It’s impossible to win the GOP presidential nomination without making peace with millions of evangelical Protestants.
Thus, Donald Trump traveled to Liberty University in 2012. If he ever got serious about winning the White House, team Trump knew he would need a solid faith story.
The New York billionaire told students to “work hard” and “love what they do,” but raised eyebrows by urging them to “get even” when wronged, and to “get a prenuptial” before marriage. He joked about saying naughty things at Liberty.
“That remarkable speech showed what he did and didn’t know” about evangelicals, said Stephen Mansfield, author of the new book “Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope and Why Conservative Christians Supported Him.”
“Trump basically told Liberty students, ‘Follow Jesus’ and ‘Shoot your enemies between the eyes.’ ... He sees no conflict between those two messages.”
That 2012 presentation also showed an image of young Donald on the day of his baptism, then a picture of his baptism certificate. Trump seemed to think this flash of faith would buy evangelical credibility, canceling out his Playboy appearances and interviews in which, as Mansfield wrote, his sexual conquests were “tallied like wild game bagged on safari.”
The candidate who kept returning to Liberty was, of course, a grown-up edition of the boy who punched his second-grade teacher in the face, the lad whose real-estate magnate father nicknamed “killer.” As a teenager, Trump was shaped by “The Power of Positive Thinking” sermons of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, the cultural tastes of Hugh Hefner and the strict disciplines of a military academy.
But Mansfield noted Trump was also the man who couldn’t bear to throw away stacks of Bibles given to him by fans, creating a Trump Tower storage room for them. This political warrior finally called a sympathetic pastor and asked: “I know God says to forgive. But how do we know when to turn the other cheek and when to fight?”
In the marathon of primaries, Trump faced a Baptist minister, two preacher’s sons and several candidates with solid evangelical credentials.
“We know that Trump didn’t win with the majority of evangelical voters at first. ... Many religious conservatives worried about him. But in the general election, they had to decide between the difficult Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. That was that,” said Mansfield.
Thus, Christianity Today ran a pre-election analysis noting, “Most Evangelicals Will Vote Trump, But Not For Trump.” In one of 2016’s most quoted statistics, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump -- but that didn’t mean they wanted to, said Mansfield.
Ironically, the then-current president was a liberal Christian who was comfortable quoting Bible verses, even when defending his government’s efforts to sue conservative believers for following ancient Christian doctrines, explained Mansfield, who also wrote the bestseller, “The Faith of Barack Obama.” And candidate Clinton was an articulate United Methodist who said her social activism was linked to her faith.
Thus, religious conservatives were “traumatized ... and fearful a second Clinton presidency would mean more of the same,” said Mansfield. Whether they were angry, and loyal to Trump, or simply fearful, and thus opposed to Clinton, religious conservatives cited one crucial factor in their 2016 votes -- the U.S. Supreme Court and the future of religious liberty in America.
For true Trump believers, wrote Mansfield, it didn’t matter that their man “celebrated his sexual conquests openly on cable TV, that his language was vile, that his treatment of women was sometimes obscene or that he often spoke in racially offensive terms. God could call him. God would make him righteous. God could anoint him. ...
“Then Donald Trump won. To millions of Americans, it seemed a miracle. He had defeated a dozen and a half Republican primary opponents with deeper spiritual resumes than his and he bested Hillary Clinton, one of the most religiously outspoken politicians of our time.”
There are signs that Trump is on a spiritual journey, said Mansfield. Some people believe his Christian faith is real. Others say it’s too early to tell.
“Many people knew that voting for Trump was risky,” he added. “What I heard people say, over and over, was this: ‘I would rather have the uncertainties of Donald Trump than the certainties of Hillary Clinton.’ I will have to risk it.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)