President Trump is perhaps the least demonstrably Christian U.S. president ever. When he and First Lady Melania Trump attended the funeral service for George H. W. Bush on Dec. 5, 2018, they did not recite the Apostle's Creed that was printed in the program. Seated next to them, Barack and Michelle Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton recited the prayer.
But how do contemporary Christians perceive him?
It can be tricky to pin down what evangelicals think of Trump, in part because it's an impermanent demographic based on self-identification.
First, it's important to note the decline in Christian influence in the United States. Many commentators have suggested that Christians are making a kind of "deal" with the man who happens to have gained power, someone who — just perhaps — they otherwise would not have admired.
Nina Burleigh wrote for Newsweek on April 16, 2018 that white evangelicals have experienced a sharp demographic decline over the last decade. Burleigh attributes this to their children "leaving the faith in droves over its anti-LGBT and anti-science positions"; today, 92 percent of white evangelicals are over age 30. "During the 2016 primary season, white evangelicals were largely divided in their opinion of Trump...But once Republicans nominated him, his favorability among white evangelicals jumped to 61 percent in September 2016...Now, according to a poll conducted in late March , after the Stormy Daniels story was widely discussed, support has risen to a record 75 percent." This suggests that this demographic is substantially unconcerned "by his lawyer’s hush money to Stormy Daniels," "revelations that the married President had a year-long affair with an adult film actress after First Lady Melania gave birth to their son Barron," and "shady business deals".White evangelicals "went from being the least likely to the most likely to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality had nothing to do with public service," an article in the New York Times said in June 2018, referencing a September 2017 article in the paper.
Ross Douthat wrote for the New York Times in September 2018 that a new survey by the Cato Institute’s Emily Ekins for the Voter Study Group found that whether a Trump voter attends church predicted their views on race. Among Trump voters who never go to church, only half had positive feelings about Black people, and a quarter said their own whiteness was "very important" to their identity. Among Trump voters who frequently go to church, 71 percent had positive feelings about Black people, and only 9 percent said their own whiteness was "very important" to their identity. While the religious and secular groups in the survey had similar incomes, the secular people were "less likely to have college degrees, less likely to be married and more likely to be divorced; they’re also less civically engaged, less satisfied with their neighborhoods and communities, and less trusting and optimistic in general." (Emily Ekins wrote a separate article about it, concluding that "encouraging conservatives to disengage from religion...may in fact make it even harder for left and right to meet in a more compassionate middle.") But why did the churchgoing people vote for Trump, if they disagree with him about race? It seems they made "a pragmatic bet that his policies on abortion and religious liberty were worth living with his Caligulan personal life and racial demagoguery." Early Christianity made such a bet with the Roman emperor Constantine. However, with Trump, it's "the reverse sort of situation: A Christian community trying to make the best of its decline, and allying with a leader whose core appeal depends upon and possibly furthers the de-Christianization of conservatism....it’s hard to see how it can reverse de-Christianization, and easy to see how it might accelerate it."
Others have a different interpretation. Neil J. Young, author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics, notes the study's conclusion that "religious participation may serve a moderating function in our politics" [emphasis mine] and he clarifies that he believes that "white evangelicals are no moderating force. They are the core of our extremist president’s support." [emphasis mine]
Whether or not conservatism today is stripping Christianity of its religious content, it is giving it power, and this does reverse the decline of the influence of Christian institutions. Katherine Stewart, author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children wrote in a May 2018 op-ed for the New York Times:
"There is a story going around, on both the left and the right, that America’s 'true believers' are a declining force and are now conducting desperate, defensive maneuvers in a secularizing society. But that is not how the leaders of the Christian Nationalist movement see it — because it is not true. They played a key role in putting President Trump in power. They are protecting him now, as they giddily collect their winnings in legislatures and in the courts. Why should they doubt that they can pull off the same trick again?
What Christian nationalists know — and many of us have yet to learn — is that you don’t need a majority to hijack a modern democracy. You just need a sizable minority, marinating in its grievances, willing to act as a bloc, and impervious to correction by fact or argument. Make this group feel good about itself by making other people feel bad about themselves, and dominion may well be in reach."
Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, planned ten "campaign-style rallies" throughout California in late May and early June 2018 in advance of that state's primary election. The goal is to turn out the evangelical vote. Other kinds of Christians are not receiving the same outreach to attend these rallies, "a tactic that plays directly into the growing separatist sentiment among many white evangelicals," according to Neil J. Young, author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. Of this attempt to stoke "white evangelical resentment and outrage," Young wrote: "Such a dark and alarmist vision might seem to contradict the hopeful joy evangelicals claim their faith provides, but it aligns perfectly with the cynical and conspiratorial worldview Trump has brought to the center of American politics. As such, white evangelicals’ support for Trump doesn’t expose their hypocrisy, as plenty have contended, so much as it plainly reveals their heart." On 13 June, even Graham told the Christian Broadcasting Network that Trump's policy of separating would-be immigrant families at the border is "disgraceful, it’s terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit." He stopped short, however, of holding Trump accountable: "I blame the politicians for the last 20, 30 years that have allowed this to escalate to where it is today."
Whether Christian power is seen to be declining or rising, many see the new administration as an opportunity to advance a theocratic-leaning political agenda. The theologian Roger E. Olson wrote for Patheos in August 2018 in "Is Trump “Our Cyrus?"
Here I’m not talking about those evangelical Christians who, among others, voted for Trump in order to vote against Hilary Clinton as the “lesser of two evils.” I’m talking about the many evangelical Christians who are now lionize Trump as a kind of new national messiah—not on a par with Jesus Christ but...on a par with whom?
A growing common answer is "He’s our Cyrus.'
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During his approximately thirty year reign he [Cyrus] released the Hebrew people in exile to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple that was destroyed earlier by the Babylonians....the Hebrew people did not consider Cyrus one of them, of course, but a powerful ally—and one raised up by God to deliver them from exile and bondage."
Olson issues a warning: "I strongly suspect that he [Trump] is manipulating his conservative Christian 'base' and would turn on them in a moment if it suited his agenda to be powerful."
Is it hypocritical? Well, yes. Kathleen Parker on Aug. 31, 2018 in the Washington Post decried "the utter hypocrisy of allowing such a foul-mouthed, race-baiting misogynist to occupy the Oval Office after many of these same paragons of virtue impeached Bill Clinton for lying about his irresponsible affair with an intern." But it can be politically expedient to ignore the personal failings of one's own candidate. James Traub wrote in the Atlantic on July 18, 2018:
Elected Democrats lined up to denounce President Bill Clinton’s private behavior during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, though none deemed it worthy of impeachment. Donald Trump’s vastly more outrageous behavior has provoked far less opprobrium from his own party. Republicans aren’t less decent than Democrats; rather, they have come to see political struggle in such apocalyptic terms that no merely personal form of shameful behavior can compete with the political stakes. Thus Christian conservatives hold their tongue rather than jeopardize their chances of getting a Supreme Court justice who will overturn Roe v. Wade. The party of personal morality thus becomes the party of indifference to personal morality.
On another front, where Christians are trying to consolidate political power, it isn't exclusively white Christians who are doing so.
Katherine Stewart profiled Jim Domen for the New York Times on June 20, 2018. Domen (who considers himself a "former homosexual") founded Church United and has led it since 2014. It is "a multiethnic group of pastors from a variety of traditions — including Pentecostal and Catholic clergy members" with a mission of “helping pastors transform California at the government and church level.” Domen supports Trump, saying that he has “done more for the Church than many Christian presidents have.” Church United's work to "politicize pastors," as Stewart put it, "started with six affiliated pastors in 2014. The group now counts approximately 500 member pastors."
Some people feel torn.
An example of a middle-of-the-road position is given by Rev. Samuel Rodríguez, who serves at a church in Sacramento, Calif. and who has had private conversations with Trump in the White House. He publicly condemned Trump for his misogynistic, crude comments on the Access Hollywood tape and is also fighting Trump's immigration agenda, but he is willing to work with Trump overall. In May 2018, Rodríguez told BBC World:
"Trump ha hecho más por el movimiento evangélico que cualquier otro presidente desde la época de Ronald Reagan. Se puede medir. Hay 20 puntos que uno puede decir claramente: aquí firmó una orden ejecutiva, aquí firmó una ley, aquí avanzó..."
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"El movimiento latino evangélico no está casado con Donald Trump. Tampoco estaba casado con Obama. Estamos casados con una agenda que va mucho más allá de la personalidad."
Independently of whatever "deal" may be struck here, what do evangelicals feel about Trump's character?Many are disappointed. Molly Wicker wrote for the New York Times on May 19, 2017:
"Evangelical voters have long demanded that politicians exemplify Christian character and morality in the public sector. In Donald Trump, however, evangelicals were confronted with a candidate who pledged allegiance to conservative ideals, but embodied none of them.
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Claire Waugh, a senior from Woodbridge, Va., told me that she refused in November to have a Trump vote on her conscience, and that she hates to see the country being "led by a man who spews vitriol against anyone who is unlike him, a man who tries to invoke God’s name when he is acting utterly ungodly.""
Some Christians think that theology, not secular politics, is the way forward.
David Kuo, who worked for the George W. Bush administration, wrote in his 2006 memoir Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction when he was facing a terminal illness (pp. 262-263):
"We Christians need a short fast from politics.
We need to eschew politics to focus more on practicing compassion. We need to spend more time studying Jesus and less time trying to get people elected. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year in support of conservative Christian advocacy groups such as the Family Research Council, Eagle Forum, and the panoply of similar groups, let's give that money to charities and groups that are arguably closer to Jesus' heart. And we Christians should spend less time arguing with those on the other side and more time communing with them."
More recently, Daniel Burke wrote for CNN on 13 June 2018 about the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Dallas that "a small but significant slice" of the 10,000 participants objected to the planned address by Vice President Mike Pence. Younger people seemed more concerned with evangelizing the message of Jesus (what they call "The Great Commission") than with aligning themselves with the Republican Party. Garrett Kell, a pastor, said alignment with the Republican Party was also strategically fraught as it could affect the Southern Baptists' interracial and international relations. (The Southern Baptists formed as a pro-slavery splinter group in 1845, and Pew's 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study found that the Southern Baptists remain 85 percent white.) Pence did address the Convention that day, and Burke followed up, saying that "much of Pence's speech was dedicated to praising the accomplishments of his boss, President Donald Trump." He added: "The denomination's executive committee will consider a motion to cease inviting elected officials to speak at national conventions."
Jonathan Merritt, writing for The Atlantic on 16 June, said that the crowd at the annual meeting was significantly younger than he remembered from his childhood. He quoted Baylor University history professor Barry Hankins as saying that this demographic change "has thrust the group into the middle of an identity crisis". They elected 45-year-old J.D. Greear as the president of the Southern Baptists who has promised to make an effort to proportionately represent women and people of color in leadership roles. The denomination addresses public policy through its Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which opposes President Trump, and Greear said that inviting Pence to speak "sent a terribly mixed signal" about whether the Southern Baptists stood for religion or politics. At least some Southern Baptists, Merritt said, "appear to recognize that tethering themselves to Donald Trump...places the moral credibility of the Southern Baptist Convention at risk." Furthermore, although "Southern Baptists have criticized more liberal denominations for their declines," they, too, are experiencing the same decline; they have lost 1 million members in the past 15 years. Tying themselves to conservative politics is therefore, many conclude, not the answer to reversing this trend.