The Theology of Donald Trump, pt. 1

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by Randall S. Frederick

Years ago, at the height of my fascination with Evangelicalism, I became deeply interested in the religious rhetoric of political candidates. Although I did not trust John Kerry at the time, I hurt for him when he was denied communion in 2004. That seemed too profound an insult to a man who, I believed, was a devoted Roman Catholic committed to world peace. Every time Kerry spoke about his faith, I paid attention to both what was said and how he said it. Later, when a relatively inexperienced senator from Illinois began to attract national attention, my ears perked up at the obscure biblical references sprinkled throughout his speeches. I paid attention to how his competitor, Hillary Clinton, refused to talk about how her commitment to Methodism informed her politics. Their approaches to sharing about faith and convictions excited me because they embodied a shift taking place within Protestantism at that time. Was faith supposed to be public or private, to inform our politics or our individual philosophy?

Concurrently, Arizona Senator John McCain was trying desperately to attract the support of Evangelicals who had been so instrumental in American politics since the Presbyterian Ronald Reagan challenged sitting President, Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist in 1980-81. McCain had failed in a previous attempt for the presidency because of his sharp words for the Religious Right. McCain, in a provocative and politically risky speech in February of 2000, sharply criticized leaders of the religious right as “agents of intolerance” allied to his rival, Governor George W. Bush. McCain denounced what he said were the tactics of “division and slander,” singling out paragons of Evangelicalism Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “corrupting influences on religion and politics.” As though this were insufficient, McCain continued to claim that parts of the Religious Right were divisive and even un-American. When he was grudingly chosen as the Republican candidate to challenge Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, Evangelicals were vocal that a vote for McCain was really a vote against Obama. Many believed Obama was not a “real” Christian as he claimed, but instead a sleeper agent for radical Islam.

Although I was aware of the nationalist thread in Evangelicalism that masqueraded as patriotism, it was the 2008 election that truly began to open my eyes to how misinformed Christians were. I vividly recall preaching a sermon in 2004 where the words “If your loyalty to a flag is more important than your loyalty to God, then you need to stop fooling yourself about whether or not you’re a Christian,” left my mouth and raised more than a few problems for me. The pastor, two other members of the staff, and several members of the congregation wasted no time in explaining to me that although there was no scripture to support what they were saying, God wanted “good” Christians to understand that loyalty to scripture and America “are the same thing. After all,” they tried to convince me, “this is a Christian nation.” I was unconvinced and by 2008 was appalled at the undisguised fear and racism my fellow Evangelicals espoused. My girlfriend at the time was afraid for me to talk about politics with her family because I felt passionately about the issue, fueled by my newfound interest in political religious rhetoric. She begged me not to engage in conversation with her mother. “Please don’t take the bait. She wants to argue with you.” Life being what it is, I found myself doing just that a few days later. Her mother, who loved Christian music because it “makes me feel good, you know? Positive and happy” said “voting for Barack Obama is like voting for the devil himself. And I’m not voting for some goddamn nigger anyway. Everyone knows he’s a Muslim, but even if he wasn’t, I wouldn’t vote for some nigger from the streets of Chicago.”

There it was.

“Some nigger from the streets of Chicago.”

I’m not even sure how that conversation ended. The memory is blurry after that. Too much was going on in my head, probably, most of which had nothing to do with the conversation I found myself in. It all made sense to me at that point. The racism, the outright lies, the hatred and division wrapped in a flag and sealed with a scriptural bumper sticker, the music that “makes me feel good.” The reality of that moment felt like a clarifying slap to the face. Evangelicalism didn’t care about scripture at all. It just wanted to “feel good, you know?”

Watching Donald Trump capture the Evangelical vote is deeply offensive to me. It confirms every stereotype I have fought for the last fifteen years – that Evangelicals are ignorant of scripture, dismissive of ethics, racist, and nationalists wrapped in just enough “Jesus language” to sound polite and palatable. His popularity among Evangelicals physically repulses me. That is not hyperbole for me. Whenever I think of what has become of the belief system I believed in, by what the religion of my childhood and young adulthood has become, I feel an anger that makes me sick because I am watching well-intentioned people played for fools. More than that, I am ashamed that I spent years trying to defend it, to say “we’re not all like that,” or to point to extreme voices like John McCain once did – the Falwells who had seceded to their private universities and golf clubs and ignored devastation, famine, and economic instability. 

Evangelicalism, as I know it, has either been eclipsed by something else entirely or (and I grimace to say this) was always a wolf in the proverbial sheepskin. My girlfriend at that time broke it off with me – 

Actually, she cheated on me “because God said it was okay” only to call back the next day and ask my forgiveness “because it was the Devil. I was confused.” She told me this on the very same day I bought the engagement ring she had picked out.

I always feel it is important to point out how thin that razor’s edge is between cosmological good and evil, surety and confusion, one choice and another because it is so uncomfortably quotidian. 

– and I went on to study religion and Evangelicalism at Fuller Theological Seminary. I began to trace the rise and fall of different movements in Christianity and became convinced that some movements were antithetical to what Jesus or Paul intended. Given the conditions through which Donald Trump has captured the imagination and aspirations of a significant number of Americans who also claim to read the Bible, I believe we are now observing another one of those movements.

Naturally, an observation of individual beliefs is too broad an effort to make. There is, as they say, no accounting for stupidity or for that matter why, after an ever increasing number of gaffes and blatant lies, anyone would believe Donald Trump a viable candidate in the American political system. Yet no candidate since Reagan has garnered the support of Evangelicals like Donald Trump. The loyalty he has captured, in the face of so much ignorance, is terrifying. While I believe that Trump will inevitably lose the election, his ability to galvanize the diaspora of disenchanted Evangelicals, each with their own interpretation of geopolitical events and each seemingly possessing a measure of intolerance, demands the attention of those who study religion and society. Besides a nationalism that ignores the last century, a blinding disinterest in diplomacy, and an apparent misunderstanding of macroeconomics, what is it about this man that resonates with Evangelical voters?

Trump claims to be a member of Marble Collegiate Church, founded by positive thinker and minister Norman Vincent Peale. Peale’s success is attributable to a blending of pop psychology, spirituality, and folkish appeal. His 1952 bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for over three and a half years, and has occasionally reappeared on the list ever since. Biographer Gwenda Blair, chronicling Trump in her book Donald Trump: The Candidate, writes

Donald was only 6 years old at the time and didn’t read the book until much later, but it quickly became important in the large Queens household in which he grew up, and it would play a critical role in his future. His parents, Fred and Mary, felt an immediate affinity for Peale’s teachings. On Sundays, they drove into Manhattan to worship at Marble Collegiate Church, where Peale was the head pastor. Donald and both his sisters were married there, and funeral services for both Fred and Mary took place in the main sanctuary. 

“I still remember [Peale’s] sermons,” Trump told the Iowa Family Leadership Summit in July. “You could listen to him all day long. And when you left the church, you were disappointed it was over. He was the greatest guy.” A month later, in the same news conference at which Trump tossed out Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, he again referred to Peale as his pastor and said he was “one of the greatest speakers” he’d ever seen.

Peale’s popularity parallels some televangelists today and, like them, he was criticized by his contemporaries for trivializing Christianity. Reinhold Niebuhr once famously said of People that he “corrupts the gospel” and helped people “feel good while they are evading the real issues of life.” With his newfound fame, Peale got out from behind the pulpit and in front of a radio mic to voice his opinions. He once said that presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson II was unfit for the office because he was divorced. Stevenson fired back, “Speaking as a Christian, I find Paul appealing and Peale appalling.” Stevenson later lost the election to Dwight Eisenhower.

Sometime later, Peale helped fuel distrust of John F. Kennedy when he said, “Faced with the election of a Catholic, our culture is at stake.” Until his death, Peale remained suspicious of the “foreign influence of the Vatican.”

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In hindsight, Peale espoused a decidedly different version of Christianity than the one that had been known at the turn of the century, one that was neither Catholic nor traditionally Protestant. The Christianity of the 19th Century had been focused on right living as a means of salvation, piety and clear conscience as the indicators of holiness in the eyes of both God and man. Communities enforced and policed one another toward this end and those who excused or tried to explain their indiscretions were dismissed as reprobate and headed toward (or chosen for) damnation.

After the Great Wars, a new generation of Americans wanted a comforting gospel. Jesus no longer policed them because they were the Greatest Generation; they had proven their worth already and no longer wanted to hear about a God of justice and wrath, no longer wanted to feel guilty for their disinterest in Jewish oppression that had finally been revealed at the end of World War II. Instead, their savior affirmed their hatred of Germans, Russians, and the Chinese. Peale offered, at that time, sentimentality, encouragement, and religious language for a God who was on the side of America.

Calling him a “possibility preacher” is too simplistic. Yes, Peale’s entire ministry was directed towards accentuating a benign deity who wanted Americans to hold their heads up with pride. But his theological bend borrowed from the Methodism he had inherited from his father as well as the Dutch Reformed teachings of the Reformed Church in America through which he was ordained in 1932. Dutch Reformed teachings found a fertile bed in New York at the turn of the century primarily because they were so individualistic – material wealth was a clear and evident indicator of God’s favor, and each person had to work out that favor for themselves in the competitive manufacturing neighborhoods of the time. Through all of this, God’s favor only shone on Americans as the inheritors of manifest destiny who, by discipline and hard work, proved their value and solidarity.

Once again showing that his understanding was topical, Peale borrowed Newton’s Third Law from physics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If Americans were God’s chosen people, then Peale’s theology necessitated an “other” upon whom misfortune would fall. This is not as simple as the Calvinistic idea of saved and sinner, but instead a dichotomy of “positive” and “negative.” The people of God were, by their speech and behavior, releasing either good or ill into the world, were either ascending or descending, were either blessed or headed towards poverty. Bluntly, they were either American or something else. This theology was espoused in every newspaper column Peale wrote, every radio address he gave, every sermon he delivered, and all 41 of his books. Americans had won both global wars because they were right, force majeure. Americans had liberated the world single-handedly. Americans were prosperous because they believed they could be, because they wanted to be, because God wanted it, and because they were constantly releasing good things into the world. This same dichotomy (and revisionist history) can be seen in those who inherited Peale’s style, from Oral Roberts and Kenneth Copeland to Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen. Unquestionably, each of these ministers incorporate Peale’s essence into their own reading and interpretation of scripture, even quoting him profusely. Theirs is a theology built on nationalism and an underdeveloped view of the world, an underdeveloped understanding of the sciences and humanities. But it is, above all, an American theology. 

Peale, if he were alive today, might be grouped together in popular consciousness with Oprah Winfrey or Tony Robbins, both of whom are great speakers, great motivators, entertaining, and inspirational but also who never claim to be an expert at anything. Robbins, for example, celebrates those who know just enough to get by in life as the true winners at life. In his book Unlimited Power: The New Science of Personal Achievement, Robbins says one of the key beliefs for successful people is that “It’s not necessary to understanding everything to be able to use everything.” Peale certainly lived by a similar maxim.

All of this may seem unimportant. Dead ministers are hardly relevant to politics. Except that Peale was the man Donald Trump credited with shaping his own dreams of “conquering” New York and who was instrumental in conditioning how Trump saw America. Trump and his sisters were married by Peale,both of his parents buried by him. No other person, alive or dead, had as much influence over Trump as Norman Vincent Peale. Much was made during President Obama’s first election of his relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright in Chicago. Wright once famously said that God had damned America, and it is generally accepted that influential voices shape individuals who later go on to do great things. There is reason to take notice of this class of person – the pastor, the teacher, the divine connection who pours out the lessons they have learned into an empty vessel willing to learn from them. What worldviews do they have and what theologies do they espouse?

After Peale’s death in 1993, rewinding history, we begin to see Donald Trump experience several failed business ventures. He divorced his first and second wife in 1992 and 1999, respectively. He filed for bankruptcy more than once. He lost properties. He lost millions. The indicators of wealth and godliness he had acquired slipped away before Trump had traction enough to grab them, and without a guide to navigate these setbacks or understand them, it is unsurprising that Trump is unable to shake off his failures with the intensity he was known for in the late 1970’s and 80’s until another figure appears: Peale’s successor, Joel Osteen.

Joel Osteen has called Trump “a friend of our ministry” and “a good man.” Strengthening that bond, Trump once tweeted, “Being associated with Joel is my great honor – he’s a fantastic man!” In 1999, Osteen’s father passed away from cancer, leaving a vacancy in the pastorate at Lakewood Church of Houston, Texas. Osteen, like Peale, designs his sermons with a hybrid of nationalism and religious aphorisms that made people feel optimistic, unchallenged, and empowered. His first book was even titled Your Best Life, Now.

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Trump had a plan, though. During his real estate successes in the 1980’s, Trump would occasionally indicate that he intended to run for president. His bankruptcies in the 90’s seemingly prevented that dream for over a decade. Then, re-emerging as a mogul at the end of that decade and capitalizing on growing tensions in the Republican Party, Trump announced a campaign as the Reform Party candidate in 1999. Though the run ended a mere four months later, he characteristically said that the bid had been a success and that his inability to capture the attention of the media or the support of serious politicians had been because of “dysfunction” within the Reform Party. He made efforts again in the 2004, 2008, and 2012 campaigns, each time bullishly announcing his intentions and the assembled of a vague “exploratory committee” to determine interest with American voters. Each time, he failed to proceed with those intentions and would explain the he hadn’t failed at politics, but had won popular support, rating, and international attention for other ventures he was involved in: namely new property developments, the publication of The America We Deserve in 2000, and the reality tv show The Apprentice. Each effort brought him closer to prime time politics and allowed him to chip away at the now eroding Republican Party. Then the 2016 election came up and Trump steadily and patiently capitalized on the deep and irrevocable division within Republicanism. With the withdrawl of his 21 fellow candidates, Trump aggressively went after each candidate’s supporters.

And that’s when he picked up legitimate Evangelical kingmaker, Jerry Falwell Jr.

Continued in part 2

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2 thoughts on “The Theology of Donald Trump, pt. 1

  1. Pingback: The Theology of Donald Trump, pt. 2 | Theology & the City

  2. Pingback: White Evangelicalism Could Be the New White Nationalism | Theology & the City

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