Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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. . . . I think in terms of ‘Let’s go on and let’s make it right.’”

Surge of Piety:
Norman Vincent
Peale and the Remaking of American Religious Life
by Christopher Lane
Yale University Press, 224 pp. Credit:

Donald J. Trump said this in 2015, whilst scrambling to articulate the theory and praxis of his Christian faith—a faith lightly worn, but who can say how deeply felt? The mysteries and the opacities of the human heart loom up before us. At first, the reader or auditor is startled by the image of the Body of Christ reduced to a “little cracker.” Yet, being a Presbyterian, Trump is supposed to take the Eucharist in symbolic terms.

All right, let’s admit it—analyzing Trump’s position on religion feels like an exercise in conjuring light out of darkness, a kind of creatio ex nihilo, as it were. But before we throw up our hands and skip to the next book review, we ought to consider a possibly revealing fragment of philosophy lodged in the last sentence of the above quote. The Trumpian sentiment “I think in terms of ‘Let’s go on and let’s make it right’ ” hearkens back to the self-help guidance of Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking and pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, where the young Trump was a congregant. It would be more than unfair to blame Peale for Trump’s rise or appeal; the fact that the teenage Trump snoozed in his pews shouldn’t retroactively impugn the Reverend in total. But, thanks to Northwestern University professor Christopher Lane’s book, Surge of Piety, we have a little perspective on what Peale’s philosophy meant for America, and, by extension, for Trump. (True, Trump is not actually mentioned in the book, but, in hindsight, he lends the work most of its contemporary relevance.)

Lane studies how Peale developed a popular theology that fused American business-speak with Christianity, psychoanalysis, and political conservatism (with considerable long-term success—his Guideposts magazine is still in publication). Founding the Religio-Psychiatric Institute in New York City, along with the psychiatrist Smiley Blanton, Peale brought his version of the Gospel to wide swaths of the American public. Lane writes, “In proselytizing patients and Christianizing psychiatry, and medicine more generally, they [Peale and Blanton] were tailoring a message to support the national resurgence of piety: that a normal, healthy American was also, necessarily, a deeply religious one.” This Christianized psychiatry not only aimed to save souls, but to kill a second bird with its particular stone—namely, Communism. Peale was an aggressive critic of the New Deal in the 1930s and ’40s (though he played this down later in life) and, in the ’50s, a fervent Eisenhower supporter.

The Reverend’s partner in these ventures—the aforementioned Dr. Blanton—had actually undergone analysis under Sigmund Freud himself. While deeply influenced by Freud, Blanton departed from the Viennese seer by offering a higher estimation of religious faith. However, Blanton records that he told Freud, “My religion is about like yours, as expressed in The Future of an Illusion. But I feel that average people cannot have such a bleak religion. Their minds are not well enough furnished. They must have an idealized father to depend on.” According to Blanton, the doctor replied, “You are probably right.” By the time he joined forces with Peale, Blanton seems to have become an actual believer—endlessly intrigued by miraculous healings at Lourdes. (Unlike Peale, however, he was a staunch New Deal liberal.)

Lane spends a great deal of time detailing the growth of Peale’s organizations and commitments in his joint attempt to Christianize psychiatry and defeat the Red Menace. Peale insisted on relentlessly positive thinking, arguing that “it is an affront to God when you have a low opinion of yourself”—certainly a Trumpian sentiment. Peale’s theology is far removed from the intense self-analysis of a Kierkegaard or an Augustine, providing instead a kind of spiritual pep talk. It focuses on constant affirmation of one’s own dreams and wishes, with God providing encouragement from the corner of the ring, like Burgess Meredith in Rocky. Lane cites the contemporary evangelist Joel Osteen as a modern version of Peale, since Osteen offers up quotes like this one: “Believe big. . . . Without a vision you won’t see God’s best. You won’t be the winner he wants you to be.” Thus, when Trump tells an interviewer, “I don’t like to analyze myself because I might not like what I see,” he’s merely stating his Pealean determination to accentuate the positive and ignore the negative. He’s being the winner that God, theoretically, wants him to be.

Peale’s theology focuses on constant affirmation of one’s own dreams and wishes, with God providing encouragement from the corner of the ring, like Burgess Meredith in Rocky.

While Lane doesn’t point this out, Peale and Osteen’s faith seems to be a manifestation of what William James called the religion of “healthy-mindedness.” James located the most exalted formulations of this philosophy in Whitman and Emerson, so it would be fair to say that Osteen and Peale represent a simplification (or, depending on one’s perspective, debasement) of it. At one point, Lane observes of Peale’s emphasis both on belief in oneself and belief in God, “It was as if, tellingly, the two had fused in his mind and become interchangeable.” This is not so far from the tradition of healthy-mindedness; for Whitman and Emerson, the soul is at one with the Oversoul, part of a greater Cosmic Self. This idea can easily lend itself to liberal politics, since it highlights humanity’s inherent interconnectedness. But in Peale’s case, he took a version of it and made it serve his own anti–New Deal agenda. Dangerously, this overemphasis on worldly success as evidence of divine favor can lead people to conclude that anyone who is dealing with hard times is simply failing to perform God/self-affirmation zealously enough: if you’re not a winner, you probably don’t believe in God, and your lack of faith is condemning you to poverty. It’s such a far cry from Jesus’ actual teachings, which contain statements like “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

Peale tried to use this philosophy of vigorous self-affirmation as a foil against Communism. Lane cites numerous quotes to this effect, like this one: “I believe that one of the best ways to undercut Communism is to reach the masses of people with some simple religious principles.” For Peale, as for Eisenhower, belief in God gave a society its vitality; without abundant faith, it would be swamped with reds. But what kind of faith? Clearly, Peale desired one wholly wedded to conservative thought. He at one point stated that FDR was “indifferent to religion,” then later ignored Eisenhower’s own relaxed degree of commitment to personal church attendance.

While the anti-Communism aspect of Peale’s mission seems embedded in the ideological conflicts of the 1950s, his style of Christianity—a Jesus for winners who can dream and pray bigly—is still very much with us today. However, to people who grew up aware of televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Peale feels relatively mild. The Christianity of the 1950s, sporting benign figures like Billy Graham and publicly known theologians like Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, seems surprisingly kinder and gentler when compared to the era of Left Behind books. Peale’s organizational efforts to combat Communism and Christianize Freudian psychiatry are part of a bygone era; what remains is his brand of “Prosperity Gospel” (which, to be fair, predates Peale—the American compulsion to yoke financial success to belief while comparing Jesus to a CEO seems nationally genetic). Insofar as one can tether Trump to any sort of philosophy, he seems to adhere to a mostly secular version of “the power of positive thinking.” But, rather than blithely ignore people who irritate him, he mixes his self-affirmations with an endless barrage of invective, on and off Twitter, which doesn’t seem particularly inspired by Peale. Call it the power of negative tweeting—a steady diet of positivity for the fragile ego, a constant current of negativity for the rest of the universe.

Ultimately, “the power of positive thinking” is a way of cramming the secular assumptions of American success into Christianity. By insisting that only those winners who offer up really huge, big-league prayers can get the gold and the girl and Jesus—all bundled together in one limited-time offer—preachers of the Prosperity Gospel elide most of Christianity’s wisdom. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “When I took up the cross, I recognized its meaning. The cross is something that you bear, and ultimately that you die on.” By eliminating the necessity of suffering from Christianity, the Prosperity Gospel destroys the whole idea of atonement, of becoming at one with God through personal sacrifice. Contra Peale, it’s oddly easy for people to forget about the divine in moments of success and happiness—but pain provokes remembrance. As Leonard Cohen put it, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Samuel Buntz

Samuel Buntz is a freelance writer living in West Hartford, Connecticut. His work has appeared in PopMatters, Fare Forward, and the Washington Monthly.