Donald Trump is rejiggering the way the Republican Party does religion.
Give Trump credit for one thing: exposing, in plain view, that much of the religious right is driven more by politics than by religion; that is, more by mythology than theology. The usual demands that candidates pledge their fealty to the Bible, to the Christian nation, to the idea that America is in decline because of secularism have been suspended for Trump. That’s befuddling many observers. But the Trump phenomenon exposes how the piety test is often a proxy for other, irreligious motives.
The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, for one, was shocked by evangelicals whose support of Trump is antithetical to the sacred text they claim is the foundation of our country. As historian Kevin Kruse points out, though, the fact that Ronald Reagan was a divorced non-church-goer who once supported abortion rights didn’t stop evangelicals from supporting him, either.
Let’s be clear here, we don’t know whether Trump’s lead will endure into next year. Although he is drawing a greater share of evangelical support in many polls than other candidates, the evangelical vote is still split—a phenomenon that was also true at this point in the previous two election cycles. In both 2008 and 2012, with evangelicals divided about which candidate to support in a crowded field, the primaries produced a nominee who appeared to be the least favored among evangelicals: John McCain and Mitt Romney, respectively. Although McCain’s nomination might have been seen as evidence of the religious right’s declining clout, the evangelical base’s discontent with McCain led to his selection of a running mate in Sarah Palin—perhaps contemporary politics’ clearest forerunner to the Trump ascendancy.
While Palin, like Trump, spoke the language of what TNR’s Jeet Heer calls “aggrieved privilege” (not populism), Palin wrapped it in overtly religious gestures. Her gestures, particularly her verbal ones, bore all the hallmarks of modern televangelism: an insistence on biblical inerrancy paired with a claim that the speaker can receive new revelations, directly from God, about one’s social, economic, and political prospects. It’s a perfect model for Trump: reinterpreting the Bible to claim God picked you out to make money, to be successful, and to be president of the United States. Trump hasn’t gone there—yet—although it’s not hard to imagine it.
Trump has moved on from his “little cracker” reference to communion to proclaiming the Bible is his favorite book. Although he has compared himself to Billy Graham, because of Trump’s propensity to claim magical healing powers—for America, if not for someone’s bum knee or cancer—a closer analogy might be Benny Hinn.
While some evangelicals are cringing that their co-religionists adore this xenophobic, racist bully, there is some evidence that Trump is indeed drawing from the televangelist oeuvre. Next month’s meeting with “selected Christian leaders and ministry professionals” is being organized by televangelist Paula White. (White arranged a similar meeting for Trump in 2011.) In 2007, a Senate committee launched an investigation against White, Hinn, and four other televangelism stars for misusing tax-exempt donations for luxury homes, cars, private planes, and even plastic surgery. But the investigation, after pressure from conservatives, was dropped four years later before any changes to tax law or policy were even suggested. That’s Trump’s kind of evangelical.
Because many cannot wrap their mind around why Trump is getting support from religious voters, the pressure is on Trump (sort of) to prove his biblical bona fides. I would have loved to see a political reporter ask Trump what his preferred Bible translation is. King James? New International? Inquiring minds want to know—at least that he’s broken the binding on his favorite book. The closest we got was in Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s interview on Bloomberg, where Halperin asked Trump if he had a favorite Bible verse or two. It’s a dumb question, although if Trump were a bit more savvy on this religion-in-politics stuff he would have at least talked about—oh, I don’t know, love thy neighbor? (Or perhaps that would have been too preposterous even for Trump.)
For the record, these questions shouldn’t be asked of political candidates. But since it was the Republican Party that turned elections into piety contests, you would think its preferred candidate could at least play the game well. Instead, Trump deemed his answer to be “personal,” adding that “The Bible means a lot to me, but I don’t want to get into specifics.” I might be sympathetic to such an answer from any other candidate—but in this case it’s clear that on the one hand Trump wants to play the religion card, but actually doesn’t have any particulars to back it up.
But Trump’s religious fans aren’t bothered. The Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody, who has been extolling Trump’s virtues for at least a month, describes Trump’s expulsion of Univision anchor Jorge Ramos from a press conference as “magic,” praising how Trump “showed (once again) to voters is that he’s not afraid to back down from a fight. He lets it rip and loves to battle.”
Trump, wrote Brody, is “the maestro conductor of this 2016 presidential election. He leads. Others follow.” The knee jerk reaction here would be to retort, “just like Jesus?” But that would miss the point.