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Cal, the Pope, the Donald and the Meaning of Faith




A few years after my father’s death — and an ensuing crisis of faith — I wrote a deeply personal book about the role of religion in public policy, from my perspective as a Jewish progressive in the buckle of the Bible Belt.  I traveled the country on a promotional tour, but my favorite forums were found in the hills and hollers of the Commonwealth, talking to gentile audiences about the commonalities between the Talmud and Rabbi Jesus’s teachings.

Invariably after each speech, at least one well-intentioned rural parishioner would approach me with a handshake or hug, proclaiming something to the effect of: “Jonathan, thank you for being so Christian.”

Fast forward a year later to the outset of my ill-fated 2007 gubernatorial bid.  I had hoped to campaign on my book’s themes — speaking from the heart about how all world religions share the same core value: the notion that our highest moral duty is “to love your neighbor as yourself.”  But as the pollsters conducted focus groups among Democratic primary voters, the same objection kept re-appearing: “I can’t support him.  He’s a too conservative a Christian!”

Psst: I’m a liberal Jew.

This week, the language of faith — and what it means to be Christian — came under considerable scrutiny:  both here among Kentucky’s kingmakers, and before a global political audience.

On Tuesday, I was honored to read a Hebrew Bible passage at Matt Bevin’s inaugural Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. (Of course, I chose instead to play my guitar and warble a Jewish prayer off-key; but that’s a story for another day.)  The keynote speaker was the High Priest of the Big Blue Nation, University of Kentucky basketball coach, John Calipari.

Cal’s pal (and former United Nations’ delegate) Kelly Knight set the table with a poignant introduction that focused not on the legendary Coach Cal, but instead, as she described, her friend John.  While we’re all familiar with Coach Cal’s hardwood triumphs and challenges, Kelly explained that her friend John is a devout man of faith, a daily mass-attending Catholic who regularly and instinctively proffers anonymous acts of kindness and compassion.

Calipari’s eight minute address challenged the rest of us to do the same.  Unlike most on the podium that morning, the Coach’s remarks did not address his personal relationship with God. Rather, Cal spoke of honoring our moral responsibilities through good works.  “Being one in God,” Calipari intoned, “actions speak louder than words.”

Remembering his life-affirming opportunity to meet Pope Francis last year, Cal noted that the Pontiff’s #1 lesson was to “treat people the way you want to be treated, the Golden Rule.”  Accordingly, the Coach galvanized the audience of politicians and policymakers to advocate for Kentucky’s most vulnerable, to give them a “hand up, not a handout.”  He even explained his player-centered coaching philosophy within the same ethical worldview:  Mentoring and empowering the young, often-economically-disadvantaged men to which he has been entrusted was far more morally significant to him than winning championships.

Watch the whole speech here:

Cal taught a powerful and influential audience one critical element of what it means for him to be Christian.

There’s been no more elegant and eloquent champion of that same philosophy than Cal’s hero, Pope Francis.  From the moment the world learned of his ministry, Francis focused on the needy: counseling the poor, embracing the disabled, even washing the feet of prisoners…serving, in Jesus’s words, “the least of us.”  It’s no wonder that the Pope has focused so much attention on the plight of world refugees and the Biblical commandment to “welcome the stranger” through humane immigration policies.

So on Wednesday, when asked about Donald Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric  — which includes a plan to build a “big, beautiful” wall separating the U.S. and Mexico — the Pope did not mince words: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”

Francis’ language was met by the sound and fury that’s been typical of Campaign 2016.  Trump fired back, aggrieved by His Holiness, claiming his comments were “disgraceful” and “unbelievable,” and even suggesting that the Mexican government put him up to it.  Other conservative politicos and pundits chimed in, criticizing the Pontiff for daring to challenge someone’s — anyone’s — faith, often throwing back Francis’ own words: “who am I to judge?”

The critics have a point: an individual’s relationship with God is much too intimate and far too personal to be questioned.

But let’s give the infallible Francis the benefit of the doubt.  Notice that he didn’t accuse the unnamed wall-builder of not being “a Christian,” but rather he claimed such behavior is “not Christian.” There is a distinction between the noun — which many believe refers to someone who first and foremost has accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior — and the adjective, which can be defined alternatively as “decent,” “humane,” and/or accepting of the obligation to pursue Jesus’s teachings.  The latter was certainly part of Coach Cal’s personal definition of what it means to be Christian.  And as some of my rural book tour attendees might argue, you don’t need to be “a Christian” to act “Christian.”

Perhaps you may consider the above paragraph to be the agonized-word parsing of an attorney and former proud Bill Clinton appointee.  And as a Jew, I certainly have no standing to engage in the debate about the meaning of Christianity.

But I’m glad it’s happening.  Too often when we discuss religion in the context of politics and public policy, we focus on the issues that divide us:  how we interpret the Holy Books to govern personal behavior, usually involving consensual sex.  Too rarely do we discuss the universal principles shared by all world religions that could bring us together: particularly those that implore us to act outside of our self-interest and serve our neighbors, primarily those that are suffering.

If the Pope/Trump debate has legs, perhaps more Christians — and Jews, and Muslims, and agnostics, and atheists… — will grasp a true tenant of all faiths and spiritual traditions, and accept Coach Cal’s challenge to take moral responsibility for the needs of our neediest. And if that happens, another typically brutal and ugly moment of the current campaign season could turn into something truly transcendent and beautiful.

Article written by Jonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller, The Recovering Politician (Twitter: @RecoveringPol), writes about the politics of sport and the sport of politics...and sometimes about bourbon. Jonathan has been elected twice as Kentucky's State Treasurer; practices as a crisis management attorney; authored three books on faith, public policy and crisis management; serves as a Contributor to The Daily Beast, played straight man on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; reached the final table of the World Series of Poker; and with his summer camp sweetheart, raised two remarkable twenty-something daughters.

32 Comments for Cal, the Pope, the Donald and the Meaning of Faith

  1. MikeUKFan
    8:06 pm February 21, 2016 Permalink

    A man that’s lives behind a big wall does not need to judge others for building one. I’m sure the pope has many other things he needs to address in his own denomination

  2. UK1983
    8:10 pm February 21, 2016 Permalink

    Well said. Me Miller you would have made a fine governor

  3. GroundControlToNumber9
    8:14 pm February 21, 2016 Permalink

    Another political post on a sports webpage…

    Countdown starts in 3, 2, 1:

    1. The comments section will be yanked in the next 30 minutes.
    A. Because John Miller is pushing his political agenda.
    B. People will call him out on it.
    2. The post might even eventually be wiped by Matt.
    A. Because he’ll take some heat for allowing it.
    B. It’s not worth the heat because Trump will win Kentucky anyway.

  4. Jambluehue99
    8:16 pm February 21, 2016 Permalink

    Last time I checked, the Pope as no authority, moral or otherwise, to insert himself into US immigration policy. If he wants to lead by example, he should knock a huge hole in the Vatican walls and let the drugs, human traffickers, and terrorist stroll right into his papal estate. I am sure Trump is no saint, but it will not be the Pope who ultimately makes that call.

  5. GroundControlToNumber9
    8:18 pm February 21, 2016 Permalink

    As poster 1 mentioned people see through the hypocrisy Jon.

  6. GroundControlToNumber9
    8:26 pm February 21, 2016 Permalink

    The ultimate goal of a Christian is to be allowed access by Saint Peter to the other side of the pearly gates upon death.

    Those gates are as tall as the sky and as deep as the galaxy. The gates are impenetrable and guarded just as the Vatican Fortress.

    In the US we are just as interested as the Vatican in protecting our values and way of life.

    Johnathon Miller is jewish and should know well the value of a good wall that works.

    What do you think we’re stupid Jon?

  7. cattycat
    8:32 pm February 21, 2016 Permalink

    Great article. But people with closed minds, cannot see.

  8. GroundControlToNumber9
    8:33 pm February 21, 2016 Permalink

    As a civilized society we are only as civilized as we are capable of maintaining rules and enforcing them.

    When the ability to maintain those rules is encroached by lack of action (Obama refusing to follow law and continue to build the wall) the people will do what is necessary to ensure we have proper leadership.

    Acts of love and kindness have the ability to be much more substantial, generous, and sustainable when they can be offered from a position of stability.

    We are a country of laws that protect freedom. It is very unique and important to protect those laws.

    • Wah Wah
      9:17 pm February 21, 2016 Permalink


      The means of enslaving the masses by allowing them to believe that they are free. lol

    • GroundControlToNumber9
      3:33 am February 22, 2016 Permalink

      Hey Wah Wah… your an idiot.

    • Wah Wah
      4:48 am February 22, 2016 Permalink


  9. Dano13
    8:54 pm February 21, 2016 Permalink

    “hand up not handout”
    I had quit reading your comments for some time, but found this interesting.That being said I am not a Catholic or a Jew but a Christian who also believes in helping the needy,until those needy use our system to abuse our help.I’m sure that even a liberal mind can wrap itself around the fact that our country needs some form of legal, LEGAL immigration and law enforcement that the current Pres. does NOT believe. BTW hope you didn’t smoke any of those cigars “Bill” gave ya. ewww:)

  10. The Original WTF Guy
    9:04 pm February 21, 2016 Permalink

    I’m continually frightened and confused by my fellow Kentucky fans. I’m also never disappointed by those who claim to be Christians but have as much understanding of the term as they do what it means to be a conservative.

  11. syrin23
    9:12 pm February 21, 2016 Permalink

    God forbid people come to the country using LEGAL channels. The Vatican has the harshest immigration policies in the WORLD, and has the biggest walls surrounded itself in the world. This is Petrus Romanus, and a f’ing communist loving ass bag. Care to look on the crime stats of illegals here in the US? Double the standard murder rate, drug trafficking rate, rape rate, etc. GREAT F’ing people to let come into the nation. Even better, after contributing nothing, they get checks in the form of welfare, food stamps, health care, etc. Liberals ruin every damn thing they touch, and America is in her death throws thanks to a decade of extreme liberalism. And yes, the republican party has been taken over by liberals. That is why Trump is popular.

  12. Wah Wah
    9:14 pm February 21, 2016 Permalink

    1.any opinion, principle, doctrine, dogma, etc., especially one held as true by members of a profession, group, or movement.

    1. a person who occupies land or property rented from a landlord.

  13. truthnotlies
    9:17 pm February 21, 2016 Permalink

    I have never seen so many phony hate filled Christains. This hate for helping others is evil.

    • Jambluehue99
      9:23 pm February 21, 2016 Permalink

      Please explain.

  14. Wah Wah
    9:21 pm February 21, 2016 Permalink

    A whole lot of you should read up on the history of the United State Military, CIA and State Department in Central and South America. A good start would be Old Gimlet Eye which is the autobiography of Smedley Butler. If you don’t know who he is, you should.




  15. rushman
    9:42 pm February 21, 2016 Permalink

    The Pope should stick to matters of religion and stay out of politics. How many illegal immigrants have been admitted at Vatican CIty this year Mr MIller? I also noticed the very nice wall at the Vatican. I assume that is to keep some people out.

  16. The Professor
    11:00 pm February 21, 2016 Permalink

    I find it amusing how non-thinking so many people are. They come across a sound bite on Fox News, Limbaugh or a Facebook post about walls around Vatican City and that becomes their talking point. They are parrots just echoing what they are programmed to repeat. Do you think Jesus would turn away refugees or people risking their lives to cross a border for crappy low paying jobs? Politicians are too gutless and afraid of the party fringes to take needed real immigration reform and not some idiotic building of a wall.

    • Wah Wah
      4:56 am February 22, 2016 Permalink

      I think Jesus ruled nothing. He would have turned no one away in this sense. He had less authority than the fantasy fiction that is the papacy.

      How long until the West is broke from allowing refugees or people risking their lives to cross a border for crappy low pay and all that goes with it in a quasi-socialistic welfare economy?

      The real affluent and powerful will never allow their own comforts to be absconded or their own monies to be taken away to feed the masses that you wish to feed.That leaves America’s poor and Middle Class. These folks are already being robbed blind by the Income Tax and the very Corporations which wish to hire cheap labor from down south to replace all American Workers.

      The first thing that needs to be done is to repeal the income tax. Then let those who can feed those whom they wish and stop attempting to be charitable with everyone else’s money, time and labor.

      Christianity is a myth. Society is a myth. Civilization is a myth. They are tools used to enslave you.

    • RealCatsFan
      7:35 am February 22, 2016 Permalink

      Hmmm, Christianity is a myth? Civilization is a myth? Maybe in your world. The real myth is that anything is going to change with the entrenched dual party political system we have in place where politicians are bought by super pacs and special interests. You wanna say Trump is different because he is spending his own money to get elected? That’s rich. Trump is his own special interest. If he gets elected, he is going to rig the system to be even more tilted to him and his rich cronies, and he is going to sit up there like an emporer with a shit eating grin on his face. Wake up, sheeple!

    • CATandMONKEY
      8:49 am February 22, 2016 Permalink

      “The real myth is that anything is going to change with the entrenched dual party political system we have in place where politicians are bought by super pacs and special interests.”

      Truer words would be difficult to find. Neither party represents me or any other reasonably regular citizen…and I have been fairly blessed/lucky/industrious enough to make a pretty decent place for myself and family in this world. Despite our household being amongst maybe the top 4 or 5 %, I have zero impact on the political process or access to any key decision makers on a national level.

      I always tell my super-partisan brother-in-law that neither President Obama nor Dick Cheney would stop to pick him up were he stranded on the side of the road. Despite his love for the former. I hold both parties equally responsible for the mess we are experiencing.

    • Wah Wah
      11:05 am February 22, 2016 Permalink

      We’ve had other parties that were just as entrenched. Some died away. Others morphed. I agree that it will be difficult to take them down.


      1. A Warrior God commands his people to take the promised land and commit genocide.

      2. Every time they are “bad,” he shuns them and allows them to be taken into captivity.

      3. He sends his sonny boy down to atone for everyone’s sins. Jesus says that his Kingdom is not of this world; that we should love one another, love the least of me as you would me, do unto other as you have have done to you.

      4. The Book of Revelations is written as prophecy on the fall of the evil [Roman] empire.

      5. God changes his mind and takes Rome into his confidence telling Constantinus to conquer in his name at the Battle of Milvian Bridge.

      6. Europe takes up the religion of this God and passes it on through violence.

      7. [If you believe the Muslims] God forsakes Christian Europe and allows the Great Islamic Empire to conquer the Holy Roman Empire taking every Great Christian Monument in the process. This lasts for a bit over 1200 years as the original land of Christendom (now Turkey and the Levant) are converted to Mosques and Madrassahs and Muslim lands. Christians convert [revert] to Islam in droves, in thousands, in their millions all but ending Christianity in the lands now owned by the Muslims.

      8. The Ottomans decay and fight on the losing side of World War 1. God has forsaken them. The Wahhabis awaken and are given millions of petrodollars by the “brilliance” of the west allowing the most violent strain of Islam to be spread across the globe using the best resources of the secular, kinda-sorta Christian West.

      Yeah, Christianity is a myth.

      Civilization & Society are systems which you are taught/programmed to obey so that your “betters” can stay in power above. Try going against that system.

      The Black Panthers did. The Ranchers did recently. Many have tried. May have been put down.

      Pay your taxes, recite the pledge of allegiance, submit to the State, obey the State’s minions, vote for your slave masters, obey!

    • Wah Wah
      11:08 am February 22, 2016 Permalink

      I mentioned Trump not one time.

      You, apparently, buy into the system more than you know.

    • Wah Wah
      11:09 am February 22, 2016 Permalink

      Have you never heard of the Gilded Age?

  17. bradbcats
    9:00 am February 22, 2016 Permalink

    If only everyone could get past their stupidity and blindness and actually practice this, the world would be a better a place.

  18. roundball fool
    9:52 am February 22, 2016 Permalink

    Excellent post Mr. Miller. Best thing I’ve read since Paul Prather’s take on some of this a few weeks ago.

  19. TheNewOriginal
    10:10 am February 22, 2016 Permalink

    Excellent post Mr. Miller. And, the pure idiotic responses criticizing the Pope appeared early and often, just as anticipated. It is very sad that so many “Christians” are too blind to see. Example: “The ultimate goal of a Christian is to be allowed access by Saint Peter to the other side of the pearly gates upon death. ..” Jesus is shaking his head, saying WTF?

  20. Wah Wah
    11:06 am February 22, 2016 Permalink

    Jesus started shaking his mythological head the moment the Roman Papacy was contrived by the Roman Emperors.

  21. Souf beach Lou
    11:39 am February 22, 2016 Permalink

    It takes 2 to tango and if the white supremacists are up in arms over illegal immigration then why don’t they also go after the businesses that employ them as well? Seems to me they just want to go after the immigrant that for the most part are trying to work and support their family but they fail to hold the employers to the same standard. Construction, agriculture even horse racing would collapse without the benefits that the un documented immigrant makes on behalf of our entire economy. Until the conservatives begin to call out the corporations benefitting from this undocumented workforce it’s safe to say this whole thing is about xenophobia and fear mongering.

  22. Megan
    1:16 pm February 22, 2016 Permalink

    One of my closest friends is hospitalized with leukemia and an autoimmune disorder. The prognosis is not good. Survival rates are described in the literature as dismal. Several of my friends have started something called a prayer chain at their respective churches because they believe in the power of prayer. They wanted my sick friend to know that they were doing this for him. In response, I sent a message to my sick friend that I won’t be praying for him. I’m an atheist, you see. And so is he. I know that when he gets my message, he’ll smile a big smile.

    I don’t begrudge anyone their religion. Just keep it to yourself. Your church is inside your heart, and that’s where it should stay. If it helps you walk a little taller and straighter, as George Carlin said, that’s fine. But don’t insist that others follow your faith. That’s when all the trouble starts, when you try to push your religious beliefs onto others. Religion is a very personal thing, so keep it that way.