This is a guest post written by David G. McAfee. He is author, most recently, of The Belief Book.
Donald J. Trump is a lot of things. He’s a real estate magnate, a billionaire investor, a reality television star, and, this election cycle, he’s convinced millions of evangelical Americans he’s a fundamentalist Christian deserving of one of the most important voting blocs for the Republican Party.
Trump wasn’t expected to be the most popular candidate for strong Christians, whom pundits and strategists thought would prefer Senator Ted Cruz, a Southern Baptist who often emphasizes religion in his speeches. But Trump proved more influential among Christians than anticipated by securing important praise from Christian leaders and then making a strong showing on Super Tuesday, when he won a number of contests, including those in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia — states with large Christian populations.
We know Trump is a Presbyterian, and that he has praised his religion and the Bible in the past, but what does he really know about his faith? And why are many conservative voters, who often find religion important when selecting a candidate, eager to accept his belief as genuine?
In a 2011 interview with Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), Trump reaffirmed his strict Christianity, saying he is a “Sunday church person” and that he has had “a good relationship with the church over the years.”
“I believe in God. I am Christian. I think The Bible is certainly, it is THE book. It is the thing,” Trump told CBN.
Others, however, have challenged Trump’s claim that he attends church regularly, as well as the idea that evangelical Christians would ultimately support him. Christian columnist and bestselling author Rachel Held Evans, for instance, attacked the real estate mogul’s poll numbers with believers as recently as Jan. 28.
“Despite what the polls say, I personally don’t know a single evangelical Christian who considers Trump a model Christian,” Evans wrote, pointing to Southern Baptist ethicist Dr. Russell D. Moore, another strong evangelical who has outspokenly opposed Trump. “His scant church attendance and clumsiness at citing Scripture have not gone unnoticed here in the Bible Belt.”
The facts don’t seem to support Trump’s assertion that he is a Sunday church person. While he has attended a number of public religious services over the course of his presidential bids, including one in Iowa just before the state’s caucuses, his own church in Manhattan stated in August 2015 that Trump is not an “active member.”
Despite his relatively consistent avoidance of regular church services since childhood, Trump has said a lot about the Bible. He has even stated that he collects Bibles, so perhaps he is self-taught and knows a lot about his religion.
However, if that is the case, Trump could use a study guide. In an interview with Bloomberg, Trump was asked about his claim that the Bible is his “favorite book.” The interviewer asked the candidate for “one or two of his favorite Bible verses,” but Trump was stumped.
“I wouldn’t want to get into it, because to me that’s very personal. You know, when I talk about the Bible, it’s very personal, so I don’t want to get into it,” Trump said, stuttering. “The Bible means a lot to me, but I don’t want to get into specifics. I don’t want to do that.”
When Trump was pressed, and a second interviewer asked him if he prefers the Old or the New Testament of the Christian Bible, he again failed to provide a solid answer. He then awkwardly transitioned into self-promotion of his own book.
“Probably equal. I think it’s just an incredible… the whole Bible is an incredible…,” Trump said, interrupting himself. “I joke, very much so, they always hold up The Art of the Deal and I say, ‘My second favorite book of all time.’”
Trump, who recently stated that nobody “reads the Bible more than” him, didn’t stop there. He doubled and tripled down on his Bible verse gaffe, which was already reminiscent of Sarah Palin’s infamous interview in which she was asked “what newspapers and magazines” she reads.
So, Trump probably doesn’t know a whole lot about the Bible (or religion in general), but what does that mean? Does it mean he’s not a Christian? While you might argue that he has said and done things that oppose traditional values, such as speaking against help for refugees, it’s not necessarily the case that he doesn’t believe. In fact, most polls suggest non-believers tend to know more about religions than those who practice them.
Does Trump’s lack of religious knowledge preclude him from securing strong support from evangelical Christians or the Republican nomination in general? Again, not necessarily. Trump has been reasonably successful at making sure his interactions with religious leaders and communities are well publicized, including an intense Trump-centered prayer circle in which more than 40 religious representatives prayed over the candidate, with one asking for “a strong African-American who can stand with him and represent that community.”
Ultimately, it may not mean much to Trump’s supporters if he has extensive knowledge of his own religion — or even if he truly believes at all. But I can tell you what this doesn’t mean. Trump’s lack of information when it comes to his faith and religion as a whole does not make him a viable choice for non-religious people who value separation of church and state. It doesn’t make him the candidate for secularists, atheists, or the “nones,” because he simply doesn’t represent their interests.
Donald Trump says he’s a Christian, and I believe him, but he might be one of the worst types of religious adherents: the cultural believer. He knows next to nothing about his faith, having inherited it from his family and accepted it at a young age, yet he continues to press its importance in the public square. Trump can’t name his favorite Bible verse (John 3:16 would have been an easy pick), but he can call for Muslims to be banned from entering the United States. He doesn’t regularly attend church, but he has no problems vowing to put “Merry Christmas” in department stores when he becomes President.
The fact is that Trump doesn’t care about his Christianity enough to learn about it and he doesn’t value separation of church and state enough to keep religion separate. He wants to remain ignorant about the facts surrounding his faith, as well as force it on others. It is a dangerous combination.
David G. McAfee is a Religious Studies graduate, journalist, and author of The Belief Book, Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer, and Disproving Christianity and other Secular Writings. He is also the Publicity Director for science and philosophy imprint Ockham Publishing and a frequent contributor to American Atheist Magazine. McAfee, who writes about science, skepticism, and faith, attended University of California, Santa Barbara and graduated with bachelor’s degrees in English and Religious Studies with an emphasis on Christianity and Mediterranean religions.