How is Trump influenced by religion?

The president has surrounded himself with evangelical leaders, is he learning from them?

Sarah Pulliam Bailey,Julie Zauzmer,Josh Dawsey
Saturday 15 February 2020 16:27 GMT
The president does not regularly attend church services
The president does not regularly attend church services (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


In September 2016, presidential candidate Donald Trump gathered evangelical pastors, whose support he had courted assiduously, to discuss the political beliefs that they shared.

The reverend Robert Jeffress, who leads the megachurch First Baptist Dallas and preached at the church service Mr Trump attended on the morning of his inauguration, recalls looking at the agenda and starting to discuss the first item. Mr Trump interrupted him.

“Pastor, don't you think we ought to pray first?” Mr Trump said, according to Mr Jeffress.

As president, Mr Trump has surrounded himself with a tightknit group of pastors like Mr Jeffress, evangelical leaders who heap praise upon him for his socially conservative stances, his judicial appointments and his support for Israel's government. Mr Trump often invites these pastors to pray and seems to enjoy hearing their professions of faith. Many of the pastors insist that Mr Trump is a Christian believer.

But Mr Trump - who recently mocked the expressions of faith of two devout politicians, the Catholic house speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Mormon senator Mitt Romney - very rarely puts his own religious beliefs on display.

He does not belong to a church in Washington, though he refers to himself as a Presbyterian. He only occasionally attends a service, including multiple visits to St John's Episcopal across from the White House, which past presidents historically have attended, and Christmas and Easter worship at the Florida Episcopal church where he was married or at Washington National Cathedral, another Episcopal church.

The president says the Bible is his favourite book but has declined to name a verse that is particularly meaningful to him. And he has said multiple times that he does not like to ask God for forgiveness, which is traditionally seen as a core part of the Christian faith.

Christians preach of the importance of evidence, or “fruit”, that shows that a person has had some kind of conversion moment. “If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” reads a crucial text from the book of Romans. Once they have converted, Christians tend to take up certain spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, church attendance, tithing and reading the Bible. In interviews with several religious leaders and observers, there is no indication that Mr Trump engages in any of those practices regularly.

“Anybody who says 'I've never asked for forgiveness' is not in the born-again camp,” said Stephen Mansfield, an evangelical author who wrote books on the faiths of former presidents Barack Obama and George W Bush. Of Mr Trump, he said: “Submit your life to Jesus, born again, conversion: that heart of Christianity is not something he has absorbed.”

Still, a host of evangelical pastors whom Mr Trump frequently invites to the White House tell their followers that the president is a Christian.

“I think there's no question he believes,” said the reverend Franklin Graham, who has followed in the footsteps of his father, Billy Graham, as a faith adviser in the White House. Mr Graham said he believes Mr Trump has had a conversion moment, but he doesn't know when it might have happened.

Instead of an ecumenical faith advisory council which would encompass various beliefs, Mr Trump chose to create an evangelical advisory board, with no members from Catholic, mainline Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or other traditions. Johnnie Moore, an unofficial leader of that advisory board, said Mr Trump speaks “multiple times a week” with spiritual advisers including Mr Graham, Paula White, Georgia pastor Jentezen Franklin and Texas pastor Jack Graham.

“I absolutely believe he's a born-again Christian,” Mr Moore said. “I see it in things he's said publicly and privately. I've seen it in his desire to stand up for what he believes is right.”

Many of Mr Trump's faith advisers, including Ms White, who is now a part of his White House staff, declined to comment.

Mr Trump does not regularly talk about religion with many of his advisers, who said they knew little about how the president views God. Aides and supporters - including the vice president - have urged him to stop saying “goddamn”, a word particularly offensive to some Christians, and some have been perturbed by his use of profanity in the Oval Office.

Some chafed at the questioning, saying it was a private matter.

“President Trump is a man of God, and faith plays an important role in his life. The president values the close counsel of many in the faith-based community, as well as the daily prayers of the many Americans who pray for him, his family, our country, and our military. I have personally witnessed the president in worship many times and have also seen him use his faith and prayer to privately comfort and console Americans after a tragedy,” Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, said in a statement to The Washington Post.

Trump appointed televangelist Paula White [2nd from left] as a faith adviser in the White House
Trump appointed televangelist Paula White [2nd from left] as a faith adviser in the White House (AP)

Evangelical leader James Dobson has credited Ms White with bringing about Mr Trump's Christian conversion. In the months before the 2016 election, Mr Dobson told voters that Trump was a “baby Christian”, who might not have behaved as a religious man ought to earlier in his life but has since changed.

Even though Mr Obama regularly spoke of his faith and described how he converted to Christianity as a young man, many evangelical Trump supporters say they believe that Mr Trump prays in the White House and that Mr Obama did not.

Last month, Mr Trump became the first president to speak in person at the annual March for Life, an anti-abortion event with religious overtones. Michael Capps, who brought his three children to the rally, said Mr Trump had “put God back in the spotlight, which is amazing for the country” and was “the most religious” president ever.

Mr Trump, who was raised in the mainline Presbyterian tradition, does not have an evangelical background. He has cited a pastor he knew early in this life, the late reverend Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, as influential in his worldview. He says the book helped him overcome bankruptcy.

“His idea of religion was Norman Vincent Peale and making a lot of money,” said Tony Schwartz, who co-wrote Mr Trump's bestseller The Art of the Deal, spent time with him in the 1980s and is now a vocal Trump critic. “I never heard him use the word 'God'. He never cited any religious beliefs.”

Mr Peale officiated at Mr Trump's first wedding. The next two were also officiated by mainline Protestant ministers, one Presbyterian and one Episcopalian. First lady Melania Trump said in 2017 that she is Catholic.

Most of Mr Trump's current relationships with evangelical pastors, particularly with believers in Pentecostal, charismatic and prosperity gospel strains of Christianity, appear to have developed only as he considered running for president. Mr Trump also changed some of his beliefs in recent years, including his shift to oppose abortion.

Several pastors, as well as two former White House officials, said they have never seen Mr Trump pray in front of others. Instead, he regularly asks for vice president Mike Pence or for one of his many evangelical cabinet members to pray. He does not regularly reference God in making his decisions, these aides say, and they have never seen him open a Bible. But he has long coveted the visual of having pastors pray for him, including the distinct image of the laying on of hands.

Sean Feucht, a Christian musician running for congress in California, attended a meeting in December organised by Paula White, which brought about 50 Christian leaders, most of them Pentecostal, to the Oval Office. Mr Trump asked the guests to pray for him.

“It was bold, loud prayer” in the charismatic, Pentecostal style, Mr Feucht said. “We were all praying at once, lifting our voices. It wasn't solemn and organised. It was lively and loud. I think that he's drawn to that.”

Mr Trump was a silent appreciator, not joining in.

The president's first line to the pastors that day, before the prayer, was a jab at Ms Pelosi for claiming to pray for him, Mr Feucht said.

Last week, Mr Trump returned to that theme at the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event that is a prime opportunity for a president to talk about his faith.

Speaking about Mitt Romney, who said his religious beliefs guided him in casting his vote against Mr Trump during the impeachment trial, and Ms Pelosi, who has said she prays for the president, Mr Trump said: “I don't like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong. Nor do I like people who say: 'I pray for you,' when they know that that's not so.”

He rewrote his speech on his way to the prayer breakfast to include the barbs at Mr Romney and Ms Pelosi, White House aides said. Several aides said that Mr Trump genuinely thinks the two members of congress are falsely claiming to act based on faith, something they say the president would never do.

The Washington Post

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