The Faith of Donald J. Trump by David Brody and Scott Lamb represents an evangelical apologetic for supporting a deeply flawed, non-evangelical politician. It is a book for the already-converted. It will resonate with religious people who voted for the president, and who take Vice President Mike Pence at his word when he says “President Donald Trump is a believer.” Seen in this context, the book explains many white evangelicals’ affinity for this businessman and entertainer who rarely darkens a church door.
This is not to say that The Faith of Donald J. Trump presents Trump as an unsullied saint. The authors—one a reporter for Christian Broadcasting Network, the other a vice president of Liberty University—dutifully note Trump’s divorces, financial excesses, and the notorious Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged about sexually accosting women.
Sometimes the authors do rush past Trump’s “women stories” and other failings. The book does not detail his draft deferments during the Vietnam War, even though it speaks about his formative years at New York Military Academy. Allegations about Trump’s liaison with porn star Stormy Daniels, and his lawyer’s 2016 payoff to her, presumably broke too late to be included in the book.
Trump is a relic of the once-thriving mainline northeastern Christian establishment. He was confirmed in 1959 at First Presbyterian Church, Jamaica, Queens, New York. When he was 8 years old, he received a gift Bible from his mother. (He swore on this Bible, and one of Abraham Lincoln’s, at his inauguration.) It was a Revised Standard Version, a favorite of mainliners and the bane of fundamentalists and “neo-evangelicals” because of the RSV’s progressive translations of key verses.
As an adult, Trump became a devotee of the self-help pioneer and pastor Norman Vincent Peale at New York’s Marble Collegiate Church. Some like Paul Matzko (writing at TGC) and First Things’s Matthew Schmitz have argued that Trump’s faith effectively became the same as Peale’s. Brody and Lamb contend that critics have overstated Peale’s influence. Peale only confirmed Trump’s existing beliefs in the power of hard work and “positive thinking,” they say.
The book shows that Trump and Ronald Reagan have some intriguing points of religious comparison. Both presidents had institutional connections to mainline Protestantism, with Reagan having attended the conservative-leaning Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. Both men also developed a vital network of connections with evangelicals and Pentecostals.
The authors depict Trump’s friendliness to evangelicals, and to other leaders such as the prosperity gospel preacher Paula White, as a sign of maturation in Trump’s spiritual journey. I wouldn’t attempt to refute this point, but it is obvious that Trump has primarily connected with evangelicals in order to expand his political prospects. The authors, however, deny that Trump was just “reading a script” in order to garner evangelical support.
When the authors reach their account of the 2016 election, they turn toward more blatant pro-Trump cheerleading. They defend Trump’s much-mocked escalator ride at his presidential announcement as “shrewd political stagecraft” worthy of Reagan. The authors matter-of-factly quote Trump’s notorious comments about Mexican immigrants, including his saying that “they’re rapists.” They note that Trump would not retract his statement because “he meant it.” They even regard Trump’s occasional use of profanity in public as a “refreshing” sign of his authenticity.
The authors are unfazed by Trump’s 2015 admission that he had never asked God for forgiveness. Even the question about asking forgiveness, they contend, was an example of attempts by legalistic “piety-inspectors” to get Trump to dissemble about his faith. It’s a constant refrain of the book: Trump’s Christian antagonists are dour Pharisees, while pro-Trump Christians truly believe in grace.
One gets the sense that, to the extent that Trump possesses any deeply held convictions about religion, we have not glimpsed them in this book. The authors themselves concede that “faith played a very minor role in the support for Trump.” Trump’s religious supporters were primarily fighting against Hillary Clinton and the legacy of President Obama. Trump backer and former Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee explains that Trump voters didn’t really “care whether Trump was a person of faith.”
This point rings true, especially when you consider that Trump drew more support in the primaries from “evangelicals” who went to church the least often. (To be fair, evidence from early months of his presidency showed stronger support for Trump among frequent evangelical attendees.) We also know that many who self-identify as evangelicals today don’t hold to historic evangelical beliefs. For all of Brody and Lamb’s efforts to confirm Trump’s spiritual sincerity, maybe religious principle is not a primary factor behind white evangelical support for Trump. Perhaps this is a worldly story of political access and cultural power.
The attempt to paint politicians as having a heartfelt if inarticulate faith has a longer backstory in American history. Certain kinds of Christians have always sought to exalt their favorite presidents as men of unquestioned devotion to God and country. The founder of this genre was Parson Mason Weems, who popularized the apocryphal story of George Washington and the cherry tree in the early 1800s.
Since the advent of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in 1979, Weems’s religious tradition of exalting politicians has been rejuvenated. A specially blessed American nation is central to the faith of many Christian Republican insiders. Thus, their favorite leaders—from Washington and Jefferson to Reagan and Trump—must necessarily be men of genuine devotion. However, squeezing Trump into this pious mold may present the greatest challenge yet for Christian America’s partisans.
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