How Positive Thinking, Prosperity Gospel Define Donald Trump's Faith Outlook | KUOW News and Information

How Positive Thinking, Prosperity Gospel Define Donald Trump's Faith Outlook

Aug 3, 2016
Originally published on August 4, 2016 10:03 am

(Editor's note: Both major presidential candidates this year are Protestants. Both of their running mates were raised as Catholics. Beyond that, their faith profiles are very different. We dug into the faiths of the Republican candidates below and of the Democratic ticket here.)

In his speech to the Republican convention, Donald Trump thanked "the evangelical and religious community" for supporting his candidacy, but then added, "I'm not sure I totally deserve it." Trump does not often express humility, but in this case he seemed to be acknowledging a fairly obvious point.

The Pew Research Center's January 2016 survey of Americans' views of their presidential candidates found only 30 percent regarded Trump as "very or somewhat" religious. Sixty percent said Trump was "not too" or "not at all" religious. No candidate, Republican or Democrat, had a lower religiosity score.

He has said a Bible his mother gave him as a youngster is "very special to me." However, Trump faced criticism after he would not identify a favorite scriptural passage when asked to do so. "I don't want to get into specifics," he said. He does not claim to be especially devout and once told an interviewer he couldn't remember ever asking for forgiveness.

In spite of those apparent religious shortcomings, however, it is not quite true that Trump lacks a personal faith tradition. He was baptized and confirmed at a Presbyterian church in the Queens neighborhood where he grew up. Later, his parents joined Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. The pastor there was Norman Vincent Peale, and it's the church Trump came to call his own.

"I go to church, and I love God, and I love my church," Trump told the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa last year. "Norman Vincent Peale, the great Norman Vincent Peale, was my pastor. ... He was so great. And what he would do is, he'd bring real-life situations, modern-day situations, into the sermon. And you could listen to him all day long."

Peale was in fact one of the most famous Christian preachers of the 20th century, well known for his admiration of successful businessmen. He regularly sprinkled his sermons with anecdotes about prominent industrialists he had known and respected, from the president of the Ralston Purina Company to the founder of Kraft Foods.

"Being a merchant isn't getting money," he preached. "Being a merchant is serving the people!"

In his book, The Power of Positive Thinking, and in his preaching, Peale promoted a faith message that appealed to Donald Trump.

"Peale got very interested in the notion that the Gospel could unleash power, that having a divine relationship with God could unleash power within a person for success," says Michael Hamilton, a historian of American Christianity at Seattle Pacific University. "And he defined success pretty broadly, so it partly included material success. God didn't want people to be poor."

Among the businessmen Peale welcomed to his church was Donald Trump's father, Fred Trump, a New York real estate developer.

"When he went into church on Sunday," Hamilton says, "[Fred Trump] would hear his minister telling him stories about if you have positive thinking, if you're faithful, if you're upholding your family and your community, then that's what unleashes the power that's made you successful."

Peale, who died in 1993, rarely talked about salvation. His message was more practical than theological. It echoes today in what's known as the Prosperity Gospel, practiced by megachurch televangelists who favor spectacle and say God chooses to reward some people with material wealth.

Donald Trump, drawn to Norman Vincent Peale in his younger days, now surrounds himself with prosperity preachers. Paula White ("a tremendous person, tremendous woman"), Mark Burns ("I don't know if you've watched him on television") and Darrell Scott ("phenomenal guy") were among those with Trump in June when he spoke to a Faith and Freedom conference in Washington, D.C.

If Trump felt he needed to demonstrate still more religiosity, he may have relieved it with his choice of Indiana governor Mike Pence as his running mate.

"I'm a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican — in that order," Pence said as he accepted the vice presidential nomination. It's a phrase he's used to describe himself before — his religious convictions have been a hallmark of his career.

His own faith story is intriguing. Raised in an Irish Catholic household, Pence was an altar boy at his local church and went to a parochial school. As a member of a non-denominational Christian youth group at college, he had a "conversion" experience. By 1994, he was describing himself as a "born again evangelical Catholic." The label confused some theologians who focus on the differences between Catholicism and evangelical Christianity, but other Christians understood what he meant.

"'Born again' comes from the Bible," said Kirsten Powers, a USA Today columnist and Fox News commentator who had her own conversion experience about 10 years ago. "It's a phrase Jesus used."

A former Democratic Party activist who worked for President Bill Clinton, Powers joined the Catholic church last year.

"Catholic or evangelical or mainline Protestant, any of these people could be born again," she says. "If somebody said to me, 'I'm an evangelical Catholic' or 'I'm a born again Catholic,' it would be them saying 'I'm a sincere Christian. I read the Bible. My life has been transformed.'"

Trump himself has never claimed to be transformed or "born again." But that may not matter, if he outsources the responsibility for religious outreach to his running mate. As Indiana governor, Mike Pence bolstered his conservative credentials by signing a religious liberty law to protect business people — critics said it would allow them to discriminate against gays and lesbians. If Pence now says Trump is a good man, that may be enough for voters who care about their candidates' faith.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When it comes to religion, the Democratic and Republican presidential contenders have something in common. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both protestant. Their running mates are Catholic. That's where the similarities end. NPR's Tom Gjelten has this look at how Donald Trump and Mike Pence have been influenced by their faith.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Conservative white Christians are an important part of the Republican base. When Donald Trump competed in places like South Carolina, he wanted to show he had Christian values.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: My mother gave me this Bible, this very Bible many years ago. In fact it's her writing right here. She wrote the name and my address. And it's just very special to me.

GJELTEN: Whether he reads it regularly is another question. When asked on one occasion for his favorite bible verse, Trump said he didn't want to get into specifics. He does not claim to be especially devout, and he once told an interviewer he couldn't remember asking for forgiveness.

Trump was baptized, however, and confirmed at a Presbyterian church in the Queens neighborhood where he grew up. Later his parents joined Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, part of the Reformed Church of America. The pastor there was Norman Vincent Peale, and that's the church Trump came to call his own.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I go to church, and I love God. And I love my church. And Norman Vincent Peale, the great Norman Vincent Peale, was my pastor. "The Power of Positive Thinking" - everybody's heard of Norman Vincent Peale. He was so great.

GJELTEN: This from an appearance last year at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: And what he would do is he'd bring real-life situations, modern-day situations into the sermon, and you could listen to him all day long. When you left the church, you were disappointed that it was over.

GJELTEN: Peale was in fact one of the most famous Christian preachers of the 20th century, well-known for his admiration of successful businessmen about whom he often preached.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NORMAN VINCENT PEALE: I said, you know, being a merchant isn't getting money. Being a merchant is serving the people. And you go out there, and you talk with her, and you ask if she can pay $5 a month.

GJELTEN: Peale's book "The Power Of Positive Thinking" has sold about 5 million copies, and in that book and in his preaching, Norman Vincent Peale promoted a particular faith message, one Donald Trump could take as his own.

MICHAEL HAMILTON: Peale got very interested in the notion that the gospel could unleash power, that a divine relationship - a person having a divine relationship with God could unleash power within that person for success.

GJELTEN: Michael Hamilton of Seattle Pacific University specializes in the history of American Christianity.

HAMILTON: And he defined success pretty broadly, so it partly included material success. That is, God didn't want people to be poor.

GJELTEN: Among the businessmen Peale welcomed to his church, Hamilton says, was Donald Trump's father, Fred, the New York real estate developer.

HAMILTON: When he went into church on Sunday, he would hear his minister telling him stories about, if you have positive living, if you're faithful, if you're upholding your family and your community, then that's what unleashes the power that's made you successful.

GJELTEN: Peale, who died in 1993, rarely talked about salvation. His message was more practical than theological. It has an echo today in what's known as the prosperity gospel practiced by megachurch televangelists who favor spectacle and say God chooses to reward some people with material wealth.

Donald Trump, drawn to Norman Vincent Peale in his younger days, now surrounds himself with prosperity preachers, several of whom were on hand in June when Trump spoke to a Faith and Freedom conference in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Pastor Paula White has been right from the beginning. I've known her for so long, and she's a tremendous person, tremendous woman. Pastor Mark Burns - I don't know if you've watched him on television. Between him and Pastor Darrell Scott, these two guys are phenomenal.

GJELTEN: At the Republican convention, Trump thanked the evangelical and religious community for their support, but he said he wasn't sure he deserved it. And apart from that comment, he included no reference to his own faith. If there was pressure to demonstrate more religiosity, he may have relieved it with his choice of a running mate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE PENCE: I'm a Christian, a conservative and a Republican in that order.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

GJELTEN: Indiana Governor Mike Pence was raised in an Irish Catholic household. He was an altar boy at his local church and went to a parochial school. And his religious convictions have been a hallmark of his career, as he made clear in his convention speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PENCE: And I have faith, faith in the boundless capacity of the American people and faith that God can still heal our land.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

GJELTEN: Pence's own faith story is itself intriguing. A traditional Catholic as a youth, he had a conversion experience in college as a member of a non-denominational Christian youth group. By 1994 he was describing himself as a born-again evangelical catholic. That label confused some theologians who focus on the difference between Catholicism and evangelical Christianity, but to other Christians, it did make sense.

KIRSTEN POWERS: Born-again comes from the Bible. It's a phrase that Jesus used.

GJELTEN: Kirsten Powers, a USA Today columnist and Fox News commentator, is a former Democratic Party activist who worked for President Bill Clinton. About 10 years ago she had a conversion experience. Last year she joined the Catholic Church.

POWERS: Whether you're Catholic or evangelical or mainline Protestant, any of those people could be born-again. To me, if somebody said that to me, if they said, I'm an evangelical catholic, or, I'm a born-again Catholic, it would be them saying, I'm a sincere Christian; I read the Bible; my life has been transformed.

GJELTEN: As for Donald Trump, he's never said he's been born-again or transformed, but that may not matter if he outsources the responsibility for religious outreach to Mike Pence. As governor, Pence bolstered his conservative Christian credentials by signing a religious liberty law to protect business people unwilling to accommodate same-sex weddings. If Mike Pence now says Trump is a good man, that may be enough for voters who care about their candidate's faith. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

CORNISH: Tom's faith profile of Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine is on npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.