President Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory board is asking Pope Francis for meetings with him and other high-level Vatican officials to discuss “efforts to divide evangelicals and Catholics.”
The request comes a few weeks after two of Francis’ closest allies published a critical article about the shared political activism of conservative evangelicals and Catholics, saying it has “an ideology of conquest.”
The piece attracted wide attention because of the connection that the authors — an Italian Catholic priest and an Argentine Presbyterian pastor — have to the pope and because of its range: It disparaged everything from conservative evangelicalism and prosperity gospel to the popular idea that the United States is blessed by God. It was published mid-July in the influential Rome-based Jesuit publication La Civilta Cattolica.
It was the latest in a series of rocky back-and-forths between Trump’s circle and the pope’s, over issues including a U.S.-Mexico wall and climate change.
The letter dated Aug. 3 was signed by Johnnie Moore, a former vice president of Liberty University, who now serves as a spokesman for a few dozen evangelicals who informally advise Trump and who represent the faith group seen as having the most regular access to the White House since the election.
People who have been in group meetings at the White House include Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas and Paula White of New Destiny Christian Center in Florida.
The La Civilta Cattolica piece set off intense debate. Many Trump critics loved to see Francis’ name attached to a piece that lashed out by name at White House leaders, including Steve Bannon, a Catholic, who it called “a supporter of an apocalyptic geopolitics.” Others believed it painted a caricature of U.S. religion, and signaled that the pope and his advisers misunderstand the issues.
Asked if the group would take up the criticisms in the Jesuit article, given how close the authors are to Francis, Moore said in an interview that perhaps there is an “understanding gap” at the Vatican.
“I am and a lot of us are genuinely surprised that a pope who has principally a reputation as a bridge builder, if he did know about this, that he’d allow something like this to be published,” he said. “Whether his bridge building extends even to those in his own church and the greater church or the extended church that disagree with this piece.”
Only parts of the evangelicals’ letter to the pope, first published in Time, were made public.
“It’s in this moment of ongoing persecution, political division and global conflict that we have also witnessed efforts to divide Catholics and evangelicals. We think it would be of great benefit to sit together and to discuss these things. Then, when we disagree we can do it within the context of friendship,” Moore wrote. “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.”
It was impossible to immediately gauge the impact of the letter, which for some religious leaders was the equivalent of a hot potato.
The archdiocese of Washington, to whom the letter was given, declined to comment, as did the Vatican press office. Various Catholic and evangelical leaders declined to comment, including the National Association of Evangelicals, on whose board Moore sits.
Denomination has become less and less important to U.S. Christians, and the faith alliances that are more powerful in American life today tend to focus on policy aims. Conservative Catholics and evangelicals work closely together on things like opposing gay marriage and advocating for Christian refugees from the Middle East. More progressive Catholics and evangelicals work closely on things like immigration and health care — both areas where their partnerships have them fighting the Trump White House.
Many religious institutional leaders have been sharply critical of Trump, but this is an era when traditional religious institutions have been declining in public influence. The one glaring exception to that has been Pope Francis, with polls regularly showing him among the leaders most respected by Americans. However he also has spurred intense dislike among certain groups of conservatives, particularly those who oppose his view of environmentalism and a limited free market.
Trump won white evangelical voters 80-16 percent over Hillary Clinton, and white Catholic voters 61-37 percent. Nonwhite evangelicals went 72-24 percent for Clinton while nonwhite Catholics went approximately 67-25 percent for her.