Author of books on presidents’ faith says Trump misunderstands evangelicals

Washington — Author Stephen Mansfield, who has written about the faith of former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, says the current occupant of the Oval Office has captured the “fundamental gripes” of evangelicals but misunderstands just how divided they are these days.

As President Trump completes his first year in the White House, Mansfield has written a book, “Choosing Donald Trump,” about how the chief executive’s faith and relationships with religious leaders helped him get where he is today.

Mansfield identifies Trump’s “spiritual father” as Norman Vincent Peale, a mid-20th-century preacher who popularized the notion of “positive thinking” and whose Marble Collegiate Church in New York the president used to attend. And the author says Florida prosperity gospel preacher Paula White, who gave the invocation at Trump’s inauguration, is the president’s “unofficial chaplain.”

Mansfield, an evangelical himself and former pastor who previously wrote “The Faith of Barack Obama” and “The Faith of George W. Bush,” spoke with RNS about the newest president’s religious trajectory.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve written about the faith of George W. Bush and of Barack Obama. Why isn’t this book called “The Faith of Donald Trump”?

Because the other two had faith lives that had defined them for quite some time before they entered the White House. With Donald Trump, he definitely was churched and would always have said he was a Christian, but no one would have said that there was a clear faith life that defined him personally or politically.

As the president concludes his first year in office, how would you sum up his faith?

I think he is the direct disciple of Norman Vincent Peale. Almost every day I hear things coming out of his mouth that are almost straight from the pages of “The Power of Positive Thinking.” For example, Norman Vincent Peale taught that “attitudes are more important than facts.” We see this exemplified in Trump’s conduct all the time. I definitely see Donald Trump as a man on a spiritual journey. I think he admires strong spiritual leaders, religious leaders. I think he wants them around him. I think he wants people praying for him.

How would you sum up his policies related to faith?

I don’t have any indication that his policies are faith-based, other than his loose commitment to religious liberty dealing with the Johnson Amendment and making sure we’re all safe to say “Merry Christmas.” I do see strong evangelical influence in the White House and I do see him intent on being the champion of religious conservatives in America but I can’t say that he really articulates — or anybody in his administration articulates — a direct line between policy and a faith rationale.

You also consider Paula White to have had a profound influence on the president. How do you see that reflected in his presidency so far?

Paula White is not single-handedly but certainly one of the figures most responsible for Trump’s election. We all know about the listening sessions she scripted for him during the campaign. This is where he really got in contact with religious conservatives, understood their needs, learned about things like the Johnson Amendment. That’s how he mobilized what we now know to be 81 percent of white evangelicals, half of all Roman Catholics and half of all regular church attenders. I think she’s the architect of that success with that religious constituency. Late at night, if he gets in a tough moral quandary she’s going to be maybe the first person he calls.

What do you make of the reaction of evangelical leaders who support Trump despite his use of vulgar language?

Actually, the reactions have been quite muted. I think when they hear him calling NFL players SOBs, using foul language as in the recent Cabinet meeting, they’re not that surprised and they’re not interested in emphasizing a moral criticism of Trump because they chose him, they helped to rebrand him, they sold him. I’ve been critical of how they didn’t maintain prophetic distance and how they engaged in a religious rebranding of him. So I think it’s a bit transactional. They can overlook language and other forms of what we might call immorality within the four walls of the church as long as he champions what they hope he champions in public policy.

What has he most understood about his evangelical base of supporters?

I think he most has understood that they have been unrepresented, that they felt traumatized by the Obama years, that they were terrified at the Hillary Clinton years and that they had some fundamental gripes, to put it sarcastically, that weren’t being championed, everything from a “War on Christmas” to the Johnson Amendment to just having the government off the backs, so to speak, of the clergy. That’s what he would have heard at these Paula White listening sessions. So he has understood that this is a wealthy, politically active constituency that feels underrepresented and unchampioned and he decided to step in and become their champion.

What has he least understood?

What he has least understood, I think, is how the average religious conservative is not in lockstep with the average religious conservative leader. In other words, evangelicalism is multifaceted. It has different divisions. Just because Franklin Graham or Dr. (Robert) Jeffress or James Dobson says “vote this way” or “Donald Trump’s the man” does not mean that you take, in lockstep, all evangelicals. There are evangelicals who are Democrats. There are evangelicals who are evangelicals of color as opposed to the white evangelicals who voted for Trump.

I think he’s going to find that that coalition is increasingly frayed, particularly along generational and racial lines. You simply don’t win three prominent evangelicals and take 90 percent of evangelicals with you. It just doesn’t work that way.

Some still question how he has been able to get conservatives’ support but you said his personal habits reflect the current culture. What do you mean by that?

I think it’s interesting that we talk about the oddities of Donald Trump as though they are not typical of the average American but the average American uses strong language, polls show. The average American is comfortable with people who are divorced, probably has been divorced or has family members who are. The average American doesn’t like to admit it but in private, at the bar, around the breakfast table, with their close friends, they may speak in racially bigoted terms and for humor’s sake if not because they actually believe it. So when they heard Donald Trump, even though he’s a billionaire who’s quite removed from their experience, they felt they heard someone familiar to them. It was like their bubba brother was talking to them over breakfast. That suit-wearing, unusual-hair, private-jet-flying Donald Trump seems like the guy at the lunch counter in the small town to most people.

What do you hope Trump’s evangelical advisers do during his second year in office?

I am hopeful that we can have more sophisticated discussion. I’m hopeful that there are good discussions especially among evangelicals across these generational and ethnic lines, these fissures that we’re dealing with in evangelicalism.

And I’m hopeful that the religious leaders around Donald Trump boldly speak and hold his feet to the fire on moral issues rather than just help to rebrand him. I would say I’m about 80 percent hopeful. The 20 percent part that is concerned is where these religious leaders around Donald Trump are just mainly transactional. I’m concerned that they’re basically on Trump’s PR team. I want them to confront him. I want them to chaplain him. I want them to speak their truth to him and help him be a better man and help his administration be better.