Donald Trump doesn’t seem to be a particularly religious person. There’s no evidence he ever thought about God much, and once, when asked if he ever asked God for forgiveness, he said no – there wasn’t much point in that as there had never been anything to forgive. Still, since he finally decided he was a Republican, and amassed enough delegates to win the Republican nomination this time around, he knows he has to have the evangelical base behind him. Those are the folks who know that Jesus was a Republican, and the folks who turn out to vote Republican at a reliably high rate – their votes are the floor upon which Republican victories are built. Trump has to have those votes, as a given, to win in November, and he has been courting that crowd already inclined to vote Republican with some success, in spite of himself.
The problem is coming across as a Man of God in spite of all evidence to the contrary. He has to prove that, or fake that somewhat convincingly – close enough for the evangelicals to cut him some slack – or come up with someone who will vouch for him, someone who is Born Again and says he’s just fine. There aren’t many out there, but Katie Glueck at Politico has now profiled Donald Trump’s God whisperer:
There were the IRS investigation and the business troubles, the divorces and the rumored affairs splashed across the tabloids. And always, there were the biased media that lay in wait, desperate to seize on any hint of internal dysfunction or family drama.
Donald Trump’s spiritual adviser paced the stage in black stilettos, railing against the unfairness of it all.
It was a spring evening in 2011, and pastor Paula White – the woman credited with leading Trump on a faith journey to Jesus Christ – was speaking at a pastors’ conference about her own experiences. But at times throughout her two-hour sermon, she could easily have been talking about Trump’s.
For the evangelical leaders she now aims to convert to the GOP nominee’s team, that’s exactly the problem.
Yes, he found a spiritual adviser, a real honest-to-goodness evangelical, but one that’s just like him, which may not be a good thing:
Like Trump, who for years was best known as a TV star and real estate mogul, White, a televangelist, is new to GOP evangelical activism. She has more experience leading Bible study with the New York Yankees or meeting the Obamas through Oprah Winfrey than hosting pro-life gatherings in Iowa.
And Trump and White share personal track records – divorce, bankruptcy, embracing views outside of the Republican and evangelical mainstreams – that raise hackles among the influential Christian leaders Trump needs on his team as he seeks to consolidate the Republican base.
“I don’t know who she is, I don’t have any contact with her, I’ve never met her, never talked to her; the most prominent her name has been is, she’s tied to Trump,” said David Lane, an influential evangelical leader with whom many of the Republican presidential candidates cultivated a relationship. Adding that her brand of faith does not represent the mainstream among more traditional Christians, he said, “She can’t move evangelicals.”
Unfortunately, that’s the job:
White, a 50-year-old grandmother who, like Trump, is on her third marriage, this one to rocker Jonathan Cain of Journey fame, has emerged as one of the candidate’s main conduits to the evangelical community. It’s a vote-rich constituency that continues to harbor skepticism about his commitment to its policy views and personal beliefs – and White is fighting a sometimes uphill battle to change that.
That might be okay – the most famous song from the band Journey is Don’t Stop Believin’ (1981) – her current husband wrote that – but she has a past:
White, an author and TV personality who at one time had “millions in the bank,” has had financial challenges of her own. In the early 2000s, her ministry’s spending habits drew scrutiny first from the IRS, and then from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who launched a congressional probe. The probe was eventually dropped (her ministry didn’t fully respond to congressional inquiries, according to reports at the time). The Tampa-based church that she and her ex-husband founded and led – which began to fall apart after their 2007 divorce – declared bankruptcy in 2014, though by then she was leading another church, in Orlando.
Damn, she’s as slippery as Trump with this bankruptcy-to-success stuff, but her success is as questionable as his:
Despite her decades as a faith leader in Florida, she is not well-known in Florida GOP circles. The GOP chair of Hillsborough County, the Tampa area where she and her then-husband ministered for years, does not know her, nor does Mark Phillips, who is helping to run evangelical outreach for the Republican National Committee in the state.
It’s the same story at the national level, which raises questions about how helpful she can ultimately be in arranging introductions and finagling endorsements from the most influential Christian leaders. Like Trump, she is an outsider to the evangelical establishment.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, head of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, does not know her, nor does Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America. Both groups, which focus on curbing abortion, have substantial grass-roots networks.
“She’s not active in my world,” Nance said. “I don’t think she’s been active in the pro-life movement, to my knowledge. I’ve never worked with her.”
Perhaps so, but Trump gave her the job of selling him to the evangelicals:
She played a role, behind the scenes, in assembling a thousand-person gathering of prominent Christian leaders in New York City last month to meet with Trump, and Trump gave her a shout-out, said Nance, who attended. Many leaders walked out of that gathering still unconvinced by Trump, but appreciative of the outreach. And White has worked with plenty of leading evangelicals over the years. She secured for Trump a Bible signed by the Rev. Billy Graham…
She’s doing the job, and she doesn’t much care what others think:
White insisted that she has enough both political and religious cachet with evangelical influencers to engage on Trump’s behalf.
“We all connect on the exact same things,” she said. “Jesus Christ is our lord and savior; we connect the same on [the] trinity, on redemption, on basic principles, the fundaments of our faith. When you get to that there’s not too many places where you can go, ‘She’s a lot more different.'”
She’s one of them. Trump is one of them. They’ll get over it, or they won’t. Laura Turner reports on how Trump’s nomination could be the end of the Religious Right:
The evangelical divide over Trump has been widening for months, but it was only in recent weeks that the pro- and anti-Trump camps definitively split, with an increasing number of conservative evangelicals coming out forcefully against the candidate whom GOP consultant Rick Wilson once called “Cheeto Jesus.” The breaking point came on June 21, when Trump – ironically in an effort to appease the religious right – met with nearly a thousand evangelical leaders and announced a 25-person “evangelical advisory board” to help him reach conservative Christian voters.
Paula White set up that advisory board, but that might have been ill-advised:
Almost all the members of that board have histories of being right-leaning, pro-life and pro-Israel – typical for conservative Christians. But as Ruth Graham noted at Slate, the group is really a who’s-who of former evangelical leaders: Ralph Reed, former leader of the Christian Coalition; Ronnie Floyd, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention; and James Dobson, former president of Focus on the Family. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that the board is mostly older (average age: 64), mostly male and mostly white, with only four people of color. They are a remnant, in other words, of the old guard Moral Majority-era conservative evangelicals whose political influence, on issues like same-sex marriage, contraception and school prayer, was already waning.
After all, Evangelicalism today looks very different from the bygone era of the Dobsons and the Falwells. (Jerry Falwell, Jr., the son of the Moral Majority’s founder, is also on Trump’s board.) For years, evangelicals have been leading the charge against climate change and supporting immigration reform, and 27 percent of white evangelicals now support same-sex marriage, up from 13 percent in 2001. Demographically, the fastest-growing segment of evangelicals in America is Latinos.
The world had passed these folks by:
Christian blogger Fred Clark called the advisory board a “B-list of second-tier religious right figures along with a handful of peaked-long-ago relics.” The Hispanic Baptist Pastors Alliance took offense too, in a statement warning that “joining this board is not the wisest way to be salt and light” and cautioning against “jumping into a crowded office where the weed and wheat are undistinguishable.” It was essentially a call to stay out of politics – a rejection of the basic premise of the Moral Majority that Christians ought to influence politics to see God’s Kingdom come.
That tactic may be dead, and it only got worse:
Russell Moore – an influential leader in the Southern Baptist Convention with a history of theologically and politically conservative views – immediately denounced the board’s “heretical prosperity gospel hucksters hailed as spiritual leaders.” Presumably he was taking aim at people like televangelists Kenneth and Gloria Copeland and Paula White…
But others seem willing to cut Trump some slack:
Some evangelicals, like Southern Evangelical Seminary president Richard Land – another member of Trump’s board, though he has not officially endorsed the candidate – continue to see their calling as being “salt and light” to those in positions of power. They believe Christians have a mandate to influence politics through whatever avenue is available to them, whether they like the candidate or not. If they want the next president to nominate a conservative Supreme Court justice to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat, for instance, they should vote for Trump over the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.
Dobson, for instance, has encouraged evangelicals to “cut [Trump] some slack,” calling him merely a “baby Christian.” Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a long-favored candidate on the religious right, has also stood by Trump, defending his family as “one of the most admirable I’ve ever seen from any father with children.” One member of Trump’s advisory board, Reverend Robert Jeffress, put it more bluntly in making the case to evangelicals for supporting a Trump presidency: “I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role, and I think that’s where many evangelicals are.”
In short, Trump will do. This is war, but then there’s Robert P. Jones, the founding chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute – and the author of The End of White Christian America – who has this to say:
Mr. Jeffress’ expression of acute vulnerability is the key to understanding white evangelical support for Mr. Trump and the extraordinary lengths to which evangelical leaders are going so they can rally behind him. Leaders like Mr. Jeffress locate the threats to their security in the larger world around them.
But the anger, anxiety and insecurity many contemporary white evangelicals feel are better understood as a response to an internal identity crisis precipitated by the recent demise of “white Christian America,” the cultural and institutional world built primarily by white Protestants that dominated American culture until the last decade.
That’s what his book is about, and he summarizes:
Today, white evangelicals are not only experiencing the shrinking of their own ranks, but they are also confronting larger, genuinely new demographic and cultural realities. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, white Christians (Catholics and Protestants) constituted a majority (54 percent) of the country; today, that number has slipped to 45 percent. Over this same period, support for gay marriage – a key issue for evangelicals – moved from only four in 10 to solid majority territory, and the Supreme Court cleared the way for gay and lesbian couples to marry in all 50 states. The Supreme Court itself symbolized these changes, losing its last remaining Protestant justice, John Paul Stevens, in 2010.
Yes, the Supreme Court is now all Jews and Catholics – none of them was born again or whatever – and that’s not the half of it:
A recent Public Religion Research Institute-Brookings survey shows the alarm that white evangelical Protestants are feeling in the wake of demographic and cultural changes. Nearly two-thirds are bothered when they encounter immigrants who speak little English. More than two-thirds believe that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against other groups. For discrimination against Christians, that number is nearly eight in 10. And perhaps most telling of all, seven in 10 white evangelical Protestants say the country has changed for the worse since the 1950s.
And all of that actually transcends religion:
By most measures, Ted Cruz, the son of an evangelical pastor and himself a Southern Baptist, should have been the evangelicals’ presidential candidate in 2016. But Mr. Trump won evangelicals over by explicitly addressing their deeper sense of loss. Mr. Cruz assured evangelicals that he’d secure them exemptions from the new realities, while Mr. Trump promised to reinstate their central place in the country. Mr. Cruz offered to negotiate a respectable retreat strategy, while Mr. Trump vowed to turn back the clock.
He simply said the right things:
For white evangelical Protestants, Mr. Trump’s general vow to “make America great again” means something specific. Mr. Trump stepped into the spotlight just as the curtain was coming down on the era of white Protestant dominance.
Mr. Trump’s ascendancy has turned the 2016 election into a referendum on the death of white Christian America, with the candidate appealing strongly to those who are most grieving this loss. Mr. Trump instinctively understood this from the beginning of his campaign. Take his speech at an evangelical college before the Iowa caucuses in January: “I’ll tell you one thing: I get elected president, we’re going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” He added that Christianity will be resurgent “because if I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power – you don’t need anybody else.”
That’s a religious promise and more:
How white evangelicals respond will be important for the future of the American democratic experiment. If their powerful feelings of nostalgia and vulnerability lead them to embrace Mr. Trump as a straightforward means back to power, we can expect, if he wins, more lawsuits and civic unrest, accompanied by more politicized churches and increasing political polarization along cultural and racial lines.
If, however, white evangelicals somehow summon a response that is rooted in real acceptance of their decentered place in a new America, they may find that they have a critical role to play in the revitalization of our civic life.
Sure, but who is going to accept a newly decentered place in a new America? That’s the problem here, as Joan Walsh notes here in her discussion of Jones’ book:
Jones shows that young white people are “leaving religion in droves.” While that was once only a problem for “mainline” Protestant groups – Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and some others – it has lately become a big problem for evangelical Christians. In the 1980s, as mainline denominations’ membership declined, conservative evangelicals built their mega-churches and felt theologically and socially vindicated – the mainline orders had gone all in with secularism and liberalism and participated in their own diminishment, they believed.
Now evangelicals have to explain their own decline, especially among young people. While 27 percent of Americans over 65 are white evangelical Protestants, only 10 percent of millennials are – the exact same percentage as white mainline Protestant millennials. In PRRI surveys, those young white evangelicals overwhelmingly say they’re fleeing their childhood religion because of its intolerance, especially on issues of sexual identity and gay marriage.
That’s another factor here – the rebellion against the old farts – but the main problem is the world itself:
Jones makes clear that the decline of his people – he’s a Baptist with deep roots in Georgia – is largely the result of decisions and definitions made by the leaders of white Christian America over the last 200 years. For one thing, this Irish Catholic reader learned with a twinge that I’m not counted within white Christian America: rejecting Catholicism as a foreign threat to American identity has been a pillar of white Christian belief since the 1800s, and it remains one. Of course, I know that history…. It just didn’t occur to me that the definitional barrier remained (Jones had to break it to me in a phone interview.) Of course, if you added in white Catholics, white Christian America would still hold a strong majority, but that’s a road not taken long ago.
Likewise, if you added in black, Latino, or Asian Protestants, the demographic power of “Christian America” would soar. Those groups’ numbers, and adherence to Christianity, are rising, not falling. But Jones does not mince words about the way white Christian America has made that modifier “white” essential to its self-definition. Nor does he hesitate to show the way racism – support for slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy – has shadowed the positive moral contributions of white Christians, going back almost to the country’s founding.
White Christian churches gave scriptural justification for slavery – or for tolerating it as a realm of Caesar’s they could ignore. In the South, after desegregation became law, churches began to sponsor “Christian schools” in which religion provided a cover for white parents to avoid educating their kids with black children. In fact, the Christian right grew to its greatest strength when foes of abortion and gay rights, many of them Catholic, made common cause with Southern evangelicals, whose primary driving issue was maintaining that network of tax-exempt, segregated Christian schools, as well as colleges like Bob Jones University, after President Jimmy Carter moved to take away their tax-exempt status.
The core issue is race, but only for this subset of Christians:
Mainline Protestants had a better record on race, going back to the abolitionist movement (although some denominations split between North and South during the Jim Crow era). The venerable National Council of Churches was an enthusiastic supporter of the civil-rights movement, helping to sponsor the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 as well as the 1963 March on Washington, and to push for rights legislation in Congress. The journal of mainline Protestantism, The Christian Century, published the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which specifically excoriated even the city’s “liberal” religious leaders for counseling a go-slow approach to desegregation. King later became a contributing editor.
Through today, a less influential NCC has spoken out on the recent killings of black men at the hands of police, including Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray. Not surprisingly, some Southern evangelicals have been less sympathetic, with the Rev. Franklin Graham, far more conservative than his father Billy, opposing the Black Lives Matter movement and telling African Americans to “listen up” and obey police officers instead of protesting.
But it was more than race too:
Trump deftly combined three overlapping but separate GOP constituencies: the adherents to the old Southern strategy (with its Northern admirers), the Christian right, and the Tea Party. As the campaign began last year, many observers, including myself, thought those groups might fight among themselves; Trump found a way to unite them – around nostalgia for a better day, as well as around race. …
We may feel personal sympathy with aging individuals who are watching the world they once knew disappear – most white people have someone like that in their family – yet as a group, they’re hard to imagine how to reach. And as someone who is excluded from belonging in white Christian America by virtue of being Catholic, I’m keenly aware how much the entire project’s driving force has been exclusion – not merely setting a moral, “Christian” example, and hoping others will follow it, and join in.
And that led to Trump:
Jones’s book convinced me that white Christian America didn’t just die a natural death, thanks to demographic change; it is committing suicide, by clinging to that seductive yet toxic modifier “white.” It would seem that Donald Trump is helping it along, as it trades adherence to its supposed moral values for nostalgia about an age that many other Christians now believe was immoral in its cruelty and inequality. Still, as they fade into the past, these embattled Americans can still endanger our emerging multi-religious, multiracial communities. If Trump loses, as most polls indicate he will, it’s hard to imagine them admitting they’re wrong and trying to join the rest of the country.
Yes, that won’t happen. Nostalgia is a powerful god, and a jealous god, and an angry god – and Donald Trump is a man of god after all – just not the god that others assumed.