vision 2020

Trump Disrespects His Religious Followers, Former Aides Say

Trump surrounded by cynics and suckers. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Anyone familiar with the president’s character, or with his intensely transactional attitude toward certain followers, won’t be surprised by the revelations made by McKay Coppins after talking with former Trump aides:

[I]n private, many of Trump’s comments about religion are marked by cynicism and contempt, according to people who have worked for him. Former aides told me they’ve heard Trump ridicule conservative religious leaders, dismiss various faith groups with cartoonish stereotypes, and deride certain rites and doctrines held sacred by many of the Americans who constitute his base.

As Coppins observes, Trump’s true attitude subverts the politically valuable claim that Democrats think of religious folk as superstitious rubes while the president and his party are prayerfully respectful of the Faithful. The Faithful, of course, are defined as cultural conservatives who think the primary moral imperative for Christians these days is to fight against feminism, legalized abortion, and LGBTQ rights. So it’s relatively easy for the conservative political party and its arch-reactionary leader to support their priorities, which are presently centered on reversing Supreme Court decisions offering constitutional protections for all that ungodly conduct.

For some conservative Evangelical leaders who are especially intense in their support for Trump, his faithfulness in giving them what they want in the judiciary (in contrast to many prior Republican presidents who put people on the Supreme Court who turned out to be infidels) makes his personal belief system and attitude toward believers all but irrelevant. In 2018, Christian-right journalists David Brody and Scott Lamb published a 320-page book, The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual Biography. Given the title, this passage from the introduction is pretty remarkable:

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.

In the absence of actual fellowship, people involved in a transactional relationship with a powerful figure like Trump naturally expect respect, if not understanding. But Trump’s respect, Coppins suggests, is limited to certain religious leaders who are conning the people in the pews just like he is:

Trump seemed to feel a kinship with prosperity preachers — often evincing a game-recognizes-game appreciation for their hustle. The former campaign adviser recalled showing his boss a YouTube video of the Israeli televangelist Benny Hinn performing “faith healings,” while Trump laughed at the spectacle and muttered, “Man, that’s some racket.” On another occasion, the adviser told me, Trump expressed awe at Joel Osteen’s media empire — particularly the viewership of his televised sermons.

In [Michael] Cohen’s recent memoir, Disloyal, he recounts Trump returning from his 2011 meeting with the pastors who laid hands on him and sneering, “Can you believe that bullshit?” But if Trump found their rituals ridiculous, he followed their moneymaking ventures closely. “He was completely familiar with the business dealings of the leadership in many prosperity-gospel churches,” the adviser told me.

Perhaps most telling is the White House’s response:

Reached for comment, a White House spokesman said that “people of faith know that President Trump is a champion for religious liberty and the sanctity of life, and he has taken strong actions to support them and protect their freedom to worship. The president is also well known for joking and his terrific sense of humor, which he shares with people of all faiths.”

Yes, conservative Evangelicals are well known for enjoying humor about the sincerity of their ministers and the fundamentals of their faith. I’m sure many yukked it up when, on the campaign trail in 2015, Trump allowed as how he’d never done anything that required a request for divine forgiveness, and have enjoyed the “locker-room talk” exposed in the Access Hollywood recordings.

But even if conservative Christian leaders don’t mind a cynical mutual-exploitation relationship with Trump, it’s unclear if their followers are in on the joke, which is why the presidential table talk Coppins reports is dangerous to the MAGA cause at this sensitive moment, when the president is counting on maximum margins and turnout from these people he seems to disdain as suckers.

The Faustian nature of the religious right’s bargain with Trump has not always been quite so apparent to rank-and-file believers. According to the Pew Research Center, white evangelicals are more than twice as likely as the average American to say that the president is a religious man …

To those who have known and worked with Trump closely, the notion that he might have a secret spiritual side is laughable. “I always assumed he was an atheist,” Barbara Res, a former executive at the Trump Organization, told me. “He’s not a religious guy,” A.J. Delgado, who worked on his 2016 campaign, told me. “Whenever I see a picture of him standing in a group of pastors, all of their hands on him, I see a thought bubble [with] the words ‘What suckers,’” Mary Trump, the president’s niece, told me.

If Trump is reelected thanks in part to overwhelming white Evangelical support, and is in a position to stop worrying about what people think of him, the mask could come off and his fine sense of humor about the foolishness of Christian belief might emerge in a pure, uninhibited form. Until then, you can expect Trump and his campaign to double down on the sort of attack on Joe Biden he made last month:

“No religion, no anything,” Trump told supporters at a brief airport rally in Cleveland as he visited Ohio for an economic speech. “Hurt the Bible, hurt God. He’s against God, he’s against guns, he’s against energy, our kind of energy.”

Truly, Trump’s spiritual depth inspires awe.

Trump Disrespects His Religious Followers, Former Aides Say