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Michael J. O’LoughlinSeptember 22, 2016
(AP photo/Evan Zucci)

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 the 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 worshipers 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 Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, home of the “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 oratorical 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 supporterswho 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, James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, 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 ofFaith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, toldAmerica. “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 toldAmerica. “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, toldAmerica 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 hasn’t 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 conservatives 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.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Lisa Weber
7 years 5 months ago
Actions speak louder than words. Donald Trump has sufficient history that any observer should be able to see how much faith influences his life.
Jim MacGregor
7 years 5 months ago
To paraphrase: "Actions speak louder than words. Hillary Clinton has sufficient history that any observer should be able to see how much faith influences her life. I think of Whitewater and other scandals that have been reported over the years about her and whatshisname. I think of the reports about her close Mohammedan advisors (on foreign policy???). Don't know really. I do not remember reports of matters that would reflect her faith in anything but herself and Billy. On the balance, I might just hold my nose and vote for Trump as I had previously for the Busch brothers. I wish we had another Chuck Robb. Now there was a Democrat we could actually trust and believe in (not either Warner or candidate North).
Don Jones
7 years 5 months ago
So, you really want someone w the hateful, name calling, bullying rhetoric, who shoots from the hip, to be our "ambassador of good will" as president? If you can, perhaps, you should apply "actions speak louder than words" to Trump? Yes, I don't trust that Hillary will do what she says -- but, I'm afraid that Trump WILL do what he says! Yes, Hillary may be a liar & corrupt (as we're familiar with in politicians, and survived), but isn't Trump's hostile division -- both domestically & internationally really more of an existential danger? If you're going to vote on terminology & a specific issue, then, you'll just ignore me. But, I hope & pray that Americans have a wider perspective and realize the imminent danger of Trump. Yes, I'll be holding my nose -- in voting for Hillary.
Gerald Gioglio
7 years 5 months ago
I have a sneaky suspicion that Mr. Trump uses faith the way he plays other financial and political cards in his life.....dealing from the bottom of the deck. I'd check out Catholic Social Teaching and the Catechism of the Church to see how his WORDS and proposed 'policies' match up with those guiding documents--while you are at it, look at the 60-page Republican platform to see what a Trump presidency might mean for our nation, it's democracy and for peace in our world. I'll leave you with a scary scenario: Trump wins, the Dems don't wrest control of the Senate; the House remains under the sway of right-wing reactionaries and the new president appoints a right leaning Supreme Court justice. What you have is one party in complete control of all branches of the federal government. A bloodless right-wing coup. That's what we get if you 'hold your nose', buy into the bombast and Fox-based propaganda and pull the wrong lever.......
William Atkinson
7 years 5 months ago
In an adverse way your so right, many especially Millennials will pull the handles on the slots in Vegas rather than voting machines.
Ann Johnson
7 years 5 months ago
Mr. MacGregor, it is very easy to find all kinds of articles about Mrs. Clinton and her Methodist faith. You could start with a recent issue of America: http://americamagazine.org/issue/private-faith-life-hillary-clinton. You can dislike her but your ignorance of her religious beliefs doesn't make your opinion fact-based. Also the reference to her advisors as Mohammedans is just plain wrong. They are called Moslems. One might hope that any president who will be dealing with many Middle Eastern problems will have at least one Moslem advisor on the staff. Finally you seem to believe that she should be judged for the sins of her husband. Are you willing to be judged for the sins of your family? Fortunately God doesn't work that way.
Jim MacGregor
7 years 5 months ago
Thank you. I may have been unduly influenced by the combination of excellent military and intelligence advisors she has on her staff with the final statement made in the linked article "Despite the heavy relevance of the region to U.S. foreign policy, only one adviser, former DHS official Juliette Kayyem, is a (non-Muslim) Arab American." https://theintercept.com/2016/09/08/hillary-clintons-national-security-advisors-are-a-whos-who-of-the-warfare-state/ We might find the Vanity Fair article http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/01/huma-abedin-hillary-clinton-adviser about Huma Abedin to also be misleading as well as the Jewish Press article at http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/hillarys-muslim-adviser-huma-abedin-leaving-anthony-weiner/2016/08/30/. On the other hand, Snopes does list sites with uncredible and spurious information. http://www.snopes.com/politics/obama/muslimgovernment.asp I must agree with you that we should use the term "Moslem", and apologize for not using that term. http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/524 jim macregor
William Atkinson
7 years 5 months ago
When you do "Engagement or Marriage counseling" you home in on the good, bad, ugly characteristics of the two individuals, building on the greatness and goodness of each; but purport the idea that one dosn't change to meet the expectations of the other. The same applies to candidates for office, they will act, do, manage their new offices in the same manner as they operated in the past. The fact that one will become more presidential is a falsehood the candidates will operate in the same character, fashion, decision and methodology as they have lived out their lives prior to taking office.
Mike Daniels
7 years 5 months ago
Let's get real! Neither Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton are people with a strong faith. Their profession of a faith life is just one more untruth in this horrible campaign. I have one suggestion for anyone reading this ... drop to your knees immediately and pray to God for the United States of America. We need help!
Jim MacGregor
7 years 5 months ago
Yes. He is our first instance for any help. We need lots of it this year.
Fred Close
7 years 5 months ago
Yes, Mikel! How this election came to be (primarily) between two extremely wealthy Manhattenites, one whose pro-abortion record may have changed, (miracles ARE possible) and the other, whose "safe, legal and rare" oxymoron has metastasized into defense of the indefensible (Planned Un-Parenthood), is "deplorable." "None Dare Call it Treason" to borrow a phrase, and yet, "Nothing is impossible for God." So, let us pray!
Don Jones
7 years 5 months ago
Yes, Mike, I totally agree! Only the Lord seems able to help us out of this mess that we've gotten ourselves into. And, we need to make this "drop to (our) knees" a habit -- as it may take another 4 years! However, we can't leave it all to God. If so, God could remove both Clinton & Trump and we could have a decent election w Spence & Kaine (or Biden). But, until the Lord takes such actions, we must do MORE than just pray -- we need to vote for the lesser of the 2 evils (which, also, means not just a 3rd party). I see Trump, by far, the great hater, divider, bully as the most dangerous option. So, my Never-Trump vote must be, unfortunately, for Hillary. Else, w Trump, we'll get the punish that we deserve! Vey sad! ;-(
Peter Connor
7 years 5 months ago
I think it is reasonable to understand that candidates for public office need to navigate the waters of special interests very carefully unless one chooses to speak unequivocally about everything that confronts her or him. This is especially true for high national office. I think Mr. Trump's strategy is to not stand on anything for any length of time. Adopt no positions. Minimize the details. Play upon the gastric juices of the masses. He's good at that. Mrs. Clinton has adopted positions that, obviously, alienated her from any number of people, including religious groups that hold forth on one topic or another such as same-sex marriage and reproductive rights of females. But she has also established herself as a knowledgeable strategist on the World stage. It's not easy for candidates to be viewed as rational about what is best for the citizens of the United States. My bottom line is that we need to view them comprehensively. The post-election fun begins when we see how much distance is created between campaign promises and promise keeping!
Don Jones
7 years 5 months ago
You must be kidding -- Trump & faith? Too many buy into his sermon writers view, that he reads from the prompter, that he's Pro-Life! If Trump respects the unborn, it is the FIRST group, that I've seen, that he respects -- other than those of wealth, fame, fortune & supporters! Rather, it sounds like far to many (esp. evangelicals) are buying into his pandering of the religious. Trump may be the 1st president of the dis-United States of Hate! ;-( Divided we'll be conquered. EWTN, also, seems to support Trump -- because of Hillary's poor record on respect for life. And, I don't disagree. But, there others issues here, vital to the survival of our country, like regaining respect & working together, that Hillary may be better at doing. At least, perhaps, America would last another 4 years, w Hillary, until someone like Kasich or Speaker Ryan can gain more attention.
Veronica Meidus-Heilpern
7 years 5 months ago
Other than paying lip-service to Pro-Life positions, where he is largely "anti-abortion" rather than Pro-Life, the GOP hopeful appears to have no clue as to how a true Christian thinks, behaves, and lives. His misogynistic, xenophobic, bullying, degrading statements and behavior toward women, immigrants (even those children of immigrants who are actually 2nd or 3rd generation Americans), and people with various disabilities speak VOLUMES about his so-called "Christianity." I frankly wouldn't trust him as far as I could toss his orange hair.

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