On Tuesday in Warm Springs, Georgia, Joe Biden stopped on the campaign trail and spoke at some length about Pope Francis’ recent encyclical. The encyclical is timely for Biden, a devout Catholic, since the pope suggested some questions all politicians should ask themselves about why they’re seeking higher office. But President Donald Trump’s campaign seized on the comments and edited them to make it look like Biden wasn’t all there mentally.
Here’s Biden’s full quote, captured by reporter Alexandra Jaffe for the Associated Press:
“In his recent encyclical, Pope Francis warns us against this phony populism that appeals to ‘the basest, the most selfish instincts.’ He goes on to say, ‘politics is something more noble than posturing, marketing and media spin. These sow nothing but division, conflict and a bleak cynicism.’ He said ‘For those who seek to lead, we do well to ask ourselves: Why am I doing this? Why? What is my aim?’ Pope Francis asked the question. And anyone who seeks to lead this great nation should be able to answer. And my answer is this: I’m running to unite this nation and to heal this nation. I’ve said that from the beginning.”
That’s pretty standard stump speech stuff from a politician and while you may or may not agree with what Biden’s saying, there’s nothing incoherent about it. But an account managed by Trump’s 2020 campaign snipped around the context and used the pope’s questions (“Why am I doing this? Why? What is my aim?”) to make it sound like Biden was falling apart on stage. The account tweeted the clip to its over 964,000 followers, where it’s been retweeted around 2,000 times, as of this writing.
Joe Biden: “Why am I doing this? Why? What is my real aim?” pic.twitter.com/pNPfzirGjO
— Trump War Room – Text TRUMP to 88022 (@TrumpWarRoom) October 27, 2020
This isn’t exactly a novel trick. Politicians have always enjoyed seizing on opposition comments that can be easily stripped of context to sound worse than they are (a few famous examples: Sarah Palin’s line about Alaska, President Barack Obama’s infamous “you didn’t build that!”.) That doesn’t make it OK, but it’s not exactly unique to the Trump campaign.
But using Pope Francis’ own words does feel unique, as does this attempt to spin Biden not just as a threat to conservative gains but a mentally unwell man. Tricks this dirty should be beyond the pale, even if they rarely are.
In a recent conversation with RELEVANT, author and political consultant Michael Wear said that part of being a politically engaged Christian is knowing which political tricks are and are not available. “There are some tools in the political toolbox that we don’t use,” he said. “For instance, denigrating the humanity of our political opponents or willfully misleading people in order to get our way. Those are tools we don’t use because, for Christians, faithfulness is not just the means. It’s the end.”
Every campaign of any party should be able to make their case without resorting to misleading the very voters these political leaders seek to represent. But until that’s accepted, voters should be extra suspicious of tiny, bias-confirming soundbites.