war was “not inevitable” and urged the two countries to “extinguish the ominous smoldering of a conflict which, with the joint efforts of all, can be avoided.” He also sent Bush – who had presented the war as a means to bring peace to the world — a letter calling on him to “search for ways of stable peace” without igniting a war. Bush, like presidents before him, ignored the Vatican’s plea. The result was a frayed relationship until John Paul’s death in 2005.
The lesson here is that if Trump espouses a language of peace, he should be prepared for the pope to hold him to it. He should also recognize that Francis will work for peace, with or without the backing of the U.S. After a contentious relationship with Francis during the 2016 campaign and despite their enormous differences on policy, the president and the pope managed to have a friendly meeting at the Vatican. But that is not certain to last.
Francis, like the popes before him, has already proved that he is serious about fostering peace. In his short time in office, Trump has proved equally persuasively that he intends to embark on a policy of military expansion and respond with force throughout the globe. The pope is perhaps the one person in the world who has greater power of persuasion than the U.S. president.
If Trump is not determined to “pursue PEACE in our world,” the world will surely hear it from Francis.
(1) These events are described in Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 529-530.