The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual Biography By David Brody and Scott Lamb • Broadside Books • 2018 • 400 pages • $26.99
Perhaps the most criminally under-read document of the founding era is the Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, James Madison’s thumping polemic warning against the mixing of organized religion with secular government. Madison wrote the essay in 1785 and directed it at the Virginia legislature, which was preparing to pass a bill requiring public money to be used to support the established Anglican Church in that state. (This left Presbyterians and Baptists out in the cold. Catholics and Jews, of course, were completely beyond the pale.) Warming up for the principles he would enshrine in the First Amendment to the Constitution six years later, Madison minced no words:
During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lustre; those of every sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy.
What a melancholy mark is the Bill of sudden degeneracy? Instead of holding forth an Asylum to the persecuted, it is itself a signal of persecution. It degrades from the equal rank of Citizens all those whose opinions in Religion do not bend to those of the Legislative authority. Distant as it may be in its present form from the Inquisition, it differs from it only in degree. The one is the first step, the other the last in the career of intolerance.
Once he became President, Madison vetoed a bill that would have incorporated an Episcopal church in the District of Columbia. In his veto message to Congress, Madison wrote that such a church would be “a religious establishment by law.” As the years have gone by, though, we have strayed from Madison’s wise admonition. From John F. Kennedy’s having to assure a convention of ministers in 1960 that he would not be making policy according to secret brainwaves directed at him from the Vatican, to the highly profitable embrace between movement conservative politics and what once was known as the religious right, to watching Barack Obama invite Rick Warren to bless his first inauguration, we’ve allowed more than a little incense to filter into the profane corridors of political power.
As we have done so, I have become increasingly convinced that Madison had the right idea—that organized religion should be kept out of the secular government for the same reasons that we keep toddlers away from cutlery. At this point, the spirituality of a political candidate is little more than another issue paper, a talking point to be massaged, one line on your professional CV, along with your law degree and your devotion to the flag and puppies. One is obliged now to render to Caesar and to God in similar currencies.
Sooner or later, if you make religion a mandatory exercise in the selection of a secular official, you are going to find yourself ruled either by a liar or a faker. Performance piety is much easier to fake than actual piety and less liable to turn people off. Enter, then, the world of The Faith of Donald J. Trump, a new book by David Brody, the chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, and Scott Lamb, a Baptist minister and the vice president of Liberty University, the Christian institution founded by the late Jerry Falwell in 1971.
To the casual observer, it would appear that Brody and Lamb set themselves a heroic task. By all available evidence, Donald Trump is the most thoroughgoing heathen we’ve ever installed in the White House. There are seven deadly sins in the church of my birth and over the course of his life, Trump has wrung the bell loudly and publicly on at least six of them—lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, envy, and pride. (Nobody ever would attribute sloth to him. After all, he’s always worked incredibly hard committing the other six.) He is more of a hound than JFK, eats worse than William Howard Taft, grabs for gold more enthusiastically than did Grant’s entire Cabinet, erupts in unbridled rage over things he sees on television more often than late-period LBJ, boils over perceived slights more heatedly than Nixon, and has an opinion of himself that makes Andy Jackson look like a Poor Clare. Religion has been as much in evidence in Donald Trump’s public life as vegetables have been.
Nevertheless, Brody—whom Trump courted assiduously throughout the campaign—and Lamb soldiered bravely on through the Superfund site that is Donald Trump’s ethical, moral, and spiritual landscape. A lot of their arguments come down to how God works in mysterious ways, and sometimes through an unclean vessel, to work Her will on Earth. Well, God may work in mysterious ways, but Donald Trump as President is a real doozy, and there now has been revealed enough of the extracurricular Trump that one ought to be very careful of including the phrases, “Donald Trump” and “unclean vessel” in the same sentence—at least without a nondisclosure agreement. Nonetheless, the authors make the case that not only is Trump an unclean vessel for God’s grace, but that he personally is devout himself, which, no surprise, is a much heavier lift.
But we should be fair to the authors here and take their basic premise as seriously as did the people who published their book. After all, as I’ve said, it is making this kind of sacramental spelunking a required part of how we vet people for office that has led us to this perfectly preposterous point of history in the first place. It’s not that Brody and Lamb have a self-evidently ludicrous thesis to defend. It’s that, in the year 2018, in what is purportedly the world’s strongest secular democracy, we can’t even elect a heathen without someone making a case that the heathen is blessed by the Divine.
A long time ago, when I was a rookie alternative journalist in Boston, I wrote about an event called Washington For Jesus, the first real national hootenanny for the rising force that was the religious right. This got me invited onto a panel discussion about religion’s proper role in politics, and vice versa. On my side was a theologian from a local seminary. We debated two conservative Christians, one of whom was a minister. At the end, the moderator asked whether the newly energized Christian right would support a candidate who was an atheist, as long as that candidate took the preferred position on, say, abortion, or the rights of gay people. Our two opponents said that, of course, they wouldn’t. I agreed with them, at least to an extent. My partner, the theologian, was aghast. He said that the atheist would be perfectly fine with the two conservatives, because their religion was political, rather than their politics being religious. Watching the Christian community line up behind Donald Trump has made me realize how very right that guy was back in 1979. In fact, this book is truly the final and ultimate proof of that.
The authors really do try. Mother of God, you should pardon the expression, they try. But, ultimately, they run up on the reef that the theology professor, back in 1979, first pointed out to me. In one example after another, they impose their viewpoint on some issue or another as the godly Christian position, note that Trump has told them he shares it, and then proclaim that as proof that Trump is godly and Christian. This is, in fact, the famously erroneous “all men are Socrates” syllogism brought to the altar call.
The giveaway, if there is one, comes in Chapter 27, which is entitled, in case you could have missed the point, “Gorsuch a Time as This.” (If there’s such a thing as bad pun purgatory, Brody and Lamb are going to have to do some serious time there.) The two begin the chapter with the now-familiar disclaimer about how God “uses the most unlikely people to accomplish His will.” But then from there, they cut directly to a moment at a campaign debate in Las Vegas when Trump turned on Hillary Rodham Clinton and said, “If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the baby’s birth.” This, of course, was a blatant lie in an evening full of them, but it impressed the authors because of the “stark terms” which Trump used to formulate his lie about Clinton. Brody gets confirmation on this from no less than Kellyanne Conway, and the authors conclude that “Trump’s affinity for the rumble would work well while defending the unborn.” The Ninth Commandment, that injunction against bearing false witness, apparently was left somewhere on the Vegas Strip to drown in a heated pool of sacred testosterone.
But in fact, what the authors admiringly call Trump’s “pro-life tackle football” has nothing to do with the Gospels at all. The Supreme Court seat Neil Gorsuch took, in a move much applauded by the far right, was available because of unprecedented sabotage by the Republican majority in Congress that kept Barack Obama’s nominee in cold storage until that President finally left office. Again, God works in mysterious ways, but no scholar of the faith has ever mentioned the filibuster as one of them. The hijacking of a Supreme Court seat was a political act designed to further a specific political end—namely, the nomination of somebody like Gorsuch, and those political ends included deregulation as surely as they included trimming back Roe v. Wade. The nomination and confirmation of Gorsuch were both political acts designed to further all of those specific political ends. Yet that these political ends happen to coincide with certain religious beliefs held by the authors is incidental at best. The hand of God did not slap down Merrick Garland. Mitch McConnell did.
Brody and Lamb seem to realize this, because they then proceed to abandon the miracle of Gorsuch halfway through that chapter in favor of testimonials to Trump’s sincere prayerfulness from some of his house preachers, including Paula White, Robert Jeffress, and Darrell Scott. Jeffress makes the point that, in prayer, Trump demonstrates humility. “Here is the most powerful man in the world,” Jeffress tells the authors, “Yet he’s not too proud to bow his head in the Oval Office and ask God for help.” There is no reason on heaven or earth to believe a word of this. Jeffress is so adamant in his praise here it sounds as though he picked up his degree in theology at Trump University. Yet it fits with the prefabricated, ongoing redemption narrative that Brody and Lamb labor so mightily to construct.
The concept of redemption through Christ is the single most important element in the Christian faith. Catholics, for example, believe they are redeemed through Christ in the sacraments, particularly the sacraments of penance and Holy Communion, which remain largely under the control of the institutional church. However, the splinter of American Protestantism practiced by Brody and Lamb, which is also incidentally the element that has been most politically active in Republican politics over the past 40 years, believes in unmediated individual redemption through a relationship with Jesus Christ as a personal Lord and savior.
Without passing judgment on the validity of this belief, the flexibility of its application to secular political matters is obvious. Almost any politician can declare his personal relationship with Jesus Christ, including career New York real-estate grifters. And almost anyone seeking specific political policy outcomes can choose to believe in the politician’s sudden conversion, even if it seems to run utterly counter to everything we know of that person’s entire public career. Hence, Brody and Lamb conclude the Gorsuch chapter by turning themselves—and, alas, their faith—into pretzels:
Any honest assessment of Donald Trump’s spiritual walk will show a man who has a reverence for God. Does he make mistakes? Yes. Can he be a little “New Yawk” around the edges? You bet. But don’t lose sight of the fact that a man with billions of dollars and more power than you can ever imagine could easily have no interest in a connection with God. Instead, he seeks out men and women of God. That’s called submitting yourself to spiritual counsel. “He declares his faith in Jesus, he talks about praying,” CBN’s Pat Robertson said. “It’s just simply astounding to see what he’s done. That’s why I think the anointing of the Lord is on him.”
There is a great distance between these ideas and the dialogue between Jesus and the wealthy young man in Matthew’s Gospel. The rich kid shows up to hear Jesus preach and, afterwards, explains that he has kept the commandments, and isn’t that enough for him to be redeemed. But that’s exactly when Jesus proceeds to raise the stakes and introduces us to the business about it being “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
In other words, what we have in this book is an attempt to expand the size of the needle’s eye by using the Christian faith of the authors as a crowbar. It’s got to be big enough to let through Trump’s sins, the sins of his family, and all the sins of which we still know nothing. (Unfortunately for the thesis of this book, the Stormy Daniels details became public very close to the book’s publication date. Grist for the paperback, I guess, and a deeper comic resonance for the concept of the “unclean vessel” that is Donald Trump.) In other words, this needle will have to have an eye the size of the Panama Canal.
If he has done nothing else in becoming President, Donald Trump has successfully called every bluff that conservative Republicans have run since their great transformative revival in the 1980s and, in the process, made the prestige people running the bluffs look completely ludicrous. Paul Ryan wanted his tax cuts more than he wanted to keep his dignity. The Christian fundamentalists wanted their judges and re-established controls over women’s sexuality more than they wanted to be consistent in the faith and in the values they profess. In both cases, by their acceptance of the preposterous presence of Donald Trump in the White House, the political personae within which they operated—Ryan as budget wonk, Christian conservatives as national moral compass—were revealed, finally, as being completely counterfeit. The religion in this book is more political than the politics are religious. After reading this book, I feel as though I owe a profound apology to that theologian with whom I spoke on that panel long ago. He, like Mr. Madison, saw it all coming. Like John on Patmos, they saw the coming of the rough beast and the dawning of the last days.