Trump Takes Religion Tour On First International Trip

May 24, 2017
Originally published on May 26, 2017 2:20 pm
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The first three legs of President Trump's overseas trip took him to the ancestral homelands of the three great monotheistic faiths, Islam, Judaism and Christianity. It was an opportunity for a U.S. president to articulate his foreign policy in a religious context. NPR's Tom Gjelten says Trump struck some significant notes in that regard but disappointed some who had high expectations.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: President Trump angered many Muslims during his campaign by saying, among other things, he thinks Islam hates us. He made up in part for those slights on this trip by referring to Islam as one of the world's great faiths and saying he was delivering a message of friendship and hope. But many Christian and Jewish leaders wanted something else from Trump in Saudi Arabia. It's a country where the practice of any religion other than Islam is prohibited. One line in Trump's speech called for an end to the persecution of Jews and the slaughter of Christians, but he undercut that message in another line.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are not here to lecture. We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be or how to worship.

NINA SHEA: I think the president could have said a lot more.

GJELTEN: As director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, Nina Shea has written widely on the persecution of Christians, focusing in particular on objectionable language in many Saudi textbooks.

SHEA: He did not address some of the Sharia laws that are really bringing into question the equal citizenship of these Christians, and he did not bring up the textbooks which demonize the minority groups.

GJELTEN: Instead Trump highlighted a hundred-million-dollar sale of weaponry to the Saudis. In Jerusalem, Trump paid a respectful visit to the holiest place of Jewish prayer, the Western Wall, as well as the holocaust memorial Yad Vashem. But the autographed note he left there fell a little short in eloquence. It's a great honor to be here with all my friends, he wrote - so amazing, and we'll never forget.

Trump's one clearly religious encounter came today with Pope Francis, and it was probably the most anticipated meeting given their many areas of disagreement over the treatment of refugees, the environment and the morality of arms sales. Chris Seiple is president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement.

CHRIS SEIPLE: Apparently Pope Francis gave him three of his writings on world peace, on the environment and on the gospel, which stands in somewhat of a juxtaposition with the arms deal, Trump as a baby Christian and calling climate change a hoax.

GJELTEN: But Seiple on balance gives Trump decent grades on this trip at least for placing his promotion of U.S. foreign policy symbolically in a faith context - a somewhat harsher assessment from Natalia Imperatori Lee, a professor of Catholic theology at Manhattan College in New York. She did not see much evidence of Trump following a faith-based script on his trip.

NATALIA IMPERATORI-LEE: Instead what's coming across to me is that he's doing it as a business deal - right? - a series of business deals, which tends to be more his world view, which is what makes him so different from Francis.

GJELTEN: But the Holy Land trip was a tour through a minefield, and the potential for disaster was great. Given President Trump's propensity for off-the-cuff remarks and impulsive tweets that get him in trouble, his performance from Riyadh to Rome must be considered largely successful. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we incorrectly say President Trump highlighted a hundred-million-dollar sale of weaponry to the Saudis. We should have said billion.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.