One of the most unique – and hard to grasp – phenomena of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy (and his time in the White House) is the solid and unwavering support he has enjoyed from evangelical Christians. Witness former presidential candidate – and former House member – Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, in an interview over the weekend with a Christian conservative radio show called “Understanding These Times”:
“[Trump] is highly biblical, and I would say to your listeners, we will in all likelihood never see a more godly, biblical president again in our lifetime. So we need to be not only praying for him, we need to support him, in my opinion, in every possible way that we can.”
(The Bachmann interview, which runs in two parts, is explained this way on the “Understanding These Times” website: “Just what is the ‘deep state’ and how are they promoting end-time lawlessness? How does President Trump fulfill prophecy? A multi-billionaire cabal is pushing for global government and Michele explains who they are and why.”)
Bachmann, who was one of Trump’s evangelical advisers during his 2016 campaign, is far from the first prominent evangelical leader to speak of Trump in such terms.
Soon after Trump’s election in 2016, pastor Franklin Graham, the son of the late Billy Graham, explained it this way, “Now people say, ‘Well, Frank, but how can you defend him, when he’s lived such a sordid life,’” Graham said. “I never said he was the best example of the Christian faith. He defends the faith. And I appreciate that very much.” (Trump has been divorced twice even though divorce is forbidden by the Bible.) And David Brody, the chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, has even written a book entitled “The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual Biography.”
It’s not just the leaders of the evangelical movement who back Trump. In 2016, according to exit polling, the businessman won 80% of the vote among those who described themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians.
Let’s start with this: It’s very hard to quantify what Bachmann meant in describing Trump as “highly biblical.” Does that mean she believes him to be governing with the Bible as a sort of north star? That Trump is the platonic ideal of what the Bible wants in a leader? Or simply that Trump is a deeply religious person? Bachmann’s comments about Trump’s faith immediately followed a portion of the interview where she praised his military ban on transgender personnel, explaining that “he has stood up where most Republicans wouldn’t dare to stand up.” In fact, when evangelicals call Trump biblical, they are often talking about his policies on issues like Israel and abortion, rather than personal morality. Plenty of Bible figures had big moral failings but were considered godly overall.
Regardless of what Bachmann means, it’s very hard to see – based on public evidence and reporting – the religiosity of Trump that she apparently sees.
Trump spoke at length – or at “at length” as he ever has – about his faith during the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, in July 2015.
At that event, he told moderator Frank Luntz that he was a Presbyterian, adding: “And I go to church and I love God and I love my church.” He is not a regular church-goer, however, more often than not spending his Sunday mornings when in Washington, DC, at the golf club in Virginia that bears his name. Trump and first lady Melania Trump did attend church in mid-March, but the last time the President went to church before that was on Christmas Eve, according to the Washington Examiner, “although he often prays with faith leaders at the White House and with spiritual adviser Paula White, an evangelical minister from Florida.”
(Now, church attendance is, of course, not a requirement of a religious person. But it is often used as one of the many indicators of a religiously-infused life.)
Trump also seems less than well-versed in the Bible. At a speech at Liberty University in January 2016, Trump awkwardly referenced a Bible verse this way: “Two Corinthians, 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame.” According to CNN’s Jeremy Diamond, Trump’s comment drew “laughter from the crowd of students at Liberty University who knew Trump was attempting to refer to ‘Second Corinthians.’”
And although Trump has repeatedly said that the Bible is his favorite book (his own “The Art of the Deal” is No. 2), he was unable (or unwilling?) to name his favorite verse during an interview with Bloomberg in 2015. “I wouldn’t want to get into it,” Trump said. “Because to me, that’s very personal. The Bible means a lot to me, but I don’t want to get into specifics.”
The way Trump speaks about core tenets of Christianity is also, um, not exactly a convincing testament to his faith.
In that July 2015 forum, Luntz asked Trump whether he had ever asked God for forgiveness. “I am not sure I have,” Trump responded. “I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
As for communion – partaking of bread and wine in remembrance of Christ’s body and blood and his death on the cross – Trump described it this way: “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.” Then there was the time, in the midst of the 2016 campaign, when Trump put cash onto the communion plate.
Now, none of this is conclusive when it comes to Trump’s faith. As White, Trump’s spiritual adviser, told CNN in October 2016: “If he suddenly came out all religious, that would seem staged to me. 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.”
It is possible that Trump is simply an extremely private person when it comes to his faith – although if that is the case, it would stand in direct contrast to the fact that he is a very public person in absolutely every other element of his life. Sure! Faith is a difficult thing to understand – whether it’s your own or, especially, someone else’s.
But every visible sign – from the language he uses to his personal life to his seeming lack of familiarity with the Bible – suggest that Bachmann and her fellow evangelicals are faking it until Trump makes it on religion. He has shown little interest in the basic elements of his faith – whether in politics or in his private life. And even if Trump does have a private faith that he never talks about, the idea of him as “highly biblical’ seems like a massive stretch.