Is Donald Trump a good Christian? Ideologically, as Bill Maher declares, Trump seems to be “his own God.” In terms of methodology, however, Trump’s religious outlook seems to be both the natural consequence of and historically consistent with religious thought in the United States. As in most other areas of his campaign, when it came to religion, methodology trumped ideology. Trump was able to use religion effectively to give impetus to his success. The aim of this article is to examine how Trump’s methodology was made possible, and how a culture of faith interacts with politics in the United States.
Many prominent political figures on the left, from Shaun King to Pope Francis, have proposed that Trump’s values run counter to those of Christianity, or of mainstream religions in general. They focus on the modern, progressive interpretation of Christian ideology as a religion of moral integrity, acceptance, and selflessness. The Pope recently denounced Trump’s executive order that prohibited the entry of those with passports from seven majority Muslim countries into the U.S., saying, “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help.”
Of course, many Christians still consistently back pro-life or even anti-LGBT candidates. But it seems safe to say that Trump—a man who has also been all over the map on these issues, who has bragged about his infidelity and ability to “grab them [women] by the pussy” without asking—knows he is somewhat lacking when it comes to religious virtue. His choice of Mike Pence, a figurehead for religious freedom, as vice president was presumably aimed at capturing the votes of the many social conservatives previously aligned with Ted Cruz. The numbers reveal, however, that Trump’s struggles with the religious vote may never have been a legitimate concern, despite his ideological incompatibility with modern Christianity. His striking success with nearly every major religious group appears to be too thorough to merely be attributed to a savvy vice presidential pick.
According to the Pew Research Center, election results showed that Trump won Evangelicals, Catholics, and “Protestant/other Christians” by historically large margins. He won each of these categories by a greater margin than any candidate since 2000, the year that Pew began comparing religious sects. His success becomes even more noteworthy when one considers public opinion of Trump’s religious character. Adults rated Trump as the least religious of all major candidates during the election, with five percent of adults viewing Trump as very religious and twenty-five percent viewing Trump as somewhat religious. This amounts to a serious contradiction between perceptions of a candidate’s religious character and his success among religious voters.
Trump’s success among Christian voters undoubtedly can be attributed to factors having nothing to do with faith. Trump’s charisma, economic and nationalistic concerns, striking disdain for Hillary Clinton, and a quietly decaying and fractured Democratic party all probably contributed to Trump’s success among religious and nonreligious voters alike. But assuming that religious factors did not drive voters to Trump would also probably be a mistake. Trump’s success with Christians greatly surpassed his relative success with Americans as a whole. In the general election, Trump lost the popular vote to Clinton by almost three million votes, only amassing 46.5 percent of total votes. Nevertheless, Trump won over such a favorable spread of Christian votes that the Catholic news website Crux proclaimed the 2016 election and Trump’s victory to have “awoke religious feeling.”
This phrase, I believe, is more applicable than it at first may seem. Trump won in large part because he awoke the spirit and trend of U.S. religious methodology, not the virtues of Christian ideology. Whereas Christian ideology focuses on moral values and maxims, religious methodology forms the basis of religion’s place in society, determining how it coincides with cultural thought. Furthermore, religious methodology in the United States has a unique structure that may help explain the link between religion and Trump.
With few exceptions, wealthier nations tend to be less religious, yet, as Pew Research Center has found, the U.S. does not fit this trend. Fifty-four percent of Americans say religion is very important in their lives. The citizens of otherwise economically comparable nations (twenty-four percent of Canadians, twenty-one percent of Australians, twenty-one percent of Germans) place much less value on religion.
French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville endeavored to explain the phenomenon of religion’s popularity in the U.S almost two hundred years ago, but Tocqueville’s observations about religious vigor remain applicable today. He hypothesized that Americans placed a higher value on religion and would continue to do so because the government granted them the freedom to choose their religious ideology. Such a relatively secularized government (although Christianity remains embedded in U.S. government in many forms, from inaugurations to church tax exemptions) that did not have a national religion encouraged and continues to encourage the church to inhabit civil society, where Americans can find in faith a more individualized and fulfilling experience. In part, the place of religion in the United States encouraged the Lutheran principle of the “priesthood of all believers.”
Yet the actualization of this so-called “priesthood of all believers” in the U.S. has sparked growing tension—between religion in the state and religion in civil society, and between the characteristics of a particular religion and the characteristics of those who follow it.
There is a clear basis for the status of religion in relation to the federal government. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof… .” It seems to follow logically that the federal government should, therefore, pursue a policy of absolute indifference to religion. If a certain act is illegal for an atheist, or a Satanist, or a member of the “Church of Trump,” it should also be illegal for a Christian. If the government were to make exceptions or exemptions based upon religion, then it would have to attempt to assess a religion’s legitimacy (a theoretically impossible task in a state of individualized religion).
Yet religion in civil society has still inevitably shaped the legitimacy of religion in the eyes of the state. After all, many churches still maintain special tax-exempt status. While free believers and nonbelievers are individual priests and agents of their own religiosity, their religiosity constitutes just one part of their political being. However, the Johnson Amendment in the U.S. tax code requires that tax-exempt churches and their institutional priests refrain from political activity. Their tax-exempt status is only granted because of the church’s purely religious and supposedly apolitical nature. In contrast to the common believer or non-believer, the church’s religiosity constitutes the whole part of its political being.
Whether or not it is possible for a church to be purely religious, apolitical, and therefore deserving of special tax exemptions is in itself a legitimate question. Trump, however, wants to make any politicization in churches blatant rather than subtle. He recently announced that he would “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which, if repealed or weakened, would allow tax-exempt churches to participate in political activities and priests to endorse candidates from the pulpit.
If the Johnson Amendment were to disappear, tax-exempt churches and formal priests would achieve the freedom of the casual believer or non-believer. Their religiosity could constitute only one part of their political being; the rest of their political being could be expressed either independently or through the church. But these churches and priests would also retain the special privileges of their religious institution. Thus, they would not be constrained by their religion, but nevertheless could use it to their advantage.
The potential revocation of the Johnson Amendment helps illustrate one reason, which far precedes Trump’s comments on the amendment, why Trump may have had so much success with Christian voters: he was not constrained by religion, but nevertheless utilized it well. The contradictions he embodies between religious character and religious success was in itself part of what drew Christian voters to him.
Trump’s initial standing in the election as a pro-life Republican endowed him with some initial Christian support. But as the contradiction between his character and religious ideology grew, his success among Christian groups grew and grew. It even engulfed the vote shares of Ted Cruz and Ben Carson (rated the most religious presidential candidates by the same Pew Research Center that found Trump to be rated the least religious presidential candidate), who both at some point led in polling or actual votes.
At first glance, the incompatibility between Trump’s character and traditional Christian ideology might seem to be a reason for a drop, not a spike, in support from Christian voters. But data on the progression of “religious feeling” in the U.S. tells a different story: Christian voters increasingly wish not to be defined by their religion. They would rather individualize their belief system, rejecting institutional religion but keeping the political beliefs that remain important to them.
Consider the progression of the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian compared with the progression of U.S. citizens who are pro-life (arguably the position where Christianity and politics most coincide). Gallup found that in 1998, eighty-five percent of Americans identified as Christian, and six percent of Americans identified as unaffiliated. By 2014, Pew Research Center found that only seventy percent of Americans identified as Christian, whereas twenty-three percent of Americans identified as unaffiliated.
While Christian identification dropped by fifteen percent between 1998 and 2014, according to Gallup, the percentage of pro-life Americans stayed relatively steady and even slightly increased during a similar time frame. In 1998, forty percent of Americans identified as pro-life while fifty-one percent of Americans identified as pro-choice. In 2015, forty-four percent of Americans identified as pro-life while fifty percent of Americans identified as pro-choice.
The divergence between pro-life sentiment and the popularity of Christianity in the United States perhaps signals that the political has become more important than the religious for many would-be Christians. It at least signals the continued popularity of traditional Christian political values, even as the popularity of Christianity and religion declines. Those who in a different time would have been avid Christians have lost their connection with institutional religion, yet retain traditionally Christian political beliefs.
The same holds true if we take another historically common Christian political sentiment: anti-Islamism. One thousand years ago, Christians and Muslims fought each other in the Crusades, and today many will pit the two monotheistic faiths against each other. Even John Kasich, a relatively moderate Republican, has called for a new federal agency to promote “Judeo-Christian values” in order to combat Islamic influence.
Despite the historical and current antipathy between Christians and Muslims (Pew Research Center reports that Christians view Muslims far less favorably than the average American does), in the U.S., anti-Islamic sentiment has increased while Christianity’s popularity has decreased. An ABC News poll taken a month after 9/11 found that forty-seven percent of Americans had a favorable view of Muslims. Today, Pew Research Center finds that that number has dropped to about forty percent.
The pro-life movement and anti-Islam sentiment are just two examples of traditional Christian political views that have stayed steady or become more popular in recent years while the strength of Christian institutions and the popularity of Christian practice have fallen. Politics is about outward displays and expression, whereas religious and spiritual methodology is trending more toward introspection. Trump realized this and was able to capitalize on it in the election. If he chooses to address the Johnson Amendment, expand church tax exemptions, or promote religious freedom, he may capitalize on the current cultural and religious environment even further.
Trump encourages the individualization of Christian ideology, which has been the religious methodological pattern in the U.S. ever since its founding. Today, the “priesthood of all believers” has helped produce a new remarkable effect which we may call the Church of Trump. Its appeal lies in the promotion of traditionally Christian political views and the destruction of the limitations imposed by institutionalized religions. Such a political and religious climate allowed for Trump to use his anti-establishment bluster to gain appeal among religious voters. And it worked. For now, the Church of Trump is our state religion.