In this chapter from the 2017 book ‘The Mighty and the Almighty’ Nick Spencer considers Trump’s professed faith. The chapter covers the time period up to the first few weeks of Trump’s presidency. 02/06/2020
There are many reasons why Donald Trump should not be in this volume. Mr Trump had been US President for a matter of weeks at the time of writing. Prior to that, he had never held public office of any kind. He is not known for his interest in theology, the Church or religion. His statements about faith, not least his own faith, have been infrequent and vague.
And yet, Trump is insistent that he believes in God, loves the Bible, and has a good relationship with the church. He made some loud Christian noises on the campaign trail, and garnered a remarkable level of support among (white, evangelical) Christians. His first days in office have been marked by political appointments and policy gestures calculated to appeal to the ‘Religious Right’. Simply to dismiss Trump’s faith talk would be to dismiss Trump, and 2016 showed that that is a mistake.
Donald John Trump was born in New York in 1946, the fourth child and second son of Frederick Christ Trump, the son of German immigrants, and Mary Anne Trump, née McLeod, who had been born on the Scottish island of Lewis.
Frederick and Mary Anne were a wealthy couple, having made money through real estate; when he died in 1999, Frederick left a (much contested) will of nearly $300 million. The family lived in New York and Donald attended the New York Military Academy from the age of 13, although managed to avoid combat in Vietnam. He went on to study economics at the University of Pennsylvania and to work in the family real estate company, then called Elizabeth Trump & Son, before taking over control in 1971 (his older brother showing little interest in business).
The company, which he renamed The Trump Organization, would be famously successful and unsuccessful. A number of real estate deals in Manhattan and New York would turn the company into a multibillion dollar enterprise, and over the years Trump would add numerous hotels, golf courses, and casinos to his portfolio. However, many of his enterprises would be declared bankrupt – six times in total between 1991 and 2009 – and although Trump himself never personally filed for bankruptcy, leaked tax returns from the mid–1990s reported enormous business losses which meant that he was able to escape paying income tax for much of the next two decades.
Alongside his business affairs, Trump developed a powerful media presence, primarily through the US reality TV programme, The Apprentice, which proved enormously popular and financially rewarding, from which role Trump left in 2015 to pursue his political ambitions.
Those ambitions were famously dismissed as fantastical and outrageous by many people during the Republican primaries and in the early stages of the presidential campaign. Donald Trump had never held any public office at any level, a deficiency that he turned into a virtue in the light of the widespread public disaffection with ‘Washington’. He had no long–standing allegiance to any particular party or political ideology. He showed few signs of grasping, or wanting to grasp, geo–political details, openly disputed with the intelligence services, refused to confirm he would accept the result of the election if he lost, and generally exhibited such a profound lack of experience and interest as to cause fifty former national security officers to sign a letter saying he was “not qualified to be president and commander–in–chief… [and] would put at risk our country’s national security and well–being.”
Over above this professional inexperience were the personal flaws he revealed on the campaign trail and, in particular, an attitude to women that could be bluntly misogynistic.
Trump first married the Czech–born American businesswoman, Ivana Zelníčková, in 1977, with whom he had three children. They divorced fourteen years later when it emerged that Trump was having an affair with Marla Maples. Trump and Maples then married in 1993 but split six years later, after which Trump remarried again, this time to Melania Knauss, a Slovenia–born American model, with whom he has one child.
Throughout his marriages Trump was dogged by multiple accusations of sexual misconduct – numbers vary but certainly exceed a dozen. He dismissed these as political smears but did little to help his image when he implied that Fox News’ Megyn Kelly asked him a tough question during a TV debate because she was menstruating, and was then revealed, on a ten–year old recording, boasting about sexual harassment. “I moved on her, and I failed,” he told radio and television host Billy Bush, talking about TV host Nancy O’Dell. “I did try and fuck her. She was married. And I moved on her very heavily….I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn’t get there. And she was married.” In case this wasn’t candid and revealing enough of his character, he went on to tell his friend, “You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet… when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything….Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Such views were complemented by his mockery of Serge Kovaleski a reporter with arthrogryposis, or congenital joint contractures (something Trump subsequently denied doing), his description of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, and his blanket hostility toward and interdiction of Muslims entering America. Although he received nearly three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, he won 56% of electors in the Electoral College and took the oath of office on 20 January 2017.
According to Michael Gove, the first British journalist to conduct an interview with the new President, Donald Trump is less influenced by religion than any president since Richard Nixon. While the analysis of presidents in this book would support that verdict, it would be wrong to assume that this meant that Trump is unfamiliar with, indifferent, or, still less, hostile to Christianity.
Trump’s parents were Presbyterians, who attended Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. Part of the Reform Church in America, Marble Collegiate Church is best known for being one of the oldest continuous congregations in America, having been founded in 1628, and for its mid–century pastor Norman Vincent Peale. Peale headed up the church for over half a century from 1932, speaking to congregations that could number in the thousands, many drawn there by his book The Power of Positive Thinking. This was a fairly normal example of the self–help genre, but one that was driven to abnormal success – it remained on The New York Times bestsellers list for over three years – by the way it managed to blend “worldliness with godliness,” resulting in “an easy–to–follow theology that preached self–confidence as a life philosophy.”
Both the book and its author were criticized by theologians and church leaders at the time for a partial, materialistic, and egocentric understanding of Christianity in which the individual assumed centre stage, sin was replaced by negativity, redemption by optimism, and Jesus Christ tacked on as something of an afterthought. Positive thinking was deemed vaguely cultish, evasive and morally thin. It was, however, rather popular.
Trump knew Peale as a child, attended his church for several years, and retained a connection with him into his adult life, Peale marrying Trump and Ivana in 1977. Trump would latterly refer to Peale with admiration, remarking at the Iowa Family Leadership Summit in 2015 that he still now remembered Peale’s sermons: “he would bring real–life situations, modern day situations into the sermon. And you could listen to him all day long. When you left the church, you were disappointed that it was over.”
Peale’s influence was not total. Peale was married for 63 years, led a scandal free life and condemned the 1952 Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson II as unfit for office on account of his being divorced (a condemnation that elicited Stevenson’s memorable riposte: “Speaking as a Christian, I find Saint Paul appealing and Saint Peale appalling.”). However else Peale’s Christianity influenced Trump, it wasn’t in his attitude to marriage, divorce or women.
In as far as Peale did influence Trump – one cannot dismiss the possibility that there was simply a happy coincidence between the pastor’s message and Trump’s natural worldview – we see in Trump’s faith a similar egocentric confidence – a kind of “moral therapeutic deism” – rather than anything one might identify as informed by Christian doctrine or orthodoxy.
In his book, Think Like a Billionaire, Trump wrote that if God “ever wanted an apartment in Trump Tower, I would immediately offer my best luxury suite at a very special price.” This reads like quite a good joke, not least as the preceding phrase tells his reader “for the record I do not think I am God.” However, his ensuing words – “I believe God is everywhere and in all of us, and I want every decision I make to reflect well on me when it’s time for me to go to that big boardroom in the sky. When I get permanently fired by the ultimate boss, I want the elevator to heaven to go up, not down” – suggest that the billionaire was being serious, and could imagine God incarnated in a cut–price penthouse suite rather than Bethlehem stable.
He went into more detail, of sorts, in an interview with The Brody File. “I believe in God. I am Christian,” he told David Brody, a journalist for the Christian Broadcasting Network. “I think The Bible is certainly, it is THE book… I’ve had a good relationship with the church over the years. I think religion is a wonderful thing.” When pressed about whether he went to church he said he went “as much as I can”, although what this actually meant was not entirely clear. “Always on Christmas. Always on Easter. Always when there’s a major occasion. And during the Sundays. I’m a Sunday church person. I’ll go when I can.”
A further, if slightly idiosyncratic, illustration of the nature of his faith was in his revelation that he was sent Bibles by many people. Being based in Manhattan, he hadn’t the space to keep all his mail but he refused, out of respect, to bin the Bibles he received. “There’s no way I would ever throw anything, to do anything negative to a Bible, so what we do is we keep all of the Bibles.”
Respecting the Bible was not the same as knowing it, however, and questions of – and about – Trump’s knowledge and understanding of the Bible followed him around the campaign trail. Having said that the Bible was his favourite book, ahead of his own Art of the Deal, he refused to name a favourite Bible verse, telling Bloomberg Television that he didn’t want “to get into specifics,” and leading some critics to doubt whether he knew any. A few months later, when asked the same question he replied that it was “an eye for an eye”, a revealing, if odd choice of bible verse for a Christian, given Christ’s abrogation of the command. He subsequently said he liked the book of Proverbs and in particular “the chapter ‘never bend to envy’”, which doesn’t appear to exist.
More significantly, Trump pooh–poohed the idea that he needed to repent or ask God for forgiveness for his actions. “I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there…. if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.” Quoting chapter and verse is a pretty superficial, party–game way of identifying someone’s Christianity. Hearing them reject the need for repentance is somewhat more substantial. While this attitude may have been in keeping with Norman Vincent Peale’s positive thinking (and even then it may have been stretching it somewhat), it is harder to square with the famously blunt but oft–quoted New Testament verse, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
Given Trump’s patchy and idiosyncratic knowledge of the Bible, his marital and sexual history, and his disavowal of the need for repentance, one would have assumed that America’s Christians, and in particular the country’s large and influential evangelical constituency – for whom biblical knowledge, sexual propriety and personal repentance are conspicuously important – would have found little reason to support Donald Trump.
At first, they did not. Prominent evangelicals, like James Dobson of Focus on the Family, threw their weight behind Senator Ted Cruz. Anti–abortion women released an open letter entitled, “Pro–Life Women Sound the Alarm: Donald Trump Is Unacceptable.” According to the Pew Research Center, as late as April 2016, only a third (34%) of Americans who attended religious services weekly said that Trump was the preferred Republican nominee, whereas well over half (57%) were Trump “skeptics… having not expressed support for Trump as the GOP nominee in any of the three surveys [December 2015, March 2016 and April 2016] conducted by Pew.” One profile said confidently, that those “for whom religion is the central thing in their lives will likely be more put off by him than those whose connection to Christianity is more limited.”
It made sense at the time but turned out to be a dreadful prediction. Trump’s Christian constituency began to swell when he achieved the nomination, and swelled further when it became clear that he would be standing against Hillary Clinton. Nomination secured, Trump released a long list of evangelical advisors, not, his press release made clear, because they had formally agreed to support him, but rather because he wanted to endorse them: “The formation of the board represents Donald J. Trump’s endorsement of those diverse issues important to Evangelicals and other Christians, and his desire to have access to the wise counsel of such leaders as needed.” It was reminiscent of Reagan’s address to national convention of the Religious Roundtable in 1980, though without Reagan’s cinematic charm.
Trump’s support began to grow. Richard Land, seminary president and Southern Baptist leader, joined the advisory board, on the grounds that it was his “spiritual obligation and responsibility to speak biblical truth in love to all who will listen”, though did not endorse Trump. Popular author, speaker and radio host Eric Metaxas lent his support. James Dobson came round to the cause. Jerry Fawell Jnr., President of Liberty University and son of late Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, was a long–standing and vocal supporter.
Much of this support was transparently because Trump was the not–Hillary candidate, Hillary Clinton animating a spectacular fear and loathing among millions in America who would have voted for pretty much any human being in history to prevent her acceding to the Oval Office.
For others, however, Trump was a genuine and sincere born–again believer, albeit one who had much to learn of the faith. “I believe he really made a commitment,” James Dobson said, adding that “he’s a baby Christian… You got to cut him some slack.” Falwell said that Trump “lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the Great Commandment.” Most prominently, pastor and evangelist Paula White, who was credited with leading Trump to faith and who delivered a prayer at his inauguration, insisted that “I have heard Mr. Trump verbally acknowledge his faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of his sins through prayer” “I know that President–elect Trump has a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ,” she added on the eve of the inauguration. “We’ve had in–depth conversations about God”, although she too acknowledged that he “doesn’t speak what I call ‘Christianese’”.
Christian, indeed even evangelical, support was not ubiquitous. When Jerry Falwell Jnr voiced his support, over 2,000 students from his university signed a petition opposing the Republican candidate. Nearly 80 evangelical leaders signed a petition in October declaring that “Mr. Trump has fuelled white American nationalism with xenophobic appeals and religious intolerance at the expense of gospel values, democratic principles, and important international relationships.” Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission said that “for evangelicals to support Donald Trump would mean tossing aside everything that evangelicals have previously said about character matters and about human dignity.”
Most substantially, Andy Crouch, formerly editor of Christianity Today, wrote a scathing critique of Donald in a pre–election article, which was hardly uncritical of Hillary Clinton. Trump’s obsession with wealth, success and the self, and his “vile and crude boasting about sexual conquest”, exemplified precisely what St. Paul urged the early Colossian Christians to avoid: “‘sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry”. His words to Trump–supporting evangelicals were not much more emollient:
“Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbours ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self–interested, and so self–protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.”
If not quite voices crying in a wilderness, such evangelical complaints went unheard or unheeded. According to the Pew Forum, 58% of Protestants voted for Trump (vs. 39% who voted for Clinton), as did 81% of white evangelicals – a higher proportion than had done for George W. Bush in 2004.
A week may be a long time in politics, but a month is not long enough to judge the theo–politics of a new President.
Opinions of what we should expect of Trump from the nature of his appointments vary. Some, like Michael Gove, have argued that Trump has “tended to appoint people on the basis of either business expertise or military expertise or rather than coming from particular traditions.” Others like Michelle Goldbergjan in the New York Times have insisted that “for all his flagrant sinfulness, he’s assembling a near–theocratic administration, his cabinet full of avowed enemies of church–state separation.”
For all that this verdict is marred by the “theocratic” hyperbole so favoured by liberal critics, it is clear that, however thin Trump’s own loyalty to the Republican party is, his is clearly a Republican administration, staffed by people with views on issues like abortion, sexual ethics, taxation, education, faith, and evolution that Democrats and secularists (and some Christians) do not like. Some appointments, like Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State (who, as head of Exxon Mobil, acknowledged anthropogenic climate change and, as head of the Scouts, opened its membership to gay youth) may not quite fit the stereotype. Others – like Steve Bannon, formerly of Breitbart News now White House Chief Strategist, Mike Pompeo, as CIA Director, or the Vice President himself, a Catholic altar boy turned evangelical – fulfil every liberal fear.
Whether Trump’s libertinism makes him “the perfect Trojan Horse for conservative values”, as Michelle Goldbergjan put it, is too early to tell. What his first few weeks in power do show is a willingness to pursue conservative causes that are more reflective of Trump’s supporters than Trump himself.
Not long after inauguration day, the President reinstated the so–called “gag rule”, preventing those NGOs that receive American state funding from conducting, or offering information about, abortions, a rule introduced by Ronald Reagan in 1984 and treated as a political football by incoming Republican and Democrat administrations ever since. Shortly after that, Mike Pence spoke to the March for Life in Washington, D.C., the highest official to appear at this annual pro–life event. Trump has also made promises to defund Planned Parenthood, America’s largest single abortion provider.
These are all classic ‘Religious Right’ moves but it is worth recalling that one of the few ‘Did he say that?’ moments in his Presidential campaign from which Trump rowed back was his off–the–cuff statement that there should be some form of punishment for women who have abortions were the practice to become illegal in the US. This achieved the remarkable feat of uniting (in opposition) both pro–life and pro–choice campaigners, something that many thought impossible, but it also underlined how little thought–through was Trump’s own views on this issue. In regard of this, the early pro–life noises made by his administration seem to reflect less the President’s carefully–considered views on the issue, still less his longstanding faith–based commitments, as they did for someone like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, but more those of the support base that brought him into power and to which he is happy to give space and support.
More authentically Trump, as evidenced in the earliest weeks of his presidency, is another aspect of Norman Vincent Peale’s Christianity heretofore not mentioned: its fiercely patriotic spirit.
Preaching and writing during the Cold War, Peale’s Christianity, like that of Whittaker Chambers who proved such an influence on Ronald Reagan, was loudly patriotic, seeing in America’s Christianity a sign of divine favour and responsibility against the totalitarian godlessness of Soviet Communism. Trump arrived in the White House at a time in which, for all their recently–heightened tensions, relations between America and Russia were on a different scale than in Peale’s time. Nevertheless, these rather different conditions notwithstanding, a similarly patriotic tone suffused both Trump’s campaign – “Make American Great Again” – and his first days in office.
This was well seen in his inaugural address. The speech was comparatively brief, at 16 minutes and a little over 1,400 words, but mentioned “America”, “American” or “Americans” 34 times. Trump promised that “from this moment on, it’s going to be America First”. He said that they would rebuild the country “with American hands and American labour”, that “every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families”. He ended with the rousing, repetitive, rallying cry, “Together, We Will Make America Strong Again. We Will Make America Wealthy Again. We Will Make America Proud Again. We Will Make America Safe Again. And, Yes, Together, We Will Make America Great Again.”
This resolute focus shifted the address from being patriotic, which all Inaugurals are by definition, to being straightforwardly nationalistic, a fact underlined by his declaration that the day of his inauguration should be a “national day of patriotic devotion”. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas was not alone in picking up the significance of that last word, writing in the Washington Post, “Patriotic devotion? Christians are devoted to God, not to any nation.”
Trump’s address was, in fact, no more biblically or theologically–saturated than previous Inaugurals, although the ceremony was symbolically heavily Christian, with a record six separate prayers spoken and with Trump being sworn in on two Bibles (his mother’s to him and the Lincoln Bible). The speech itself contained only one reference to the Bible (Psalm 133v1): “The Bible tells us, ‘how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity’” – significantly deployed against potential prejudice – although even here the biblical register was seamlessly elided with the patriotic one, Trump introducing his scriptural quote with the words, “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.”
Hauerwas, an acute critic of nationalised Christianity at any time, wrote that the address was “a stunning example of idolatry,” pervaded by the sense that salvation lay in the power, potential and unity of the nation. Trump’s statement that “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America and through our loyalty to our country we will recover loyalty to each other” is, Hauerwas wrote, “clearly a theological claim that offers a kind of salvation.” Similarly, his insistence that America would be “be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement and most importantly, we will be protected by God” was uncomplicatedly God–on–our–side material. While it is hard to think of a single inaugural address that would have escaped Hauerwas’ condemnation – the blurring of patriotism, providence and (usually Protestant) Christianity having marked American self–identity since era of the Founding Fathers – Trump’s speech was a particularly egregious example of this.
The extent to which Trump’s theo–nationalistic rhetoric finds its way into his politics is, at the time of writing, yet to be seen. On–shoring jobs after a decade of seeing them move to China and elsewhere will be a challenge, but one that is a better indication of economic policy than theological stance. More telling is the on–going and rather messy saga involving the much–promised wall with Mexico and badly–implemented travel ban from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
There is good evidence that these actions were precisely the kind of thing that earned Trump his popularity, not least among Christian voters. It has garnered him less support among Christians elsewhere. Louis Sako of Baghdad, Iraq’s Catholic Chaldean Patriarch, criticised the travel ban, as “a trap” that would “feed tensions with our Muslim fellow citizens”, saying that “every reception policy that discriminates (between) the persecuted and suffering on religious grounds ultimately harms the Christians of the East.”
Rather more prominent is Pope Francis’ view of Trump, a subject of much media interest. While some have speculated that the two global figures in fact share a similar iconoclastic style, they use it to different ends. The Pope has made several not–so–oblique criticisms of Trump’s wall–building, Muslim–banning policies, and went as far as to remark, on a trip back from Mexico, that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” Trump, for his sake, has not judged the Pope as beyond criticism, saying on his Facebook page that “if and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS…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.”
Popes and Presidents have not always got on. Pope John Paul II fell out with President George W. Bush over the Iraq War, and with President Clinton before him over abortion, and didn’t even see eye–to–eye with President Reagan over defence policy. There is nothing, in principle, unprecedented about Donald Trump and Pope Francis’ running spat. However, the fact the dispute is over Trump’s signature policy and has erupted so early in his administration – indeed, it surfaced nearly a year before Trump assumed office – underlines the significance and seriousness of the dispute and crystallises neatly the difference between someone who looks after Bibles and someone who reads them.
One of the earliest appearances of any new President is at the National Prayer Breakfast, held annually in Washington D.C. on the first February Thursday every year since 1953. Trump duly spoke at the Breakfast, as had his eleven immediate predecessors. He began by thanking a number of friends and participants and then by having a dig at Arnold Schwarzenegger as his replacement on The Apprentice:
“When I ran for President, I had to leave the show… And they hired a big, big movie star – Arnold Schwarzenegger – to take my place. And we know how that turned out. The ratings went right down the tubes. It’s been a total disaster…And I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings, okay?”
He went on say that “most importantly today, I want to thank the American people”, adopting an approach that firmly underlined Hauerwas’ criticism of his nationalised Christianity. “No one has inspired me more in my travels than the families of the United States military,” he said, before quoting John 15.13 (“Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends.”). “Our freedom is won by their sacrifice, and our security has been earned with their sweat and blood and tears. God has blessed this land to give us such incredible heroes and patriots.” This was not all Trump said in his address – he spoke of religious freedom, of the “faith lives on in my heart every single day”, of how America would succeed “as long as our most vulnerable citizens…have a path to success” – but it serves as a good cipher for Trump’s faith.
Although the Prayer Breakfast address is one of the occasions on which Presidents can be openly and apologetically pious, piety was in short supply on this occasion. Jesus, for example, was conspicuous by his absence in Trump’s words, the Bible was thin on the ground, and doctrine was absent, or, if present, distorted.
By contrast, the reference to The Apprentice, although perhaps a mistake to dwell on too long, felt cheap, trivial and egocentric, especially in the context. The simplistic way in which geo–politics and government were understood – “the world is in trouble, but we’re going to straighten it out” – suggested a Manichean worldview of light vs. dark, good vs. evil, similar to that of which George W. Bush was often accused. And the manner in which Trump proposed it should be “straightened” – “it will be stopped… It may not be pretty for a little while… All nations have a duty to work together to confront [violence] it and to confront it viciously, if we have to” – indicates a willingness to resort to force – indeed “vicious” force that felt singularly misplaced, ill–chosen and deaf to the Christian context.
But, the clearest indication of Trump’s faith lay in his identification, of a piece with much of his campaigning and inaugural rhetoric, of nation with salvation. “America is a nation of believers”, he remarked, among which Trump insistently numbers himself. Such insistence notwithstanding, however, Trump’s belief is more comfortable when focused on himself and on his country than it is with Christian doctrine, practice or Christ himself.
The Mighty and the Almighty is available here.