WASHINGTON — Donald Trump, one of the least religious and least religiously articulate men ever to run for the presidency, won the White House with what author Stephen Mansfield calls the surprising help of a vast majority of the nation’s religious conservatives.
In his new book, “Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger Hope and Why Christian Conservatives Supported him,” Mansfield both explains and critiques that support.
Like many voters, Mansfield writes, Christian conservatives were looking for a change. They were willing to overlook Trump’s behavior and believe in him “largely because he spoke of faith like a crusader, like one who understood religion as a perpetual call to arms.”
Mansfield talked with USA TODAY about that appeal, and why he thinks Christian conservatives could end up paying a steep price.
Q. You wrote books on the faith of George Bush and Barack Obama. This time, you focused instead on why Christian conservatives supported Donald Trump. Why the different approach?
With Donald Trump, I think the Christian commitment that he has, that at least he talks about today, is relatively newfound. Yes, he was raised in church. Yes he was influenced by Norman Vincent Peale. But I don’t think that we see any evidence of what I would call a defining Christian faith, of a Christian faith where he’s attempting to embrace the core truths of traditional Christianity, and has people around him who are perhaps confronting him on his conduct to some extent. So I didn’t want to write a book where the title suggested that there was a long-term defining Christian commitment because I’m not sure that’s there.
Q. You do write that Trump has a keen spiritual hunger. What’s the evidence for that?
His whole relationship with (televangelist) Paula White, for example, began because he was watching television preachers late at night. He asked her to create these listening sessions that he did around the country with clergy. I talked to many, many people who were there and they said, `Look, whatever else you can say about him, at least he was interested. He was eager. He wanted to learn.’
He’s been known to call some of his spiritual advisers relatively recently and ask about matters of forgiveness. `Do I really have to forgive them 77 times?’ This is a man who had stood at Christian universities and touted the virtues of vengeance and revenge. I think there is a hunger. Obviously, this is a man who is constantly battling his own demons, as we know. So I’m not saying that that hunger overrides or defines. I am saying it’s there.
Q. Describe the faith Trump learned from Norman Vincent Peale, the main minister in his life until Peale’s death.
What’s important about Peale is that Peale personally believed in the born again brand of Christianity — a relationship with Jesus, believing in his resurrection, and so on. But, publicly, he was what we would now call a motivational speaker. He wrote “The Power of Positive Thinking.” So it was almost a secular sort of motivational gospel that he preached publicly around the world and in his books.
I think Trump drank more from that motivational stream than he did from the less readily available traditional Christian part of Norman Vincent Peale.
Actually in the “Power of Positive Thinking” is the statement, `Attitude is more important than facts.’ There’s an example of the imprint of Peale on Trump. I don’t think you can exaggerate it. In fact, Peale himself said that Donald Trump was his `greatest disciple.’…..To understand Donald Trump, you have to understand Norman Vincent Peale.
Q. Is that what you meant when you wrote that Trump has faith, but the problem for him and for the nation is that it’s a faith he learned from Peale?
If the primary minister in Trump’s life had been Billy Graham, let’s say, or D. James Kennedy. or Jerry Falwell, you would have had a far different man. Peale really has two voices. One is that traditional gospel in the pulpit. But the other is motivational speak, which we all know very well now. That’s what Trump absorbed.
I think what Peale did was give Trump additional weapons for winning. That was the family deity. That was the family goal…. I see it every day. Every Twitter war.
Q. How did Paula White help deliver the Oval Office into Trump’s hands?
He had contacted her because he saw her on TV and he was impressed…After he got to know her and she sort of became the chaplain to his business, when he made a head fake to running the first time, he asked her to start putting together meetings with clergy around the country….In this last round, she held maybe a dozen of them.
He began to be exposed to both clergymen from different streams that he had known well before, but also began to hear their concerns.
Many of the notes that he sounded during his campaign that resonated with conservative religious Americans…he may have held some of those previously, but most of them he acquired in these listening sessions. Skeptics, who had prominent pulpits, became believers, so to speak, and helped deliver the White House.
Q. You use the word anger in the title of your book, and you write that while there was a rise in political rage in the country in general, that was also a factor in Christian conservatives’ support of Trump. Why were they angry?
I think it’s essential to the whole issue here. You have to put your mind inside of the head of a religious conservative in America, and accept the fact that they felt traumatized by the Obama administration and terrified by a possible Hillary Clinton presidency.
The Green family, the owners of Hobby Lobby, the fact that they were being sued by the Justice Department for up to $1.3 million a day in fines, and had to appeal to the Supreme Court to keep from having to pay for abortifacients as part of their insurance policies for their employees, this may not have echoed loudly in your office or mine, but it echoed very loudly in all churches.
Remember that Donald Trump did not get a majority of evangelical or conservative religious support in the primaries. But when it got down to where he was the only viable alternative to a Hillary Clinton presidency, the average religious conservative person in America was angry, they were fearful and he channeled their rage. And he at least made head fakes towards the hot button issues they cared about. And all of that contributed to his astonishing numbers among religious conservatives.
Q. Critics would say religious conservatives sold their soul by supporting Trump, that they overlooked Trump the man to get policies they wanted.
I think there is truth to that not so much regarding the average religious conservative on Main Street. I think there is truth in that for a lot of the prominent religious leaders. The way that some of the folks on the right, some of these prominent religious conservative leaders supported Donald Trump, sold him, helped rebrand him, I think they’re going to regret. I think there’s going to be some blowback for them long-term. They knew that they had a crass man. You had of course the (Access Hollywood) video that we all saw and heard. I watched people who were friends of mine, who had stood in pulpits and decried conduct like Donald Trump’s. But when Donald Trump’s came up during an election, they said, `Well, boys will be boys.’ It was no question they were excusing it.
Q. You write that Christian conservatives took responsibility for the Trump presidency so they “own him now.” Those are pretty strong words.
I believe it’s absolutely true. If they had maintained what I call a prophetic distance, speak to him, call him to be a different man but not join his PR team or, as we say crassly in politics, get in bed with him, it would be different. They wouldn’t be completely responsible for whatever he does. But they gave such full-throated support, whatever he does now, they’ve taken ownership of him. They went a long way in making his presidency possible. They almost literally put God’s stamp on him.
When you do that, knowing that a man is crass, knowing that he’ll mouth `I’ll beat the crap out of you’ from the stage, knowing that he’ll talk about Mexican judges and black protesters in derogatory ways, then whatever comes, you’ve bought into.
Q. How important was Trump’s pick of Mike Pence to be his running mate?
I think it was immensely important. People knew or sensed that Trump was new to conservative Christianity, if not the occasional visitor. But Pence was long term. He gave them confidence that Trump would not only reflect their concerns, but wanted someone like them at the table.
Pence is not a typical hesitant politician on issues of religion. He is dramatically outspoken.
Q. Should Pence be criticized for not speaking out more?
That’s an area that I can’t dive into with criticism because I don’t know what he’s saying. For all I know, they’re having breakfast every morning and Pence is saying, `Sir, clean it up.’
Q. If you’re a Christian conservative, are you happy with how the Trump presidency is going so far?
I meet two kinds of religious conservatives. One is willing to put up with a whole lot of garbage simply to see good appointments on the Supreme Court and a broad commitment to religious liberty. They’ve got a couple issues on their minds and as long as the president either acts positively on those issues or doesn’t betray them on those issues, they’re happy.
The other kind of religious conservative I see is upset about (Trump) calling NFL players SOBs, picking a fight with the mayor of San Juan while she’s standing elbow deep in the waters of Irma. They are upset.
There is a certain amount of buyer’s remorse among a certain segment of religious conservatives in America….And they’ve had it.
Read more at Author: Christian conservatives now ‘own’ Trump.