When word came out last summer that Christian-right journalists David Brody (chief political reporter for the Christian Broadcasting Network) and Scott Lamb (a columnist for the Washington Times and author of a Mike Huckabee biography) were penning a “spiritual biography” of the 45th president, Trump critics got a good laugh. I suggested it might be “a very brief book, with lots of photos.”
I was wrong about that. The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual Biography, runs 320 pages, and has no photos at all. But the book is misnamed. It should have been titled Our Faith in Donald J. Trump. From beginning to end, the question of what, precisely, is going on in Trump’s mind and soul — the $64,000 question, one would think, in a “spiritual biography” — can only be answered by circumstantial evidence. Indeed, there’s this disclaimer in the introduction:
One of the most often asked queries [from the authors’ friends] went something like this: “Is Trump a Christian?” Within the evangelical context that means: “Is he born again?” or “Is he headed for heaven?” or “Is his name written in the Lamb’s book of life?”
OK, so just up front: We’re not answering that question.
Lord knows Brody and Lamb want to answer that question affirmatively, and let many of the large group of conservative Evangelical advisers filtering in and out of Trump’s entourage testify that he’s gaga for prayer and deeply interested in the Bible, despite the regular evidence that he probably isn’t. But in the end, it’s never quite clear whether Trump is just telling all of these sanctified people what they want to hear and using them for their obvious political value.
It’s important to understand that by “faith,” Brody and Lamb very strictly mean their own conservative Evangelical faith. One of their central problems is that to the small extent that Trump has a verifiable pre-politics religious background, it’s in the mainline Protestantism for which the authors have complete contempt, clearly regarding it as not worthy of the appellation “Christian.”
From that perspective, Trump’s undeniable ignorance of church history and doctrine becomes a godsend: He cannot be blamed for the liberal heresies of mainline Presbyterianism. Instead, the book dwells obsessively on the conservative cultural values exhibited by his parents despite their troubling tolerance for bad theology. The 45th president’s inherited work ethic, patriotism, love for the military (reinforced by the military boarding school he attended for five years), and Republican political habits are all touted as being indicative of a predisposition for conservative Evangelicalism. (One of his current advisers approvingly said of him: “He’s got that 1950s respect for clergy.”) And the closest thing he had to an early religious mentor, the famous proto-prosperity-gospel preacher Norman Vincent Peale, is treated as a proto-conservative Evangelical despite his mainline affiliation.
By the end of the book, which mostly chronicles the struggles of conservative Evangelicals to come to grips with and embrace this strange man with heathenish habits of mind and speech, Trump’s cultural conservatism is treated as, well, good enough for the faithful, even if they cannot be sure he’s washed in the blood of the Lamb himself:
Trump’s view of America benefits evangelicals immensely. His traditional views translate into traditional policies more in line with a pre-1960s America that comports itself more in line with biblical Christianity than the watered-down Christianity of today.
For Brody and Lamb, there is no question that the most important of those “traditional policies” is the drive to eliminate legalized abortion. Thus the Neil Gorsuch nomination, assumed to obtain the fourth of five Supreme Court justices needed to overturn Roe v. Wade, is treated as ancillary proof that Trump’s soul has been stirred by the Evangelicals circling his campaign and presidency:
When assessing the faith of Donald Trump, the significance of the Neil Gorsuch nomination cannot be underestimated. Of course the access evangelicals have had to this president is unprecedented and should not be overlooked. The push of the pro-life agenda was a major development as well in the first one hundred days of this administration. The confluence of all three in totality presents concrete evidence that Donald Trump is trying to live out his faith with deed.
You can sense the authors’ nagging doubts, though, perhaps nourished by the new president’s nasty Twitter language and other forms of thuggish behavior toward critics. Near the very end of the book they bring in their star witness for Trump’s inner transformation: Vice-President Mike Pence, the Christian-right warhorse who constantly attests to the president’s reliance on both prayer and the prayer warriors (like Trump’s all-Evangelical Faith Advisory Committee) for whom Pence runs interference. The fact that Pence is also a champion Trump sycophant, who thinks Job One is to confirm what his boss wants the world to think of him, should trouble Brody and Lamb in those moments when they fear that they’re being exploited by the great manipulator in the Oval Office.
But ultimately, as the increasingly hagiographic tone of the book shows, Brody and Lamb and the conservative Evangelical thought-leaders they represent are working hard to overcome any doubts about Trump. The more the president outrages the Americans who aren’t pining for a return to the 1950s, the more these proud reactionaries cling to him like a Rock of Ages. Here’s conservative Evangelical radio host Eric Metaxas, who also wrote the foreword for this book, reacting to the furor over Trump’s comments defending the honorable intentions of the white rioters of Charlottesville:
We’re going to stand up for Trump a hundred times more. It’s been unbelievably despicable the way he’s been treated. And I think there’s some kind of demonic deception. I mean I’ve never seen anything like it begin to compare it to in my lifetime.
If faith is indeed (as Paul suggested in his Epistle to the Hebrews) “the evidence of things unseen,” then the passionate faith that conservative Evangelicals are placing in “their” president needs little sustenance from the man himself. And that’s a good thing for him and for them, if not for our country and all of the Americans who worship a God who’s not necessarily Republican.