Trump the Believer

It’s not going to get much if any attention because of the vast shadow cast by his comments about John McCain’s war record, but Donald Trump’s pithy remarks at Saturday’s Family Leadership Summit were, er, interesting in terms of how he addressed his audience on matters pertaining to religion. This was a premier Christian Right event, after all, with the crowd mostly composed of conservative evangelicals, with some conservative Catholics (like event “host” and opening speaker Steve King) sprinkled in. And moderator Frank Luntz was very anxious to get the presidential candidates talking about their religious beliefs and habits. It just went sideways with Trump now and then.

Luntz asked The Donald if he had ever asked God for forgiveness, and it was really as though the idea had never occurred to him:

“If I do something wrong, I try to do something right,” he said. “I don’t bring God into that picture.”

Spoken like an ethical agnostic, right? But perhaps sensing his answer wasn’t adequate, he tried to recover:

“When I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed,” he said.

This is the sort of litany that might offend nearly everyone in the room. Calling the Blessed Sacrament “the little cracker” would be jarring to Catholics. Most conservative evangelicals drink grape juice at communion, not wine. And all sorts of conservative Christians would dislike the idea of feeling cleansed by communion; the idea is to cleanse oneself through some sort of self-examination (with or without clerical assistance) before communion, which gets back to the idea of asking for forgiveness. Even the “I do that as often as possible” is a bit off for Presbyterians like him; back in the day American Presbyterians typically took communion once a year, on Easter, after an entire day of examination and self-examination–you know, “asking for forgiveness.”

Ah well, nobody really expects candidates to be theologians, but everything about Trump screamed the oafish tycoon speaking the unaccustomed language of faith. To show how out of touch he was, he spend quite some time in this appearance talking about his love for the late Norman Vincent Peale, the famous Manhattan-based Reformed Church in America pastor who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking. Even in his 1950s heydey, Peale was constantly lashed by religious thinkers from just about every possible background for his superficial, secular approach to faith; I don’t think he’s been rehabilitated more recently. And in the political context, Peale was mainly famous for campaigning against JFK on grounds that no Catholic could be trusted with the presidency.

I’d say five minutes of discussion with some religiously aware person prior to showing up in Ames to talk to a religio-political conference could have enabled Trump from looking so clumsy on these topics. But again, I suppose this is his alleged charm: it’s all about him, and it’s just “political correctness” to expect the great man to bend to the sensibilities of any audience.

UPDATE: It occurs to me after reading one shocked reference to Trump calling “the communion wafer” the little cracker that some Catholics and the more liturgical Protestants may not be aware that less liturgical Protestants typically don’t use a “wafer” but instead a small pellet of unleavened bread that indeed looks like “a little cracker.” Some probably use an actual chopped-up saltine. But his critics’ ignorance doesn’t excuse Trump’s.

UPDATE II: To David_in_Nashville: Yes, I’m aware contemporary Presbyterians have stepped up communion to about the level of Baptists, but still lag behind the Episcopalians and Lutherans who are rapidly moving to weekly communion (my own Disciples of Christ have always been there). And yeah, I know about Calvin’s desire for more frequent reception, but he would have had to turn Geneva into even more of a theocratic police state to keep the “unworthy” out. As you probably know, fear of “unworthy reception” kept the number of actual communicants very low throughout Christendom from the 4th century to about the 19th.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.