Later that evening, he publicly apologized in a video that was remarkably free from the usual rituals enacted by disgraced politicians. He didn’t lament that he had fallen under sin’s sway but that by God’s grace and with his family’s support he hoped to earn a second chance.
Beyond the policy discussions and ad hominem attacks, it seems, Americans want to know where candidates’ moral compasses point. When asked theological questions, Trump often speaks in terms so vague they approach opacity.
“I think people are shocked when they find out that I am Christian, that I am a religious person,” Trump writes in “Great Again,” a book published during the presidential campaign. Mary Trump, Donald ’s mother, tried to instill traditional Christian values in her children, her son has said.
Trump proudly displays his confirmation photo from the church, pulling it out to demonstrate his Christian bona fides. In the mid-1960s, like many upper-middle class families, the Trumps, including teenaged Donald, became attracted to a popular preacher named Norman Vincent Peale.
In his books and lectures, Peale married pop psychology with hopeful insights gleaned from the gospel. “Attitudes are more important than facts,” Peale said, and he exhorted his followers to bend the world to their will through mental exertion.
Published in 1952, Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” has sold millions of copies and spent 186 weeks atop The New York Times’ bestseller list. “It was a celebrity church, and its members, in those days, were generally wealthy New Yorkers of the Protestant executive class,” said D’Antonio, the Trump biographer.
Jake's marketed their sermons as spiritual self-help, Peale sold record albums and pamphlets with titles like “How to Stop Being Tense” and “No More Gloomy Thoughts.” He was also an enthusiastic champion of the free market, writing columns such as, “Let the Church Speak Up for Capitalism.” His parables were often about businessmen who had bulldozed their way to the top, not Samaritans who crossed the street to help a stranger.
Michael Brown, senior minister of Marble Collegiate, said there were two Norman Vincent Peale's: One was the motivational speaker who tried to reach all Americans. But other Christians accused Peale of peddling jingles, not the gospel, worldly success instead of salvation, and simplistic solutions at a time of increasing complexity.
“He promises quick, painless, and complete ‘solutions’ to problems which may be deep and complex, and which may require real discipline and professional treatment,” wrote religious studies professor and journalist William Lee Miller in 1955. The businessman credited “the power of positive thinking” for helping him rebound in the 1990s, when his casinos were tanking, and he owed creditors billions of dollars.
“I refused to be sucked into negative thinking on any level, even when the indications weren’t great.” Scouring the newspapers for real estate deals, he found a rundown property in Cincinnati, which he bought from the Federal Housing Administration.
When the surrounding area got “rough,” Trump sold the complex, reaping a $6 million profit. Some years ago, after services at her Florida megachurch, Paula White received a call from Donald Trump.
The pastor and businessman met at Trump Tower and began what White calls a “14-year conversation about God and love and a plethora of things.” White hesitates to reveal much about her relationship with Trump, citing the expectation of privacy between clergy and their congregants.
In the many glamour shots on her social media accounts, she is perfectly coiffed and impeccably made up. Like Norman Vincent Peale, White preaches a message of boundless optimism and has a strong entrepreneurial streak.
She encourages adherents to “partner” with her ministry for a monthly fee and sells DVDs of her sermons for $50 a pop. According to an audit made public by a Senate committee investigating televangelists, White’s former church, Without Walls International, took in $150 million between 2004-2006.
At one time, White and her then-husband owned an airplane and several multimillion dollar properties, including a condo in Trump Tower. In 2008, Trump appeared on her television show, where he said his secret of success was the work ethic instilled by his father.
(Her current husband is rocker Jonathan Cain, the keyboard player for Journey and a co-writer of the epic hit “Don’t Stop Believing’.”) Though she rejects the prosperity gospel label, White preaches many of its central tenets on her show “Paula Today” and at her new megachurch in Orlando.
White believes the world abides by spiritual laws, Bowler said, one of which is called “seed faith.” The idea: By pledging money to a minister, believers sow a seed, and God will reward them with a bountiful harvest, usually in the form of health and wealth. Faith is not a spiritual investment that guarantees automatic returns, and there is no evidence, anyway, that God wants people to become millionaires.
Even Richard Land, a member of Trump ’s evangelical advisory board, says the candidate he’s backing may not be a Christian. “When a person says that they have never felt the need to ask for forgiveness, they have defined themselves out of the Christian faith as I understand it,” Land said.
On a conference call with his campaign’s evangelical advisory board earlier this summer, Trump earned a trip to the theological woodshed. He joked that repealing an IRS rule that prohibits pastors from endorsing political candidates might be his only route to heaven.
It’s a line he has repeated often on the trail, but on this occasion he was immediately rebuked, said Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary. Perhaps without knowing it, Trump had stepped into one of Christianity’s oldest fault lines: faith versus works.
No amount of good deeds will save your soul, they say, if you don’t assent to the proper Christian beliefs. Smith, a Christian philosopher, tries to rescue the ancient notion that we are defined by our daily dispositions, routines and disciplines.
Other than a dinner with the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, there is no religion, no mention of God nor any hint of introspection. In recent years, Trump has said that he attends church occasionally, on Christmas, Easter and “special occasions,” but that he is too busy on most Sundays.
He is no longer a member of Marble Collegiate or First Presbyterian in Queens, and it’s hard to picture him sitting through a service, or confessing his sins before a congregation, or listening, in quiet hours of Trump Tower, for the still, small voice of God. Ever since he explained (several times) that he's never asked God for forgiveness about anything, we know it can't be Christianity, despite his on-the-record assurances to the contrary.
For Jeremiah the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, but for Peale its dark recesses are bathed in California sunshine. It is important to think positively, and a negative thought, such as Domino, non sum dingus, can be injurious to spiritual health.
From the holy terror that Peale called “fear thoughts” comes the light of Christian love. In Trump's case, positive thinking has convinced him that he's so awesome, he no longer (or maybe he never did) recognizes himself as a sinner, which means he doesn't have sympathy for the “losers” around him and feels free to look down on them.
If the current pope said this, I don't doubt he would be swiftly rebuked as peddling a postmodern Gospel of positive thinking. “Peale meant to preach a gentle creed, one that made hellfire and terror into mere afterthoughts,” Schlitz writes, dripping with evident disdain.
In an essay criticizing the pope's recent letter on the family, which was praised by countless Christian conservatives but left a sour taste in my mouth, Schlitz insists that we must live in “fear of God.” Meanwhile, Christian tradition has held that moral behavior accomplished through fear of hell is, in the words of Jesus when he appeared to Catherine of Saint, “slavish love,” which is immature and must grow into more mature forms of love.
Don't get me wrong: The fear of hell has saved many people from making terrible decisions. But Christian conservatives like Schlitz fail to recognize how many childhoods and lives have been ruined by the Gospels of guilt and fear, and how the heresies they seem to see as alien phenomena dropped from the sky are really the products of the excesses of their intellectual and spiritual forebears.
But Christian conservatives are so obsessed with their pet peeves that they go so far as confusing Trump for Oprah. Trump's intellectual and spiritual ancestor is in no way the drab Norman Vincent Peale, but instead, the flamboyant Friedrich Nietzsche.
Trump worships power and strength more than anything, and he does so in a way that bears no resemblance to Peale but is totally consonant with Nietzsche's vision. While Nietzsche would find Trump terribly tacky (although the middle-class pastor's son was never as aristocratic as he thought of himself), Trump certainly has an aesthetic that Nietzsche commends to the Übermensch, a concern foreign to Yankee liberal protestant preachers.
The Übermensch will make his life into a work of art, a self-creation, Nietzsche writes, a motto that Trump took to heart, he is the empty core surrounded by a façade of reality TV and branding deals. And by railing without understanding, conservative Christians only perpetuate the cycle that drove so many people away from the faith.