Election 2016 ended a year ago, but its effects on American culture, including the American church, persist. Many are still asking how Donald Trump became president, and what part evangelical Christians played in making that happen. Stephen Mansfield, author of bestselling books about the religious faith of recent American presidents, believes that faith matters in the story of President Trump as well. Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him describes Trump’s remarkable partnership with conservative evangelicals. Blogger Samuel D. James spoke with Mansfield about what the events of last year mean for Christians and how a divided American church can heal.
Is it fair to consider Donald Trump a prosperity-gospel Christian?
He’s definitely drawn to the side of Christianity that preaches personal power, prosperity, and success in this world. Part of that preconditioning comes from his years hearing sermons from Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale privately believed in “born again” Christianity, but Trump fed from the stream in Peale’s thought that was essentially secular motivational philosophy. Trump sees himself as a religious man and sees his own success as the result of living out certain religious principles—just not the ones at the heart of the gospel.
You describe how meeting with religious leaders during the campaign gave Trump something of an “education” he didn’t know he needed. Were his stances on religious liberty, abortion, and socially conservative issues a product of political ambitions?
A good illustration is his approach to the Johnson Amendment, which prevents pastors from endorsing candidates from the pulpit. Donald Trump didn’t care then and doesn’t care now, I believe, about the Johnson Amendment as it pertains to religious liberty. I believe he cares about it because he thinks that if pastors who support him could say so boldly from their pulpits, it would motivate religious voters.
Trump was introduced to many issues he hadn’t cared about before, at least on the level of theology or moral principle. Of course, a great deal of this was politically motivated (even if you entertain the hope that some of it might have settled somewhere in his soul). But here’s the interesting thing: Trump did not make many religious claims about himself. That was done more by the religious leaders around him. Trump has never, as far as I know, claimed to be born again. But James Dobson tweeted that he knew the person who had led Trump to Christ. And Jerry Falwell Jr.’s introduction at Liberty literally compared him to Jesus and Lincoln. These religious leaders made claims far outside what Trump himself was saying.
Evangelical Trump supporters addressed concerns about the candidate’s personal morality in a few contradictory ways. Some would claim that we weren’t voting for a “pastor-in-chief,” but there were also efforts to portray him as a spiritually admirable person. What gives?
Either a president’s faith matters or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t matter, let’s forget about the issues the Religious Right has been raising for years—individual piety, devotion to Scripture, personal faith history, good moral character—and just focus on policy. But most prominent Religious Right leaders couldn’t do that because that hasn’t been their traditional approach to the faith of presidents. Some of them agreed, “We’re not electing a spiritual leader,” and then they turned around and engaged in gossip about Trump being born again or secretly led to Jesus—trying to reassure the faithful that here, in fact, was a godly man. And every day this happened, Donald Trump was behaving the exact opposite of how a born-again man ought to have behaved.