Pope Francis lobbed a holy hand grenade into the Republican race on Thursday by labeling Donald Trump “not Christian” over his call for a border wall with Mexico. But the resulting explosion may engulf more candidates than the pope intended.
Trump may be famous for his pledge to build a “beautiful wall,” but much of the GOP field and even Democrats who have worked on immigration reform have supported similar barriers as well.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian,” the pope told reporters on Thursday, according to ABC News. “This is not the gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and I will give him the benefit of the doubt."
Hardliner Sen. Ted Cruz supports a wall, of course, and Dr. Ben Carson has talked up the effectiveness of multi-layered fencing. But then so does Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is considered a moderate within the party when it comes to immigration. “The wall has to go up,” Kasich told Fox News in September.
Sen. Marco Rubio also supports significant fencing at the border and this position predates his shift to the right on immigration. The bipartisan Gang of Eight bill he co-authored in the Senate was amended, at Rubio’s insistence, to require completion of 700 miles of fencing.
“We must secure our border, the physical border, with a wall, absolutely,” Rubio said in a September GOP debate.
Democrats, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, voted unanimously for the border amendment as part of a compromise to advance the bill. Sanders has indicated that he no longer favors including a fence as part of a reform package. Hillary Clinton voted for a fence as well when she was in the Senate in 2006, but has since said she supports alternative measures to secure the border.
Rubio responded to the Trump news with caution, saying he didn't want to respond directly without seeing the pontiff's full quote. But he indicated he thought it was unfair to question one's faith for backing tougher border security.
"[We]'re a sovereign country and we have a right to control who comes in and when they come in and how they come in," he told reporters in South Carolina. "Vatican City controls who comes in, when they come in and how they come in as a nation state or as a city state."
Among the current field, only former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has registered significant objections to a border wall, arguing that it was inefficient and costly compared to alternate security measures and would inflame tensions with Mexico.
Bush told reporters on Thursday that he supports "walls or fencing where it's appropriate," but not as a blanket approach. As for the pope's comments, he said Trump's "Christianity is between him and his creator."
The far bigger flashpoint among the GOP candidates on immigration has been the issue of deportations. Cruz and Trump favor removing all undocumented immigrants in the U.S. either by force or attrition, while Rubio, Bush, Kasich, and Carson have suggested that they should be given a chance to qualify for legal status if they meet certain requirements and the border is secured.
Trump responded to the pope’s criticism immediately on Facebook and accused Mexico of lobbying Francis to oppose his candidacy, “because they want to continue to rip off the United States.”
Trump added, “If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President because this would not have happened,” Trump said in the same post.