The guilt-free gospel of Donald Trump

Editor's note: This is the first of two stories on the religious beliefs of the presidential nominees. Read about the faith of Hillary Clinton here.

(CNN)Donald Trump was ashamed -- contrite even -- as he spoke to Paula White hours after the video of him bragging about groping women was released.

"I heard it in his voice," said White, a Florida pastor who, outside of Trump's family, is his closest spiritual confidant. "He was embarrassed."
In the video from 2005, Trump admits to hitting on a married woman and boasts that he can wantonly kiss women and grope their genitals because he is a "star."
    During his phone call with White, the GOP nominee said he regretted his remarks and was grateful for the evangelicals still supporting him. Later that evening, he publicly apologized in a video that was remarkably free from the usual rituals enacted by disgraced politicians.
    Trump didn't stand beside his wife, Melania. He didn't ask for forgiveness. He didn't lament that he had fallen under sin's sway but that by God's grace and with his family's support he hoped to earn a second chance. In fact, Trump didn't mention faith, family or reconciliation at all.
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    "If he suddenly came out all religious, that would seem staged to me," said White, who has known Trump for 14 years. "Donald has never been public about his faith, and when he has tried, it has been futile. It's not his language, but that doesn't mean it's not his heart."
    For much of the 2016 presidential campaign, religion has receded into the background, mainly because the two major party nominees -- Trump and Hillary Clinton -- rarely talk about their faith. Trump is a professed Presbyterian; Clinton a Methodist.
    But two-thirds of Americans have said it's important for the president of the United States to have strong religious convictions, according to the Pew Research Center. And nearly 40% say discussion of religion has been lacking in this election cycle. Beyond the policy discussions and ad hominem attacks, it seems, Americans want to know where candidates' moral compasses point.
    Trump's attempts at public religion have been awkward, at best.
    He said he does not ask for forgiveness and "does not bring God into that picture" when he makes mistakes. He has tried to put money in the Communion plate and referred to the sacrament as "my little wine" and "my little cracker." He mispronounced a book of the Bible, and when asked about his favorite verse, has either deferred or, in one case, cited "an eye for an eye," an Old Testament revenge scheme specifically condemned by Christ. (Turn the other cheek, Jesus said.)
    Trump tussled with the Pope and was shushed by a minister in Detroit. He often looks uneasy when pastors lay their hands on him and pray. He says he is proud of his evangelical support but not sure he deserves it.
    When asked theological questions, Trump often speaks in terms so vague they approach opacity.
    Asked "Who is God to you?" by the Christian Broadcasting Network, Trump answered "God is the ultimate," then began a brief spiel about how he got a great deal on a golf course before circling back to his original definition. "So nobody, no thing, no there's nothing like God."
    Trump's broad language often serves a purpose, says Michael D'Antonio, author of "The Truth About Trump," a biography. "Donald keeps his options open. He make things mysterious and unclear so that he can say anything else at another time."
    Trump's supporters have a different explanation. Trump is a businessman, not a pastor. He doesn't have practiced answers about religious questions, nor should he be expected to, they say. But that doesn't mean he's irreligious. (Trump's campaign did not respond to several interview requests.)
    "I think people are shocked when they find out that I am Christian, that I am a religious person," Trump writes in "Great Again," a book published during the presidential campaign. "They see me with all the surroundings of wealth, so they sometimes don't associate that with being religious. That's not accurate."

    Positive thinking

    Trump's father, Fred Trump, embodied the Protestant work ethic to an extreme. The real estate developer took his children to construction sites, even on Sundays. Life is a competition between killers and losers, he taught them, and you had to be ruthless to survive.
    Mary Trump, Donald's mother, tried to instill traditional Christian values in her children, her son has said. She shooed them to Sunday school at First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens. Trump proudly displays his confirmation photo from the church, pulling it out to demonstrate his Christian bona fides.
    In the mid-1960s, like many upper-middle class families, the Trumps, including teenaged Donald, became attracted to a popular preacher named Norman Vincent Peale.
    Peale was the pastor at Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, whose steeple has soared above 5th Avenue since the 1600s. Peale was far more famous, though, as the multimedia juggernaut who preached the "power of positive thinking."
    In his books and lectures, Peale married pop psychology with hopeful insights gleaned from the gospel. Sin and guilt were jettisoned in favor of "spirit-lifters," "energy-producing thoughts" and "7 simple steps" to happy living.
    "Attitudes are more important than facts," Peale said, and he exhorted his followers to bend the world to their will through mental exertion.
    "Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding," Peale writes in "The Power of Positive Thinking." "Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade."
    Published in 1952, Peale's "The Power of Positive Thinking" has sold millions of copies and spent 186 weeks atop The New York Times' bestseller list. The famous and affluent flocked to Marble Collegiate.
    "It was a celebrity church, and its members, in those days, were generally wealthy New Yorkers of the Protestant executive class," said D'Antonio, the Trump biographer. "It was a place to see and be seen."
    It was also a place to buy Peale's many promotional materials. Long before entrepreneurial pastors like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes marketed their sermons as spiritual self-help, Peale sold record albums and pamphlets with titles like "How to Stop Being Tense" and "No More Gloomy Thoughts."
    He was also an enthusiastic champion of the free market, writing columns such as, "Let the Church Speak Up for Capitalism." His parables were often about businessmen who had bulldozed their way to the top, not Samaritans who crossed the street to help a stranger.
    The Rev. Michael Brown, senior minister of Marble Collegiate, said there were two Norman Vincent Peales: One was the motivational speaker who tried to reach all Americans. The other was a pastor who preached the redemptive message of Jesus.
    "Out there in civic centers he would say, over and over, 'You can, if you think you can,'" Brown said. "In the pulpit of our church he would quote Philippians 4, 'You can do all things through Christ.' "
    But other Christians accused Peale of peddling jingles, not the gospel, worldly success instead of salvation, and simplistic solutions at a time of increasing complexity.
    "He promises quick, painless, and complete 'solutions' to problems which may be deep and complex, and which may require real discipline and professional treatment," wrote religious studies professor and journalist William Lee Miller in 1955.
    Nevertheless, Donald Trump loved Peale's preaching, especially his stories about businessmen surmounting obstacles.
    "He would instill a very positive feeling about God that also made me feel positive about myself," Trump writes in "Great Again." "I would literally leave that church feeling like I could listen to another three sermons."
    Trump and Peale became close. Peale officiated at Trump's first marriage, to Ivana, and at the funeral services for his parents. "He thought I was his greatest student of all time," Trump said.
    The businessman credited "the power of positive thinking" for helping him rebound in the 1990s, when his casinos were tanking and he owed creditors billions of dollars. "I refused to be sucked into negative thinking on any level, even when the indications weren't great."
    Trump's book titles evoke Peale's brand of pop psychology. There's "Think Big," "Think Like a Champion" and "Think Like a Billionaire." In another book, "Never Give Up," Trump gives an example of how he put the power of positive thinking into practice.
    Scouring the newspapers for real estate deals, he found a rundown property in Cincinnati, which he bought from the Federal Housing Administration. The complex had a reputation for "rent runners," Trump writes, so he hired 24-hour patrols, spruced up the place and hired a "politically incorrect" project manager. When the surrounding area got "rough," Trump sold the complex, reaping a $6 million profit.
    "Creative, positive thinking can be a powerful source of success," he wrote.

    Preaching prosperity

    Some years ago, after services at her Florida megachurch, Paula White received a call from Donald Trump. At the time, White's star was rising. She co-pastored a Tampa megachurch with 25,000 members and hosted a show broadcast on Christian television.
    White says Trump told her he was a fan from afar and quoted three of her recent sermons back to her. He asked the pastor if she ever traveled to New York. In fact, she led a Bible study for players on the New York Yankees. The pastor and businessman met at Trump Tower and began what White calls a "14-year conversation about God and love and a plethora of things."
    White hesitates to reveal much about her relationship with Trump, citing the expectation of privacy between clergy and their congregants. She won't, for instance, say whether she "led Trump to Christ," a claim made this summer by some evangelical activists.
    "This is an ongoing walk in his life," White said. "But he is a Christian, and he is born again."
    For his part, Trump has called White "a beautiful person both inside and out."
    "She has a significant message to offer anyone who will tune in and pay attention. She has amazing insight and the ability to deliver that message clearly as well as powerfully."
    In some ways, Trump's attraction to White seems unsurprising, said Kate Bowler, a historian at Duke Divinity School and author of "Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel."
    "She's blonde and cute and perky and endlessly optimistic."
    Like many prosperity gospel preachers, appearance is part of White's appeal. She favors form-fitting, fashionable attire, often stalking the stage in stiletto heels. In the many glamor shots on her social media accounts, she is perfectly coiffed and impeccably made up.
    Like Norman Vincent Peale, White preaches a message of boundless optimism and has a strong entrepreneurial streak. She encourages adherents to "partner" with her ministry for a monthly fee and sells DVDs of her sermons for $50 a pop.
    Such endeavors can be lucrative. According to an audit made public by a Senate committee investigating televangelists, White's former church, Without Walls International, took in $150 million between 2004-2006. At one time, White and her then-husband owned an airplane and several multimillion dollar properties, including a condo in Trump Tower.
    In 2008, Trump appeared on her television show, where he said his secret of success was the work ethic instilled by his father.
    "That's the principle I teach," White answered. "Find your passion and figure out a way to make money."
    Like Trump, White has seen her share of personal and financial troubles. She has been married three times. (Her current husband is rocker Jonathan Cain, the keyboard player for Journey and a co-writer of the epic hit "Don't Stop Believin'.")
    After White's divorce from her second husband in 2007, the church they led together faltered and plunged into bankruptcy.
    Still, White's sermons remain relentlessly upbeat. Though she rejects the prosperity gospel label, White preaches many of its central tenets on her show "Paula Today" and at her new megachurch in Orlando.
    White believes the world abides by spiritual laws, Bowler said, one of which is called "seed faith." The idea: By pledging money to a minister, believers sow a seed, and God will reward them with a bountiful harvest, usually in the form of health and wealth.
    "Every time we give, something supernatural happens," White says in one sermon.
    Other Christians call this heresy. Faith is not a spiritual investment that guarantees automatic returns, and there is no evidence, anyway, that God wants people to become millionaires. In fact, the gospel famously said it's hard for rich men to enter heaven.
    Many of the Christians who have criticized White also question Trump's religious commitments. In his personal life, he has owned casinos, been married three times and boasted about extramarital affairs. During the presidential campaign, he has denigrated Muslims, Mexicans and women.
    Christianity Today, the flagship magazine for evangelicals, called Trump "an idolater" and "the very embodiment of what the Bible calls a fool." A Christian columnist said Trump's "obsession" with wealth and power "embodies a Nietzschean morality rather than a Christian one." The Pope himself said that anyone who talks about building walls instead of bridges "is not Christian."
    Even Richard Land, a member of Trump's evangelical advisory board, says the candidate he's backing may not be a Christian.
    "When a person says that they have never felt the need to ask for forgiveness, they have defined themselves out of the Christian faith as I understand it," Land said.
    White says those criticisms miss the mark. Trump isn't perfect, but nobody is, and he is on the right path, she said.
    "I have seen change in him over the 14 years I have known him. He is a growing Christian."
    White also said she sees a side of Trump obscured from outsiders.
    "I remember him calling me up one morning and saying, 'Paula, I know God says to forgive. But how do we know when to turn the other cheek and when to fight?'"
    "If he was coldhearted and had no desire or hunger for God, he would not have asked a question like that," White says.
    Several years ago, White brought a friend, Debra George, to Trump Tower. George runs a ministry for prostitutes and children in impoverished inner cities.
    "Aren't you scared to go into those areas?" George recalled Trump asking. She said no, most people are happy to see her, since she comes bearing gifts and asks for nothing in return.
    George said Trump immediately cut her a check for $10,000 and followed with two more donations of $5,000 each. The two have kept in touch, she said, with Trump asking George to send him her sermons, and George responding with updates on her ministry.
    "He has shared with me how much he loves God and loves Jesus," George said.

    Faith vs. works

    On a conference call with his campaign's evangelical advisory board earlier this summer, Trump earned a trip to the theological woodshed.
    He joked that repealing an IRS rule that prohibits pastors from endorsing political candidates might be his only route to heaven.
    It's a line he has repeated often on the trail, but on this occasion he was immediately rebuked, said Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary. (Another member of the board confirmed his account.)
    "Mr. Trump, with all due respect, the only way to get into heaven is by accepting Christ's atoning sacrifice for your sins, and accepting him as your personal savior," a pastor interjected. Trump quietly agreed and quickly moved on, according to people on the line.
    Perhaps without knowing it, Trump had stepped into one of Christianity's oldest fault lines: faith versus works.
    Protestants like the evangelicals on Trump's board stand firmly on the "faith" side. No amount of good deeds will save your soul, they say, if you don't assent to the proper Christian beliefs. Catholics and other Christians mostly agree, but also say that faith without works is dead.
    Even some evangelicals now say the pendulum has swung too far in the "faith" direction, with many Americans claiming to be Christians while refusing to demonstrate Christian behavior.
    In the new book "You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit," James K.A. Smith, a Christian philosopher, tries to rescue the ancient notion that we are defined by our daily dispositions, routines and disciplines. Rather than sequester "religion" as something we do on Sunday, Smith argues that our habits -- he calls them "liturgies" -- form "grooves in our soul."
    "The patterns of your life tell you a lot about your priorities," Smith said. The late writer David Foster Wallace sounded a similar theme in "This is Water," a commencement address he gave in 2005.
    "Everybody worships," Wallace said. "The only choice we get is what to worship."
    Smith was reluctant to pass judgment on Trump's Christianity. He suggested, instead, taking a look at Trump's daily routines, something Smith calls a "liturgical audit."
    As it happens, Trump's book, "The Art of the Deal," published in 1987, opens with a "Week in the Life" of its author. Back then, Trump was 41, mildly famous and unconsumed by the crazy fire of a presidential campaign.
    Trump writes that he wakes around 6 each day, reads the papers and arrives at his office around 9. From then until midnight he is on the phone or in meetings, mainly making business deals. "It never stops, and I wouldn't have it any other way."
    It isn't all business, though. Trump offers a friend political advice, takes calls from his children and helps raise money to save a farm from foreclosure -- a generous gesture that lands him on the evening news, he notes with satisfaction.
    In the book, Trump's week ends at 4:45 on Friday afternoon with a visit from David Letterman. Other than a dinner with the late Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, there is no religion, no mention of God nor any hint of introspection.
    "I don't like to analyze myself," Trump told biographer D'Antonio, "because I might not like what I see."
    In recent years, Trump has said that he attends church occasionally, on Christmas, Easter and "special occasions," but that he is too busy on most Sundays.
    He is no longer a member of Marble Collegiate or First Presbyterian in Queens, and it's hard to picture him sitting through a service, or confessing his sins before a congregation, or listening, in quiet hours of Trump Tower, for the still, small voice of God.
    Trump puts his faith in work, and waits upon the whirlwind.