From the perspective of the Constitution, with its prohibition of religious tests for public office, it shouldn’t matter whether Donald J. Trump believes in Jesus Christ, the Babylonian deity Baal, or himself alone. But it seems to matter a great deal to his conservative evangelical fans that this conspicuously heathenish man is in fact washed in the Blood of the Lamb. The extremely prominent evangelical minister Franklin Graham went wild with delight when Trump wished us all a Merry Christmas during the annual Christmas-tree lighting at the White House:
That’s especially remarkable since Graham’s lifetime has coincided with two presidencies held by men who whose religious views definitely overlapped with his own, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.
Trump’s alignment with Christianity, in anything other than an entirely instrumental manner, was not something conservative evangelicals were particularly confident about when he was running for president. Indeed, one very common rationalization for supporting this amoral narcissist (whose “attitude toward women is that of a Bronze Age warlord,” said Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore) was that God often uses wicked men to achieve His inscrutable purposes.
And even now, the conservative faithful don’t seem entirely sure Trump is one of their own. After Vice-President Mike Pence gave an interview with Christian-right journalist and Trump sycophant David Brody, CBN gave the “exclusive” story this triumphant headline:
’President Trump Is a Believer and so am I’: Pence Confirms Trump’s Christian Faith to CBN News
The interview provides no particular evidence for Pence’s assertion; it’s mostly a jumble of bromides:
“I’ve been with this president in the Oval Office, with religious leaders, when people have asked to pause for a moment of prayer and the president readily embraces that. I think he’ always very humbled and grateful by the support of believers … And we understand the role of faith in the life of this nation, and the American people I think can be encouraged to know that in President Donald Trump, they have a leader who embraces and respects and appreciates the role of faith and the importance of religion in the lives of our families in communities in our nation and he always will.”
To me, the most impressive thing about Trump letting Christians lay hands on him in prayer is that he waits until they are out of sight before reaching for the hand sanitizer. But in any event, accepting prayers and appreciating “the importance of religion” are not the same as sharing the prayers or the religion oneself. With the exception of Stalin with his famous “How many divisions does he have?” quip about the Pope’s limitations, even the most anti-Christian secular leaders have had sense enough to give a nod to the power of the church and its prayers.
But it really seems to matter to Trump’s believing followers to believe that he’s a believer, too. Last year Christian-right warhorse James Dobson dealt with the mogul’s patent philistinism by suggesting (with no particular evidence) that he had undergone a recent conversion, and was thus a “baby Christian” who was still learning the spiritual ropes. Within days Dobson backtracked on that assertion, and sowed additional doubts by attributing Trump’s religious tutelage to the prosperity-gospel televangelist Paula White, who is nearly as dubious a figure among evangelicals as Trump himself.
The question Pence needs to answer if he’s going to run around proclaiming Trump as a Christian soldier is whether the president has found occasion to repudiate the anti-Christian views he expressed so eloquently as a presidential candidate. Two occasions stand out.
The first, in front of a conservative Christian audience in Iowa no less, showed the candidate unwilling to confess that he ever needed to ask God for forgiveness.
[M]oderator Frank Luntz was very anxious to get the presidential candidates talking about their religious beliefs and habits. It just went sideways with Trump now and then.
Luntz asked The Donald if he had ever asked God for forgiveness, and it was really as though the idea had never occurred to him:
“If I do something wrong, I try to do something right,” he said. “I don’t bring God into that picture.”
On another occasion, Trump (who had adopted the habit of brandishing a Bible in appearances before religious audiences) was asked about his favorite passage of Scripture. He waxed incoherent, but eventually got to the point:
“Well, I think many. I mean, you know, when we get into the Bible, I think many. So many,” he responded. “And some people — look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that. That’s not a particularly nice thing. But you know, if you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, when you see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us, and how they scoff at us and laugh at us.”
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” happens to be the one passage from the Hebrew scriptures that Jesus Christ most specifically and emphatically told his followers not to observe:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …
Let’s hear the president backtrack on these two howling pieces of evidence that he clearly knows as much about Christianity as a dingo knows about nuclear rocketry — and that if he does understand it, he wants nothing to do with it. In their hearts, conservative evangelicals know that despising feminists and fighting reproductive rights or championing discrimination against gay people and Muslims just shows that people like Trump hate (rather than love, as Jesus enjoined) their common enemies. It is no substitute for belief. It’s time to stop treating Donald Trump like he’s a proud man of God until he evinces faith in something other than his almighty self.