By Walter G. Moss, History News Network
Does Trump’s Religion Matter?
Shortly before his death in 1900, the Russian philosopher and poet Vladimir Soloviev completed “A Short Story of the Anti-Christ.” He described his fictional twenty-first century character (based on the Biblical antichrist) this way: “He loved only himself. . . . This man would bow down before the power of Evil as soon as it would offer him a bribe.” His “conception of his higher value showed itself in practice . . . in seizing his privilege and advantage at the expense of others . . . . The moral achievement of Christ and his uniqueness were beyond an intellect so completely clouded by self-love as his,” which displayed “a complete absence of true simplicity, frankness, and sincerity.”
I was reminded of Soloviev’s story by a recent HNN article in which Ed Simon asked “if the anti-Christ is supposed to be a manipulative, powerful, smooth-talking demagogue with the ability to sever people from their most deeply held beliefs who would be a better candidate than the seemingly indestructible Trump?”
Simon admitted that accusing Trump of being an anti-Christ is giving “the president far too much credit. At his core he is simply a consummate narcissist with little intelligence and less curiosity, one who has somehow become the most powerful man in the world.” Soloviev’s anti-Christ is also far more gifted than Trump.
And yet, as Simon notes, it’s ironic that evangelical Christian leaders, who have often warned of liberal anti-Christs, “seem to lack the self-awareness to identify something so anti-Christian in Trump himself. Or worse yet, they certainly recognize it, but don’t care.”
Like Simon, I am amazed at how many self-professed Christians could vote for a man characterized by colossal narcissism, dishonesty, and cheating (for example, on his first wife and at golf), as well as such un-Christian behavior as bragging about how as a celebrity he could get away with grabbing women by the crotch. In addition, many religious leaders like Pope Francis agree with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew that degrading “the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate” is a sin. And no present world leader has contributed more to its degradation than Trump.
Simon’s main explanation for how “81 (percent) of white evangelicals” could support Trump—more precisely, according to exit polling (not exactly the real raw vote percentage) 81 percent of the white, born-again/evangelical voters and 60 percent of white, Catholic voters opted for Trump—is that they [the evangelicals] engaged in “hypocritical capitulation of principle to sovereigns in the name of worldly power.” Although Simon only alludes to a few specifics of what this “worldly power” is one might include moving the Supreme Court in a more right-wing direction, privileging Christians over people of other faiths (e.g., restoring to prominence “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy holidays”), curbing abortions, increasing state support for private (often religious-oriented) education, lessening any state restrictions on Christians (like “forcing” them not to discriminate against gays), and ending government support for gay marriages and other LBGT issues.
Simon also believes that because of the evangelicals’ support for Trump they have become much more lenient toward politicians who commit immoral acts “in their personal life,” believing that they could still act effectively (and ethically) in carrying out their political duties.
As useful as Simon’s essay is, however, various questions still need to be raised. What should be the relationship between politics and religion? Should our choice between candidates be heavily influenced by a politician’s morality? What is “authentic religion”? Does the religion of a presidential candidate really matter?
To begin with, the platitude “keep religion out of politics” is simplistic and unwise. Right and Left religious or moral views on issues such as abortion, capital punishment, climate change, poverty, and wars affect, and should affect, people’s political views. This is true for people as different as the evangelical supporters of Trump like Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) and Pope Francis, who some on the Right have charged with being too political—see here for the pope’s activist views, like those of Soloviev, on the role of religion in politics. When those on the Left, upset with the likes of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority in the 1980s, bemoaned the influence that religion was having on politics they tended to forget how much religion influenced the political activities of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other civil rights activists.
In fairness to those on the Right who believe a president can be immoral in his private life and still be worthy of support, those on the Left should remember all the philandering they excused and tolerated in John Kennedy and Bill Clinton—though it is true that many of JFK’s sexual activities were not public knowledge until after his death. Moreover, few people would claim that the most religious individuals, presuming we could make such a judgment, make the best presidents. For example, an aggregate of polls rating our best and worst presidents indicates that the very moralistic Jimmy Carter has seldom been ranked in the top half of our forty-five presidents.
Judgments about candidates’ morality are tied up with our concept of what constitutes authentic religion. Religious beliefs have been employed to justify all sorts of activities, both good and bad, from charitable and compassionate acts to crusades, slavery, wars, and executions. And this is true of most religions, not just Christianity. What is one person’s true religion is another’s heresy. Regarding the recent Alabama election for U. S. senator, New York Times columnist David Brooks stated that many evangelicals who voted for Roy Moore were guilty of idolatry and heresy for putting “politics above personal morality.”
Trump’s own religion is a complex matter. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has referred to the president as the “debauched pagan in the White House.” But Trump considers himself a Christian and was influenced by several prominent Protestant ministers.
First on the list is Norman Vincent Peale. Having often heard his sermons in Manhattan, Trump selected him to officiate in 1977 at the first of his three weddings. Peale had authored the 1952 bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking, and predicted Trump would become “the greatest builder of our time.” And Trump considered the minister an important mentor who taught him to win by thinking positively.
Just as significantly, Peale was one of a number of ministers who waged a “public relations war against the New Deal.” He helped foster a mindset that equated business success with piety and personal economic failure with insufficient religiosity. (Conservative antipathy toward New Deal “collectivism” and welfare policies smoldered thereafter and now under Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan is being rekindled.)
A more recent influence on Trump has been Paula White, a Florida televangelist spiritual advisor to Trump, chair of his evangelical advisory board, and preacher of what is sometimes referred to as the Prosperity Gospel. The evangelical leader James Dobson claimed that during the 2016 campaign Pastor White converted Trump to evangelicalism, but doubts exist as to whether such a “conversion” really occurred. (Vice President Mike Pence, however, is a fervent evangelical, who helps Trump connect with evangelical communities.) On Christmas 2017, White praised Trump on Fox News: “He’s a man of faith. He is a believer. He’s spiritual. . . . Trump just hasn’t put Christ back in Christmas, but he’s also put prayer back into the White House, he’s put justice. . . and religious freedom back into our courts.”
Thus, we are left with two different judgments about Trump. Is he anti-Christian (as Simon contends) or a Christian “man of faith” (as Pastor White insists)? And does it matter?
A Christian? Depends on how you define it. But what should matter to voters is not so much what faith presidential candidates profess, whether Protestantism or Catholicism, Judaism or Islam, or even agnosticism or atheism, but what sort of people they are and how their moral beliefs might affect the political policies they pursue.
In an HNN essay prior to the 2012 elections, I asserted that the primary quality we should seek in a president is political wisdom. Such wisdom would seek the common good and possess the following virtues and values: the proper mix of realism and idealism, compassion, empathy, humility, tolerance and a willingness to compromise, a sense of humor, creativity, temperance, self-discipline, passion, and courage. He or she would also possess the practical wisdom or prudence necessary in order to properly balance, prioritize, and fit together these virtues and values in any particular situation so as to achieve the greatest good.
Granted, no presidential candidate is going to perfectly possess all these qualities, but our job as voters is to select the one who best embodies them. How can anyone seriously argue that in 2016 it was Donald Trump? Do even his supporters argue that he possesses political wisdom values such as compassion, empathy, humility, tolerance and a willingness to compromise? Can he laugh at himself, be creative, temperate, and self-disciplined? Hardly! Instead, Trump seems more the antonym of political wisdom.
Signaling out political wisdom as the one quality we should most seek in a presidential candidate makes it easier to square our religious or moral views with our political choices. A religious non-Christian, atheist, or an agnostic can be as wise or wiser (or as foolish) as any self-professed Christian. Whether such presidents as Jefferson and Lincoln were Christian is an open question, partly depending on how one defines the term.
But what if Christians think furthering the common good involves curbing abortions, increasing state support for private education, and advancing other right-wing agenda items, ones that Trump backs? If so, I would suggest that Trump-supporting Christian citizens at least consider the words of Pope Francis in a 2013 sermon and in an address to Congress in September 2015. After all, he does share some of their beliefs regarding abortion and the importance of marriage and family life. And it is difficult to dispute his commitment to Christian values.
In his sermon, he warned Christians against making their religion into an ideology: “When a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith. . . . But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. . . . His attitude is: be rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness.” He urged Christians “to remain humble, and so not to become closed.”
When he addressed the U.S. Congress he told its members that “a good political leader [acts] in a spirit of openness and pragmatism.” Many conservative Christians hoped he would speak against abortion, but instead of doing so, he followed up his brief mention of the need to “protect and defend human life,” only by saying: “This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.”
In urging Congress to pursue “the common good” he stated that “the fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly”; that “the distribution of wealth” needs to become more just; that our attitude toward refugees should be “always humane, just and fraternal”; that we must take major steps “to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity”; and that we should work toward “implementing a ‘culture of care . . . an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.’ ” Regarding foreign affairs, he advised Congress to do all it could to “stop the arms trade” and “end the many armed conflicts throughout our world.”
Any casual perusal of Trump’s first year priorities such as loosening environmental restrictions, ending “Obamacare,” enacting the Republican tax plan, cracking down on refugees, or announcing $110 billion worth of potential arms sales to Saudi Arabia makes it clear that his policies do not reflect the Christian vision of Pope Francis. More importantly, they do not reflect political wisdom.
Editor’s note: This article was first published by the History News Network.
Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University and Contributing Editor of HNN. His Ph.D. dissertation at Georgetown U. dealt with the polemics between the Russian ecumenical and philosophic thinker Vladimir Soloviev and his conservative opponents, some of whom held important positions in the Russian Orthodox Church. For a list of all of Moss’s recent books and online publications, click here.