For some reason, people are more concerned with the beliefs of Donald Trump than ever. Donald Trump and religion. Hmm. It is a complex relationship, indeed. But not because Trump’s relationship to faith is anything more than checking a political and social box. It is complex because of the relationship America has with religion, in particular Christianity, how it relates to the American presidency, and how it has shaped politics since the inception of the United States of America. Christian Nationalists of the Republican Party, or better known these days, especially by anti-Trump Republicans, the Party of Trump, have been holding up a particular brand of Christianity as well as an image of Christ to maintain the status quo of their power and influence.
While it has always been a taken for granted fact that the American President is a practicing Christian, albeit Protestant or Catholic, Trump has somehow taken the entrapment to the next level by weaponizing a faith he has spent his life not living. From the optics of the publicity stunts to fanning the flames of what Kristin Kobes Du Mez would call “masculine Christianity.” Trump is a business man and he knows a good business opportunity when he see ones. The deal he made with ‘God,’ or perhaps with the Devil, has wreaked unimaginable havoc and division. Yet he knew the power of office lie with the Evangelical vote. So he held up the Bibles, he quoted scripture even when he couldn’t pronounce the book he was quoting from, and he spoke passionately of upholding Christian values. And this all seemed enough to put him in office, keep him there, and may land him there again.
But what does Trump’s faith really look like? Is it truly anything more than a virtue signal, anything more than just for show? While we know that Trump grew up Presbyterian, he became the second President to change faiths while in office. The RNS (Religion News Service) reported in Fall 2020 that Trump has made the leap from Presbyterian to Non-Denominational. It is easy to speculate that by ‘Non-Denominational’ he meant ‘Evangelical,’ given his penchant for surrounding himself with powerful Evangelical pastors and leaders. He has liaised closely with Franklin Graham and Paula White, among a host of others.
In fact, Graham left the Republican Party in 2015 to become an Independent, but resurfaced for part of his past in support for Donald Trump. Paula White became a pastor and spiritual advisor to Trump, whom she has known since 2002, before she was asked to join his administration as advisor on behalf of the Faith and Opportunity Initiative. The original interview mentioned earlier reported in RNS was held by White in which she asked him if he identified as an Evangelical. He dodged the question by saying how amazing Evangelical leaders and churches are in America, and spoke of their support for him and their love for their country. So, the choice of Non-Denominational puts him in the perfect position, as it is code for Evangelical without having to admit to being such.
In public Trump praises conservative Evangelicals, but in private, it has come to light more than once, he mocks them. Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime confidant and personal attorney, released a book in 2018, Disloyal. He opened up about all Trump held disdain for when it came to prosperity preachers and snake handlers. Yet he also seemed to have an odd relationship to it all as he identified with their growing empire business models. He recognized their hustle. He saw it all as just another game to play.
Yet from “locker room talk” to tax evading to business fraud, he is unbothered what this says about his faith and, even more importantly, Evangelicals are unbothered by what this says about his faith. But that is bigger than Trump. The calling card for Evangelicals for decades has been if one has accepted Jesus in their heart or not. And if Trump says he has then case closed.
In a September 2016 meeting with the likes of Eric Metaxas, Robert Jeffress, and Wayne Grudem, Trump was seemingly ‘honest’ about his relationship to Christianity. “I don’t know the Bible as well as some of the other people.” What a perfect response. False humility lapped right up by false prophets. He admitted to some of his vices in which he stated, “That’s when my religion always deserts me.” No doubt receiving a laugh and a wink from the good old boys club assembled there.
Even with all we have seen in the news—the photo ops of pastors laying hands on Trump in the Oval Office, Trump’s head bowed in prayer, seeing him attend various churches, and, of course, who could forget the infamous picture of him holding up a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in DC after the George Floyd protest were cleared. Even with all of the pomp and circumstance of Trump showing off his ‘faithfulness,’ is he in fact a man of faith?
Does he or does he not have a relationship with Christianity and is it a complicated one?
For all intents and purposes it would appear that Trump’s relationship to Christianity is a transactional one and there is nothing complicated about it. Is it however a devastating one. The hold that white supremacy and Christian nationalism had over him and has over him still is about as scary as the hold he has on all of it.
I make no presumptions about anyone’s faith. All I can do, all any of us can do, is behold the good that might come out of any of this. From where I’m standing it is hard to see any. He appears to play the religion card as it suits him or doesn’t. And those given to his religious proclivities don’t seem to care.
From gun control to reproductive rights, to anti-trans legislation and immigration, and more, Trump’s ‘faith’ has seeped into every crevice of his political agenda and ideology. The Evangelicals work for him, it seems even ‘God’ works for him, and he knows it.
So what of his faith? What of his politics? What of his indictments? It seems to all be entwined together, presenting the truest of complicated relationships if there ever was one. So I guess we will just have to wait and see. And if you are the praying kind, perhaps we should pray to any and all gods but Trump’s God. This God who can make atheists out of the most devout.