Donald Trump’s first and only campaign trail apology—made in the wake of his infamous “hot mic” video with Billy Bush—is the starting point for a new essay on Trump’s faith by CNN’s religion editor Daniel Burke. Burke notes that the apology was lacking many of the elements we often see in such apologies from politicians, and I would add that Trump undermined his contrition by continuing to justify his behavior as “only locker room talk.”
But what I really found fascinating is the phone call Trump made to megachurch pastor Paula White before his public apology. According to White, Trump was sincerely regretful and even embarrassed over the leaked video. The notion of Trump calling a pastor at a moment like this is surprising. I guess I assumed Trump didn’t have a pastor or spiritual adviser, though White seems to be a fitting person to fill this role. As Duke Divinity School historian Kate Bowler notes in Burke’s essay: “She’s blonde and cute and perky and endlessly optimistic.” Sounds exactly what Trump would look for in a pastor.
Burke contextualizes what we’ve been told about this pastoral conversation and Trump’s public apology with his well documented comments about not seeking God’s forgiveness for his sins. Burke adds helpful layers to our understanding of Trump’s faith by noting his longstanding relationship with Norman Vincent Peale and his attraction to “prosperity gospel” preachers like White. Trump’s faith simply does not seem to involve traditional Christian emphases on repentance. If Barack Obama is America’s first progressive Christian president, perhaps Donald Trump would be America’s first moralistic therapeutic deist president.
Somewhere between the behavior modification and guilt mongering common in many forms of evangelical youth ministry and the guilt-free faith of Donald Trump is a truly progressive understanding and practice of repentance. Surely it is possible to take sin seriously and encourage meaningful change without overemphasizing total depravity and trucking in guilt and fear.
“Changing Hearts and Lives: Reclaiming the Spirituality of Metanoia” is the theme of the 2017 Progressive Youth Ministry Conference. We hope you’ll join us in March at Montreat Conference Center as we reconsider what repentance looks like in progressive Christianity. You can find more information and get tickets here.