For more than a year now, religiously motivated voters and political pundits have tried to figure out what role faith plays in the life and politics of Republican White House hopeful Donald J. Trump, discerning whether or not the Manhattan real estate mogul might make a good partner on issues ranging from abortion to religious liberty and everything in between.
The conclusion among those who have mined his past, visited his former churches and studied old interviews is that, like his campaign itself, Mr. Trump’s beliefs cannot be pinned down to any particular ideology or movement, and as a result, they could be molded to fit various agendas.
Mr. Trump was born in 1946 into a family who attended a Presbyterian church in Queens, N.Y., one that, according to a recent profile in The Atlantic, offered full membership only to white worshippers until the 1950s. Today, that church is mostly black and Hispanic, reflecting the changing neighborhood where it is located.
By the 1970s, Mr. Trump’s parents, Fred and Mary, joined the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, home of “positive thinking” preacher Norman Vincent Peale. According to The Washington Post, Mr. Trump also worshiped at the church into the 1980s, and he had one of his children baptized there. Mr. Trump has repeatedly praised Mr. Peale’s oration skills and can-do message of positive thinking. (For his part, Dr. Peale waded into politics once, saying ahead of the 1960 presidential contest, “Faced with the election of a Catholic, our culture is at stake.” He later said he regretted the remark and promised to stay out of politics.)
The candidate’s affinity for Dr. Peale manifests itself today in a slew of high-profile supporters who represent what many call the “prosperity gospel,” the notion that if you behave in accordance with biblical values God will reward you. That idea remains popular today among certain groups of Christians. Pastor Joel Osteen, for example, still fills arenas and sells millions of books preaching something akin to this message.
Mr. Trump, whom voters viewed as the least religious major presidential candidate in either party in a January Pew poll, calls himself an active churchgoer, and he told reporters last summer that he still attends Marble Collegiate Church. But last August, the church released a statement to CNN indicating that while he and his parents had a long history with the church, the presidential candidate was “not an active member.”
Given his persona as a tough businessman who made a fortune in part through casinos, who has bragged of his sexual exploits and who has been married three times, Mr. Trump has conceded that people are sometimes surprised to hear him talk about faith at all.
“People are so shocked when they find...out I am Protestant. I am Presbyterian. And I go to church and I love God and I love my church,” he said at an Iowa event last year.
He has said on other occasions, however, that he is an evangelical Christian. Earlier this year, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson called Mr. Trump a “baby Christian,” telling reporters that the candidate had accepted “a relationship with Christ” and deserved some slack because he was not raised in an evangelical home.
Some, however, are not sold on Mr. Trump’s religiosity, and they point to his trouble with Christian lingo and theology as examples.
“Donald Trump is certainly not seen as someone who even understands the tune when evangelicals sing their tradition,” D. Michael Lindsay, president of the evangelical-affiliated Gordon College and author of Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, told America. “He doesn’t even know the words to say that would be appealing to evangelicals.”
Mr. Trump infamously messed up a reference to St. Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians, calling it “Two Corinthians,” but perhaps more tellingly, he mangled 2,000 years of Christian theology by saying that he cannot recall ever asking God for forgiveness.
“I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right,” he said at an Iowa forum last year. “I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
Then there is the way Mr. Trump handles the politics of religion.
Presidential candidates tend to court faith voters either by highlighting their own religious bona fides or by showing them that they at least understand their worldviews. Mr. Trump has done neither.
He tussled with Pope Francis when the pontiff said those who support building walls are not Christian, and he has driven away many conservative leaders in both evangelical and Catholic camps.
All that said, Mr. Trump has retained the support of a bloc of voters traditionally enthusiastic about the G.O.P. but who pundits and political rivals thought might have been turned off by his personal life: evangelical Protestants.
“I owe so much to Christianity,” Mr. Trump said to a crowd of evangelical activists and pastors in New York earlier this summer. “I owe it, quite frankly, to be standing here because the evangelical vote was mostly gotten by me.”
Polls seem to bear that assessment out.
The Pew Research Center reported in July that 78 percent of white evangelical voters plan to vote for Mr. Trump in November, three points higher than the number that supported former G.O.P. nominee Gov. Mitt Romney at this point in 2012. (Half of white Catholics said they would support Mr. Trump, a few points lower than the number who said they would back Mr. Romney in 2012.)
Some high-profile evangelical leaders such as Mr. Dobson, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. and radio personality Eric Metaxas have endorsed Mr. Trump, but critics say they represent an older style of evangelicalism.
They note that younger evangelical leaders have been outright hostile to Mr. Trump, including Russell Moore, president of the influential Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. This, said Andrew Johnson, a research associate at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, is evidence of a fracture between the movement's old guard and its more diverse and less politically oriented younger members—one that could become more pronounced should Mr. Trump win the White House.
“Trump is exposing the cracks in what is called ‘evangelical America,’” Mr. Johnson told America. “Some evangelical leaders are doubling down on ‘religious right’ strategies from the past as younger evangelicals are trying to separate themselves from that.”
Mr. Johnson said to expect more pushback from evangelical leaders under a Trump presidency than during the Reagan administration during the 1980s, when the senior Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority group were at the height of their power.
“In some ways, some churches have learned their lesson from siding too wholly with one party,” he said.
On the Catholic side of things, conservative stalwarts such as the Princeton University professor Robert George and the St. John Paul II biographer George Weigel have urged their fellow believers not to support Mr. Trump, though they have stopped short of saying a vote for his rival, Hillary Clinton, would be acceptable.
Even some Catholic bishops viewed to be politically conservative in the past have expressed skepticism about Mr. Trump, blaming him for coarsening the nation’s political conversation, in part through his attacks on immigrants.
But if Mr. Trump is able to turn around his campaign and defeat Mrs. Clinton, faith communities in the United States will have no choice but to work with his administration. What might that look like? Some religiously motivated voters who make the case for Mr. Trump highlight two issues: his promise to appoint pro-life judges and his commitment to religious liberty. The president of the Susan B. Anthony List, Marjorie Dannenfelser, told the Christian Broadcasting Network earlier this summer, for example, that she was happy with Mr. Trump’s promise to appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court.
“I was encouraged when Mr. Trump reiterated the most important pro-life commitment he has made to date: that he would appoint pro-life judges to SCOTUS,” she said following the candidate’s June meeting with nearly 1,000 evangelical religious and political activists in New York.
But it is on the religious liberty front that other faith leaders seem to be rallying around Mr. Trump more intensely, even as they concede that his past support for abortion rights calls his commitment to the pro-life cause into question. Questions about religious liberty in the United States have swirled in recent years in Catholic circles primarily over objections to the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, and, more broadly, around issues related to the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage. Mr. Trump has not spoken frequently about those issues, instead framing the religious liberty question in terms of political power.
He has accused political leaders of “selling the evangelicals down the tubes,” saying that Christianity in the United States is getting “weaker, weaker, weaker,” and he has promised to boost the political and cultural clout of Christians should he be elected. To that end, Mr. Trump promised to repeal a 1950s-era I.R.S. rule that prohibits churches from engaging in overt political behavior, known as the Johnson Amendment.
“I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity—and other religions—is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly, and if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it,” Mr. Trump said earlier this summer.
Jonathan Merritt, an author who writes about evangelical Christianity, told America that promises like those “resonate with the remnants of the religious right movement” that, while diminished in recent years, “still exists in large numbers today.”
He pointed to the chasm between younger evangelical leaders who are opposed to Mr. Trump and “pew-sitting evangelicals” who see in the G.O.P. nominee the possibility of slowing the dramatic pace of cultural change that has occurred in their lifetimes.
“Donald Trump talks a lot of the ‘good old days’; he talks a lot of ‘making America great again’; and he’s harkening back to the days of the Ronald Reagan in his speeches,” Mr. Merritt said. “For some evangelicals, these were their glory days, the 1950s kind of era.”
Take Sunday school, for example. Mr. Trump lamented in front of a crowd of evangelical Christians that at one time, it was “automatic. Today, it isn’t. Maybe we can get back into a position where it’s automatic.”
Then there is the issue of having a seat at the table. Mr. Trump’s biggest supporters from the evangelical and, to a lesser extent, the Catholic worlds are figures whose cultural impact has waned considerably in recent years. With Mr. Trump, these figures see an opening for the religious right to regain a seat at the table, Mr. Johnson said.
“There are some evangelical leaders who have had a very small voice in the political discussion who are rising up because of this vacuum created by people leaving Trump,” he said.
But for certain religiously motivated voters, even those traditionally supportive of Republican politics, some of Mr. Trump’s promises could make their social advocacy work more difficult.
Take the issue of immigration, for example.
Catholics and evangelical leaders have in recent years emerged as some of the most vociferous supporters of immigration reform, highlighting especially how U.S. border policies separate families. Some have allied with Republicans sympathetic to their cause, including some of Mr. Trump’s former rivals, like Gov. Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio.
But Mr. Trump, of course, favors building a wall and deporting nearly 12 million people living illegally in the United States, though in recent weeks his aides have said he is reconsidering this stance.
Then there is the issue of who would be allowed into the United States under President Trump. He has promised to prohibit Muslims from entering the country, and his vice presidential pick, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, clashed with Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin of Indianapolis when the local Catholic Charities agency announced plans to resettle a Syrian family there last year. Those who support immigration to the United States have criticized Mr. Trump’s plan, both on humanitarian and religious liberty grounds.
And Mr. Trump added a further wrinkle in August when he announced that would-be immigrants would be subject to extra scrutiny, including questions about their views on gay rights. Though the Trump campaign has not specified which questions will be asked, during the convention Mr. Trump promised to “do everything in my power to protect our L.G.B.T.Q. citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.” If the qualifications for entry into the United States include support for L.G.B.T. non-discrimination laws, a Trump administration would be requiring refugees to hold more liberal views than many conservative Christians profess.
There are no easy answers to those questions because the Trump campaign has not released many details about the candidate’s proposals on immigration or religious liberty. That, says Mr. Lindsay of Gordon College, is what makes some faith voters reticent to support him.
Mr. Lindsay told America that despite Mr. Trump’s wooing of conservative Christians, he is not sure they will come out on top in the end after a Trump victory.
“A Trump presidency would raise a lot more questions than answers for evangelicals, which would in itself be novel because every Republican candidate who has been running in the general election since Ronald Reagan has been one that evangelicals felt like they knew and understood,” Mr. Lindsay said.
His conclusion? “With Donald Trump, there’s a lot of mystery.”
Michael O’Loughlin is the national correspondent for America. Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.