President Donald Trump last week claimed that leaning on God has helped him make it through the “witch hunts” he has been subjected to.
It makes sense for the president to pander to Christian conservatives, who are among his most ardent supporters. But is his claim of being religious credible?
In 2016, before Trump had even secured the Republican nomination, WhoWhatWhy investigated his assertion that, because he is a “strong Christian,” he was being audited by the IRS — and therefore could not release his tax returns.
Back then, we went through all of his books to find evidence of this strong faith. We discover very little apart from claims he made when he was already running for president.
Since then, nothing has changed that would convince us that Trump has actually found religion. On Sundays, the president usually worships golf, and he has set records when it comes to bearing false witness.
The only thing that is different now are his reasons for why he cannot release his tax returns.
Now that he once invoked his faith, we believe it is worth taking a deep dive again into what is one of Trump’s most ridiculous claims among thousands of lies.
“I’m always being audited by the IRS, which I think is very unfair… maybe because of the fact that I’m a strong Christian and I feel strongly about it.”
This was perhaps the quintessential Trump moment of the year. It came after a Republican debate in late February when the GOP frontrunner claimed that the IRS was targeting him because of his religion.
It was classic Trump. He used the IRS audit as an excuse for not revealing his tax returns — even though experts and the IRS both said nothing would preclude him from doing so — and tried to score with evangelical Christians in the same breath.
The reaction of CNN host Chris Cuomo (56 seconds into this video) says it all. Even though Trump is winning the evangelical vote, it is almost easier to believe that Mexico will build him a wall than that he is a “strong Christian.”
So we investigated. After all, Trump is not just a public figure but a very public figure. He has written many books, including some semi-autobiographies and others laying out what he thinks about the world, and he is seemingly on TV all the time.
Trump loves to talk. In fact, he’ll say just about anything. He certainly wasn’t shy when he was hinting at the size of his genitals during last week’s Republican presidential debate. And in 2006, he said he would date his then 24-year-old daughter if they weren’t related.
But he has a tendency to get a bit tongue-tied when talking about religion.
What We Know
“I am Presbyterian, Protestant. I go to Marble Collegiate Church,” Trump told reporters when asked about his religion. “The church I was originally with was the First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, which is out in Queens, New York. And I’ve had just great experiences in church, whether it’s Sunday school or whatever it may be. But, now I go to Marble Collegiate Church.”
But the church denies that he is an active member.
“Donald Trump has had a longstanding history with Marble Collegiate Church, where his parents were for years active members and one of his children was baptized,” the church said in a statement to WhoWhatWhy and other media outlets.
“However, as he indicates, he is a Presbyterian, and is not an active member of Marble.”
But he does have a long-standing history with the church that includes Trump getting married there to his first wife in 1977. And, according to The New York Times, it’s also where he met Marla Maples, the woman with whom Trump cheated on his first wife and who would become his second wife.
According to Trump’s own writing, the most lasting impact Marble Collegiate seems to have had on him was through the sermons of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, who led the church for half a century and authored The Power of Positive Thinking.
Trump talked about his pastor in July at the Iowa Family Leadership Summit. He said Peale, who died in 1993, would give “unbelievable” sermons that made him feel disappointed when they were over.
In the next breath, by the way, Trump said he had never asked God for forgiveness.
“I think if I do something wrong, I think I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture,” Trump said.
“When we go to church and when I drink my little wine, which is about the only wine I drink, and have my little cracker, I guess that’s a form of asking for forgiveness,” he added. “And I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed. But to me it’s important I do that.”
Of course, why would Trump be an active member of Marble Collegiate Church? After all, it is not his denomination.
In an email to WhoWhatWhy, Catherine Ortiz, the church’s director of Marketing Communications, stressed that “Marble Collegiate Church is part of the Reformed Church in America, and is not a Presbyterian Church.”
The church did not respond to follow-up questions whether its leaders believed that Trump’s campaign was consistent with Marble Collegiate’s stated mission of diversity and inclusion.
Two Corinthians Walk into a Bar…
It would not be terribly shocking if Trump did not know the difference between denominations. With regard to religion, there is very little he seems to know or be certain of. Which is surprising because he has repeatedly said that the Bible is his favorite book.
When he addressed students at Liberty University earlier this year, members of the audience laughed at him for citing a passage from “Two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians.”
Trump blamed Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, for the error. Perkins had given him some notes ahead of the speech and had (correctly) written out the scripture reference that Trump had hoped to score points with as “2 Corinthians 3:17.”
Commenting on Trump’s misstep, Perkins said the episode shows that Trump “is not familiar with the Bible.”
While this gaffe allowed Trump’s rival Ted Cruz to wisecrack about Trump’s religious naivete (“Two Corinthians walk into a bar …”), ultimately the joke is on Cruz, the son of a minister, because these missteps have not hurt the frontrunner.
Still, the Liberty University video is representative of how unsure of himself Trump appears when talking about religion or, even worse, having to answer questions about it.
Even when the interviewer is friendly and asks simple questions, Trump always has the appearance of a student who is called on by the teacher to discuss the reading assignment he had forgotten was due on that day. Trump’s responses always lack specifics.
In researching his own words for this article, we were unable to find a single instance in which Trump gave an answer on a religious topic that could even remotely be labeled as “deep.”
When asked about his favorite Bible verses, Trump says he does “not want to get into specifics” and then whiffs on the follow-up question on whether he is more of an “Old Testament guy or a New Testament guy.”
Trump thinks for a second and answers: “Probably equal, I think. It just an incredible…the whole Bible is an incredible…” and then starts talking about how he jokes that his own book The Art of the Deal is only his second favorite book.
The Art of the Deal
Which brings us to Trump’s own writing. In total, we looked at five of his books and focused on the ones that are either autobiographical or about the state of the United States.
Donald Trump’s bestseller The Art of the Deal, which was published in 1987, is an autobiography/business book billed as “an unguarded look at the mind of a brilliant entrepreneur.” Trump dishes on his upbringing, family, business and his success.
He doesn’t, however, talk about religion, faith, God, or the Bible.
In fact, a search for the words “faith”, “religion”, “church”, “Christian”, “God”, “Jesus”, “Bible”, “Presbyterian” and “Protestant” yielded five combined hits. None of the words were used in a religious context and certainly not in describing Trump’s spirituality.
The America We Deserve
The second book we looked at is The America We Deserve. It was published in 2000 and is described as Trump’s “position paper on major political issues facing our country.”
The worldly view he expresses in this book appears to be at odds with the need for a country built on Christian values that evangelical voters would like to see. In a 2015 poll, 57% of all Republicans, and 94% of the supporters of Mike Huckabee, the one-time champion of the religious right, supported the establishment of Christianity as the national religion.
In the book, Trump referenced “faith” nine times. However, it is used only once in a context that is related to religion:
“Americans support a wall of separation between church and state because it protects their religious organizations from government encroachment, and also because it ensures that no denomination or faith is able to seize power,” Trump writes.
“Religion” is mentioned twice but only in the context of how the terrorists and the Chinese don’t believe in freedom of religion.
“Church” is used 11 times, but there are no references to Trump’s own.
“God” is mentioned three times but the only remotely religious context in which it is used is when Trump writes “God bless” Americans who help others.
“Jesus” is mentioned once, but only because that was the first name of the designer of the book’s cover.
And Trump’s “favorite book,” the Bible, is not mentioned at all.
Never Give Up
Of the five Trump books we examined, Never Give Up might have been the most interesting. Published in 2008, it is billed as follows:
“In Never Give Up, Donald Trump tells the dramatic stories of his biggest challenges, lowest moments, and worst mistakes — and how he uses tenacity and creativity to turn defeat into victory. Each chapter includes an inspiring story from Trump’s career and concludes with expert commentary and coaching from adversity researcher and author Paul Stoltz. Inspirational and intelligent, Never Give Up will help you deal with your own personal challenges, failures, and weaknesses.”
It would seem like the perfect opportunity for a religious person to talk about how his faith helped him overcome obstacles and maybe thank God for being a source of inspiration in those low moments.
However, “faith” is mentioned only six times in 206 pages — and not once in a religious context. Instead, Trump talks about having faith in oneself.
“Faith in yourself can prove to be a very powerful force,” Trump wrote. “…Sometimes when you are fighting a lonely battle, keeping yourself company with positive reinforcement and faith in yourself can be the invisible power that separates the winners from the losers. Losers give up.”
That sounds a lot like Norman Vincent Peale, the pastor Trump so admires. Peale, by the way, is mentioned several times in the book while “Jesus” or “Christ” are not referenced at all and “God” just once (when Trump writes about how a former New York parks commissioner considered some plans he gave her “a gift from God”).
The Bible is, once again, not mentioned.
Time to Get Tough
In 2012, Trump was seriously flirting with a presidential run for the first time. To lay the groundwork, he wrote Time to Get Tough, which was published in 2011. The book is a scathing critique of President Barack Obama and lays out Trump’s plan to “Make America #1 Again.”
Contemplating a White House run, Trump for the first time really dips his toe into religion — at least a little bit. He writes about the country having to “resolve to keep the faith,” and how Islamic terrorists “hate our religion.”
Trump refers to somebody as a “fellow Christian” and calls marriage “the greatest anti-poverty program God ever created.” He even cites the Gospel of Matthew once.
Still, Time to Get Tough is only the precursor for what was to come.
Crippled America was released in November of 2015 — when Trump was already the frontrunner in the race and less than four months before Iowans cast the first votes — and it describes his vision of what it takes to make America great again.
Basically, it is Trump’s way of distributing his campaign platform and getting paid $25 per hardcover copy sold (we’re a non-profit and got the $3.99 online version). It even has pictures — the kind that will appeal to Republican voters. One shows Trump with Ronald Reagan, but there is also one of Trump on his confirmation day at First Presbyterian Church.
While it is short on specifics, Crippled America references religion more than all of the other books combined.
In a segment on “Values,” Trump writes that the happiest people are those with “great families and great values.”
“Religion also plays a very large factor in happiness,” he adds. “People who have God in their lives receive a tremendous amount of joy and satisfaction from their faith.”
Trump also described the two churches he attended: First Presbyterian and Marble Collegiate Church (which stated that he is no longer an active member). And he once again writes about Rev. Peale.
He also notes that people are “shocked” when they learn that he is a Christian and a “religious person.”
“They see me with all the surroundings of wealth so they sometimes don’t associate that with being religious,” Trump writes. “That’s not accurate. I go to church. I love God, and I love having a relationship with Him.”
He then immediately describes how “the Bible is the most important book ever written.”
In the space of three paragraphs (and he goes on for another page or so), published after he was already running for president (his campaign manager is mentioned in the acknowledgements), Trump writes more about his faith, God and the Bible than in the hundreds of pages in similar books that were published in the nearly three decades before he ran.
In short, our extensive review of Trump’s record, his books, many public statements, interviews in which the subject of spirituality came up, etc. allows only one conclusion: If Donald Trump is being audited for being a “strong Christian,” then the late Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, might also have been on the IRS’s short list.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from The White House / Flickr.