The Trump era has been defined in large part by its everyday surreality. As we approach January 20, we’re looking back on some strange but perhaps lesser-remembered moments from the last few weird years.
Before Donald Trump became the very favorite politician of white conservative Evangelicals, he was regularly a figure of sport for displaying exceptional ignorance in all matters religious. A particularly rich example of his clumsiness occurred when he was campaigning at Evangelical stronghold Liberty University early in 2016 and tried to quote a Bible verse that was very familiar to the audience, since it’s etched on several buildings there.
“Two Corinthians 3:17, that’s the whole ball game … Is that the one you like?” Trump asked, “Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
There was an immediate buzz from the Liberty students: Did he mean Second Corinthians?
Trump later characteristically blamed conservative Evangelical leader Tony Perkins for writing down the verse in speech notes for the candidate as “2 Corinthians,” thus misleading him. Unlike most observant Christians over the age of about 3, Trump was unaware that this is how Bible verses are written, not how they are spoken. Clearly, Perkins should have translated the verse into heathen.
On another occasion along the campaign trail, Trump was asked about his favorite line of Scripture. He delivered a word salad for a while and finally tried to recall “an eye for an eye,” not the sort of thing Christians of any variety consider normative for the faith of the Prince of Peace.
That was just one of a number of religious gaffes Trump committed while stumping for votes. Just prior to the Iowa caucuses, Trump was in a Council Bluffs church when a plate came down the pews with Communion bread on it. The billionaire misidentified it as a collection plate and put a couple of bills on it.
It was a pretty characteristic mistake for a Mammon-worshipper, though Trump apparently knew enough about Communion practices to refer to “my little cracker” during an even more religiously egregious 2015 comment wherein he denied the need for divine forgiveness.
Then and during his presidency, conservative Evangelicals regularly struggled to rationalize Trump’s manifest lack of any religious sensibilities, not to mention the history of sexual misconduct that led southern Baptist leader Russell Moore to compare his attitude toward women to “that of a Bronze Age warlord.” Christian-right leader James Dobson once suggested Trump was a “baby Christian” who was just learning his way around the faith that he had apparently acquired on the campaign trail. Others developed an elaborate analogy between Trump and King Cyrus, the ancient pagan ruler unwittingly used by God to deliver the children of Israel from captivity.
Despite all their agonizing, Trump hasn’t seen much reason to seek self-improvement in his religious education. Shortly after his inauguration, he met with two ministers of the Presbyterian denomination in which he was raised, and to which he ostensibly still belonged. After boasting of his performance among Evangelicals, he was surprised to learn that they didn’t regard themselves as Evangelicals. “Well, what are you then?” Trump demanded. When they gently responded that they were “mainline Protestants” (like Trump himself), the president needed reassurance: “But you’re all Christians?”
Perhaps that explains why, shortly before the 2020 elections, Trump let it be known he was no longer a Presbyterian but was instead a “nondenominational Christian.” It’s probably easier for him to stay loosey-goosey when it comes to defining the faith he doesn’t seem to have.