By heading straight to the homelands of Islam, Judaism and Christianity on his first presidential trip, Donald Trump took a major risk. The possibility of offending his hosts somewhere along the way with an ill-considered tweet or offhand remark loomed large. Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican are places where appearances matter and words must be chosen carefully.
“This was a kabuki dance through a minefield,” said Chris Seiple, who has written extensively on religion and foreign policy. “Any president would have difficulty handling it, given all the different perspectives and all the ways it could go wrong.”
During his presidential campaign, Trump angered many Muslims by saying he thinks that “Islam hates us” and by calling for a ban on Muslim immigration. Some Jewish leaders saw signs of anti-Semitism in his campaign imagery and in the comments of some of his aides and followers. Pope Francis suggested that anyone who called for the construction of a border wall to deter immigration, as Trump did, “is not Christian.”
Trump managed for the most part to avoid controversy as he moved from one religion’s capital to another, though his performance in some cases did raise a few eyebrows.
In Saudi Arabia, Trump compensated for some of his previous slights to Muslims by calling Islam “one of the world’s great faiths” and telling the Muslim leaders who came to hear him that his message was one of “friendship and hope.”
The version of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, however, is the strictest and most repressive in the Muslim world, with sharia law vigorously enforced. The practice of any religion besides Islam is prohibited, and apostasy, abandoning religious belief, is punishable by death. Though Trump has pledged to make the promotion of religious freedom one of his top priorities, he did not challenge his Saudi hosts on their discriminatory policies.
“We are not here to lecture,” he said. “We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.”
Many Christian and Jewish leaders were hoping Trump would use the occasion to speak up in defense of religious minorities.
“I think the president could have said a lot more,” said Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer who directs the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute and has documented objectionable passages in Saudi textbooks. “He did not address some of the sharia laws that bring into question the equal citizenship of Christians, and he did not bring up the textbooks that demonize minority groups.”
Instead, Trump praised Saudi Arabia as a “magnificent” country and touted a recent $110 billion arms sale to the kingdom. His speech in Riyadh focused narrowly on the importance of countering terrorism, though he did couch his argument in a religious context.
“Every time a terrorist murders an innocent person and falsely invokes the name of God,” he said, “it should be an insult to every person of faith.”
In Jerusalem, Trump paid a respectful visit to the holiest place of Jewish prayer, the Western Wall at the site of the biblical temples, as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed by Christians to be the place where Christ was buried and then rose from the dead. Trump also visited the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, although the note he left there was somewhat lacking in eloquence.
“It’s a great honor to be here with all of my friends,” he wrote. “So amazing & will Never Forget!”
Trump’s most direct religious encounter was with Pope Francis at the Vatican, and it was probably the most anticipated meeting of his religious tour. The two men disagree deeply over the treatment of refugees, human responsibility for the environment, and the morality of arms sales. Trump’s tendency for self-aggrandizement could not contrast more sharply with the pope’s humility, and Francis does not hesitate to make his feelings known, as he did in a recent TED talk.
“Allow me to say it loud and clear,” he said. “The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other.”
Neither the Vatican nor the White House released details of the pope’s conversation with Trump, though a subsequent Vatican statement called for “serene collaboration between the State and the Catholic Church in the United States, engaged in service to the people in the fields of healthcare, education, and assistance to immigrants.” The statement came one day after the White House released Trump’s proposed budget, which calls for deep cuts in food stamps and health care for the poor.
At the end of their Vatican meeting, Pope Francis gave Trump a copy of his papal encyclical on the environment, which calls for government action to address climate change, as well as other writings on world peace and the gospel.
Chris Seiple, who promotes a faith-based foreign policy as president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement, sees the pope’s message as standing in “juxtaposition” with Trump’s own record of questioning climate change, promoting arms deals, and fumbling Bible references. Seiple nevertheless argues that Trump and the pope share some traits that could make for a partnership. Both are world leaders, mindful of their positions.
“They’re both listening, they’re both shrewd, and they both know how to build brand,” Seiple said.
Seiple says he would have liked to see Trump do more on this trip to promote “a practical mechanism to have multi-faith discussions about terrorism, such as a religious freedom roundtable,” but in general he gives the president good marks. “He’s put the right foot forward in this very complicated region,” Seiple said.
Other assessments were more critical. Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a professor of Catholic theology at Manhattan College in New York, did not see much evidence of Trump following a faith-based script on the trip, as she hoped he might.
“Instead, what’s coming across to me is that he [approached the trip] as a business deal, or a series of business deals, which tends to be more his world view,” she said. “That’s what makes him so different from Francis.”