Taking Trump’s Theology Seriously
Perhaps Donald Trump’s professed Christian faith has gotten a bad rap.
Back in January, the Pew Research Center found that among American presidential candidates, Republican or Democrat, Trump was seen as the least religious.1 A recent GQ article argues that Trump “sure is bad at pretending he loves Jesus.”2 Erick Erickson in a tweet quips, “The more Trump talks Christianity, the more he sounds like he took a Rosetta Stone class on speaking Christian.”3 On this website, our very own Chris Casberg describes Trump’s faith in such flattering terms as “con man,” an “antichrist,” and my favorite, “a Yeshua who would have happily taken up the devil’s offer in the desert.”4
I’m not here to dispute any of this. I surely concede that these are accurate descriptions of an opportunistic Republican candidate, seeking out the affections of the declining (yet still powerful) religious right. Behind the curtain of Trump’s façade of trying to be in with the faith of the evangelicals, however, reveals an honest and intuitive theology of sin of repentance.
A recent history of the candidate’s contrition reveals a reluctance to say that repentance has any relevance to his faith. Anderson Cooper, in an interview with Trump on CNN nearly a year ago, asked the candidate, “Do you feel a need to repent?” Trump responded with near incredulity at the audacity of the question, “I think repenting is terrific. But I try not to make many mistakes. I mean, why do I have to repent if I’m not making mistakes? I work hard, I’m an honorable person.”5
At The Family Leadership Summit around the same time last year, Donald Trump was asked a similar question. The interviewer asked, “Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?” True to form, Trump answered, “I’m not sure I have, if I do something wrong I think I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”6
In a recent interview this past month, columnist Cal Thomas asked of Trump, “You have said you never felt the need to ask for God’s forgiveness, and yet repentance for one’s sins is a precondition to salvation. I ask you the question Jesus asked of Peter: Who do you say He is?” Trump crafted his usual response, “I will be asking for forgiveness, but hopefully I won’t have to be asking for much forgiveness.”7
I quote these three nearly identical sequences to point out that I believe Trump’s faith (at least in reference to this question) is honest. Indeed, had Trump spent a few minutes attempting to concoct a slightly more suitable response to the question in order to appeal to an evangelical voter bloc, I doubt he would’ve chosen the line, “I don’t have to repent.” Trump’s own religious history also brings this truth to bear. As a congregant of Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, Trump (by his own recollection) was captivated by the preaching of Norman Vincent Peale, the bestselling author of The Power of Positive Thinking.8 A beautiful line from Terry Eastland’s article “The Religion of Trump,” connects Peale’s pulpit to Trump’s lack of personal penitence. “Critics of Peale, writes church historian D. G. Reid, saw the message of ‘positive thinking’ as ‘religious pragmatism that dilutes Christian theology and promotes American doctrines of self-reliance and materialistic reward.’”9
Religious pragmatism that promotes American doctrines. Now I believe we’re starting to get closer to appreciating the theology of Trump. Trump is not a religious con.10 Nor does his theology represent anything particularly new or alien. As Erik Raymond argues, Trump is a “theological populist” whose voice represents the spiritual state of America. As a thoroughgoing populist, Trump’s theology resonates with an American public that believes that “sin is on the extremes: not in the mainstream.”11 Sin does not reside in the human heart without distinction, but in who and what we find distasteful, shameful, and marginal. Those out there—the bigoted rednecks, the pompous city-dwellers, the terrorists, the LGBTQ, the white males, the immigrants, the bankers, the entitled—they deserve our displeasure and damnation.
Unfortunately, Trump’s theology doesn’t merely represent an American problem, appealing to the perceived ignorance of a populist underbelly, but also represents the basic problem of the body politic of humanity as a whole. In our bones, we desperately want to avoid the chorus of the Scriptures that proclaim “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.”12 The entirety of the human condition, our souls as to pride and our bodies as to decay, reflects this disordered state.
How are we to be healed from this sickness? Every Sunday since Christ’s resurrection, liturgical Christians participate in corporate confession, together bending the knee and bowing the head toward a God who is both Holy and Merciful. This weekly practice orders the rhythms and rituals of the rest of the week, forming us into people who frequently pray, “Our Father, forgive us our trespasses.”13 And paradoxically, the more holy we become, the more we understand our need for a Savior. Contrary to Trump’s desire, “hopefully I won’t have to be asking for much forgiveness,” Christians ought to be the people who yearn for confession, trusting in a God who is faithful to forgive. For we proclaim that it is only by this practice that we are united to the righteous Messiah who died for our sins, and readied for good works in His Kingdom.
To use one of the great confessions of Trump’s professed Presbyterianism, the Heidelberg Catechism, repentance and faith is how we ought to respond to perhaps the most essential question,
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.14
View Sources 1. “Faith and the 2016 Campaign,” Pew Research Center, January 27, 2016, http://www.pewforum.org/2016/01/27/faith-and-the-2016-campaign/
2. Moore, Jack. “Donald Trump Sure Is Bad at Pretending He Loves Jesus,” GQ, June 9, 2016, http://www.gq.com/story/donald-trump-sure-is-bad-at-pretending-he-loves-jesus
3. Quoted in
Winston, Kimberly. “Trump tackles Christianity’s big question: Who is Jesus?” Religion News Service, June 8, 2016, http://religionnews.com/2016/06/08/trump-tackles-who-is-jesus/
4. Casberg, Chris. “The One About Donald Trump,” Conciliar Post, June 8, 2016, https://conciliarpost.com/politics-current-affairs/the-one-about-donald-trump/
5. “Donald Trump full interview part 2 (CNN interview with Anderson Cooper), CNN, July 22, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1xKYFcCKOA
6. “Donald Trump on God and Forgiveness,” NoRealNameThanks¸July 18, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3l0e6nS9oI
7. Rhomas, Cal. “Trump Interview – The Transcript,” CalThomas.com, http://calthomas.com/node/985
8. Eastland, Terry. “The Religion of Trump,” The Weekly Standard, January 25, 2016, http://www.weeklystandard.com/the-religion-of-trump/article/2000601
10. (Again, at least in this instance)
12. Jeremiah 17: 9 ESV
13. This liturgical critique of Trump is indebted to
Smith, James K.A. “World View,” Comment, Summer 2016, https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/4873/world-view/
14. “Heidelberg Catechism,” Christian Reformed Church, https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/heidelberg-catechism
1. “Faith and the 2016 Campaign,” Pew Research Center, January 27, 2016, http://www.pewforum.org/2016/01/27/faith-and-the-2016-campaign/