Donald Trump is unique, to say the least.
Of all modern American presidents, he is the only spiritual nomad—a man seemingly without religious roots. Before him, Barack Obama attended Methodist services. George W. Bush was also a practicing Methodist. Bill Clinton was a Baptist, George H.W. Bush was an Episcopalian, and Ronald Reagan was a Presbyterian. The connections between these past presidents and their faiths were well-defined.
But despite President Trump’s claims to mainline Protestantism, investigations by CNN have found that while he did attend church in his youth, there is no evidence that he, as an adult, is attached to any Christian tradition at all.
So where, exactly, does Donald Trump fit on the spectrum of faith? And what’s more, in a country that has taken such pains to keep church and state separate, why does the religion of America’s president matter to so many?
Trump’s religious journey began, like most people’s, with his parents. His father was the descendant of German Lutherans, and his mother hailed from an especially religious part of Scotland, and was a devoted Presbyterian, raising her children in the same tradition.
Trump publically identifies himself as a part of that same Presbyterian faith, but doesn’t seem to have held an official membership in any church since he was 28 years old, when his family transferred from First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, to Marble Collegiate.
Trump was active at Marble Collegiate, however, and had a close relationship with Pastor Norman Vincent Peale, who was, judging by Trump’s frequent mentions of the man, an important figure in his life.
If Peale’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he is the author of the bestselling self-help book, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” which asserts that living a faithful life can translate into blessings of material success. It’s not difficult to imagine why this idea appealed to Trump, the son of an incredibly successful businessman.
The idea that faith equals success is the central tenet of prosperity theology, also known as the prosperity gospel—a key idea in many Evangelical traditions.
And so we edge ever closer to Trump’s true faith. A man’s religion dictates his worldview, and his worldview dictates how he perceives reality. This, in turn, dictates his actions. And Trump’s words and actions seem to be those of a nominal, Evangelical Christian who embraces prosperity theology.
In Trump’s worldview, success is everything. To put it simply, winning is equated with good, and losers are equated with bad. This is strikingly similar to the attitude of some Evangelicals, wherein those who experience grave misfortune must have sinned or suffered from a lack of faith to deserve that misfortune.
All of this is a far cry from Trump’s Protestantism, which embraces the God of Biblical orthodoxy. Trump’s everyday actions speak of someone who isn’t interested in the nuances of scripture. In fact, upon meeting Trump, Reverend Scott Black Johnston, senior pastor of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, had this to say.
"He is a Christian who's what I would call a young Christian. He is early on this journey. He has not spent a lot of time exploring the faith.”
Trump, like many people, was born into his faith. It was always there, but it faith was never something a Trump would have had to rely on—money, rather, was the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen. And without any push to ever truly choose his faith rather than settling it about his shoulders like a comfortable coat, Trump never truly established close ties to Christianity.
In other words, he is very much like a growing number of Americans who are somewhat spiritual, not particularly religious, and haven’t really put much thought into the specifics of their faith. It’s just kind of there as background noise.
But despite this dissonance between his claimed faith and his acted-out faith, the beliefs evident in Donald Trump’s actions are a large part of his appeal, and were a factor in his capturing of both Evangelical and rural voters. These men and women embraced Trump’s promise to make them great, and therefore, good, in a world that increasingly—and often, unfairly—demonizes both groups.
In a way, Donald Trump’s rhetoric painted a picture of him descending from his glassy tower, outstretching his hand, and offering up his own form of cultural salvation to those in need.
The power of positive thinking, indeed.
So why is any of this important, you might ask?
First, because it shows us why religion is still important when it comes to our leaders. As we’ve said, religion dictates worldview, and so if you know a candidate’s religion, you can possibly predict how they will respond to certain situations. You have an easily-identifiable label by which you can ascertain someone’s moral compass and system of values.
Picking a president, then, becomes like shopping for pastries. If you’re a chocolate fan, you grab the pain au chocolate. If you’re more of a berry-lover, you grab the packaged labeled “blueberry muffins.”
Not quite. The second lesson we can take from this is that all of the above assumptions are outright wrong. What we’ve learned from Donald Trump is that a 25 thousand dollar Frrrozen Haute Chocolate ice cream sundae is sometimes labeled as the common man’s snickers bar, and voters may not know the difference until they’re hit with the bill.
It’s important for voters to begin looking past labels. Some of Trump’s choices since taking the presidency have caused his support base to slowly realize that the label wasn’t quite right.
A politician can claim any faith, regardless of whether or not they’ve thought these faith claims out, and judging his or her effectiveness as a leader based solely on this marker is as futile as voting based on fashion sense or musical tastes. When we vote, we must take the whole person into account—we must vote holistically, so to speak.
The strange case of Donald Trump’s faith may be just what America needs to learn the value of critical thought.