Donald Trump is a talented performer, energizing his campaign stops with ad-libbed attacks on his opponents and witty one-liners.
And yet when it comes to talking about his faith, the Republican presidential nominee often appears uncharacteristically unspirited, sticking to scripted, generic statements when he could play up his religious journey’s twists and turns.
“I believe in God. I am Christian. I think the Bible is certainly, it is the book. It is the thing,” Trump said to Christian Broadcasting Network in 2011. “I’m a Protestant, I’m a Presbyterian. And you know I’ve had a good relationship with the church over the years. I think religion is a wonderful thing. I think my religion is a wonderful religion.”
Trump has gradually sharpened his message to the religious right, a group that the GOP has depended on since Ronald Reagan. But even when he’s stumbled in articulating his faith, it doesn’t seem to hurt him, likely because voters can relate to his religious journey. Like many Americans, Trump has a variety of ties to organized religion, but it doesn’t define him, and he’s not well-versed in beliefs and practices.
Growing up, Trump attended First Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York. He fondly recalled his Sunday School experiences in a letter to the church staff in 2012, which accompanied a $10,000 donation to a church fundraiser.
“Going to church was an important part of our family life and the memories for me are still vivid — of a vibrant congregation and a lot of activities,” he wrote, according to The Atlantic.
In the 1970s, when he was a young adult, his parents began attending Marble Collegiate Church and Trump came along. He still attends Marble Collegiate today, when he does go to church. The congregation, part of the Reformed Church in America, used to be led by the legendary Norman Vincent Peale, author of the best-selling self-help book “The Power of Positive Thinking.”
Peale’s influence on Trump’s life was more than spiritual; the popular preacher showed the future business mogul how to earn celebrity status without sacrificing (at least some people’s) respect.
“Peale, who grew up a Methodist in Ohio, preached on Sundays to several thousand worshipers at Marble Collegiate, where he presided from 1932 to 1984. He lived the life of an aristocrat, with a Swiss chalet, a Fifth Avenue apartment and an estate in Upstate New York,” The Washington Post reported in January.
But Peale still approached his Sunday sermons like a regular guy, speaking off-the-cuff about the Bible. He gained fame without losing his flock, inspiring a presidential candidate who can sit in a skyscraper bearing his name and speak about the plight of poor Americans.
Trump’s embrace of Peale’s teachings on positive thinking may have something to do with the candidate’s appeal to practitioners of the prosperity gospel, a segment of evangelical Christianity that teaches that worldly wealth and success are signs of God’s favor. Leaders in this movement have emerged as key allies in the Republican candidate’s efforts to court evangelical voters.
“Unlike the moral majority leaders of the past 30 years, prosperity preachers don’t just want Americans to be saved. They want them to be successful,” Time reported.
Within prosperity gospel circles, Trump need not apologize for his wealth or even his sexual exploits or brash manner. “Trump does not need the come-to-Jesus conversion long required of American politicians to have the ideal testimony for prosperity believers. His economic success is the truest sign of God’s blessing,” the Time article noted.
Trump’s affinity for religious leaders like Paula White, a Florida televangelist, is convenient but also likely genuine. He’s known White for nearly 15 years, and she visited the set of his reality TV show, “The Apprentice,” long before his campaign was in search of an evangelical advisory board.
Over the course of his life, Trump’s interest in religion hasn’t been a performance, and so he’s struggling to turn personal faith into one now. McKay Coppins, senior political writer for BuzzFeed News, recently noted that Trump often appears bored during his outreach to religious voters.
“What’s striking about this year’s Republican presidential nominee is not just that he doesn’t know his Bible; it’s how thoroughly uninterested he appears to be in any sort of discussion of faith or God,” Coppins wrote.
He added, “Last July, Frank Luntz asked Trump at a forum in Iowa whether he’d ever asked God for forgiveness. ‘I don’t think so I don’t bring God into that picture,’ Trump replied. He then thought to offer, ‘When I go to church and when I drink my little wine and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking forgiveness. I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed, OK?'”
With stilted interactions like these, Trump has earned the ire of those evangelicals who criticize prosperity preaching.
“Donald Trump is certainly not seen as someone who even understands the tune when evangelicals sing their tradition. He doesn’t even know the words to say that would be appealing to evangelicals,” said D. Michael Lindsay, president of the evangelical-affiliated Gordon College, to America Magazine.
The Republican candidate has also failed to leave an impression of faithfulness on a majority of voters. Only 30 percent of U.S. adults view Trump as very or somewhat religious, according to a Pew Research Center report from January.
But that doesn’t mean he’s out of sync with American voters. Criticizing the candidate for referring to the biblical book as “Two Corinthians” or putting money in the communion plate means mocking him for the same kind of religious illiteracy that plagues many Americans. Only 45 percent of U.S. adults know that the four gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, according to a 2010 Pew study.
Trump’s religious journey, with its Sunday School lessons as a youth and intermittent adult attendance record, should be familiar to many voters. It stands out against the faith lives of past Republican presidential nominees, but not against American spirituality in general.
Maybe Trump shrugs off opportunities to address his faith because it is relatively unremarkable, especially compared to his business ventures and high-powered friends. If he’s watching the polls, he knows even highly religious Americans don’t seem especially turned off by his awkward God talk. More than 6 in 10 white evangelical voters (62 percent) support Trump, according to Public Religion Research Institute.