Donald Trump’s God Problem

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a Bible as he speaks during the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition's annual fall dinner on September 19, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall/AP

To House Speaker Paul Ryan and James Dobson:

In recent months, each of you has endorsed Donald Trump in his campaign to become president of the United States. Mr. Speaker, you undoubtedly took this action in hopes of preserving unity within the Republican Party. Mr. Dobson, because you are the founder of Focus on the Family and arguably the most influential evangelical Christian in America, it is much harder to understand your decision, as I will detail below. In this, my third open letter to Speaker Ryan and my first to Mr. Dobson, I urge you both to withdraw your endorsements to save this country and the movements you two men represent.

I want to first state that this letter is not intended to suggest Donald Trump (or any candidate) must be an evangelical or even a Christian to be president. Nor am I implying that his faith or lack thereof should determine how anyone votes this November. Rather, I am discussing what evangelists purport to believe, compared with who and what Trump is. The primary issue here is the credibility of evangelicalism, particularly as it relates to politics. For years, there has been a logic to the evangelists’ support of the Republican Party: Both held similar views on most social issues, and there was more public discussion by conservative candidates about how faith informed their policies. This year, that is not true. Instead, you have a man whose positions on important social issues have changed, whose faith is obviously shallow and who seems to know nothing about even the basics of evangelicalism, Christianity or the Bible. Mr. Dobson, if Donald Trump represents Christian values, those values mean nothing. By endorsing him, evangelists are creating the image that what matters to them is political influence, not the word of God.

Weigh those words against the words of Trump, uttered as he was going through his first divorce: “You know, it doesn’t really matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” This, Mr. Dobson, is your man of the Bible?

Trump’s connection to evangelical beliefs is weak, at best. He has never before expressed any serious connection to the Bible or even a basic understanding of it. He has made occasional holiday appearances at the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, but that fact raises even more questions as to why evangelicals—whether out of habit or hypocrisy—would embrace the Republican candidate this year. Marble earned fame because of its half-century of leadership by Norman Vincent Peale, known best for blending pop psychology with spirituality in a form of Christianity centered on the self. As a child, Trump toddled along with his family to Peale’s sermons, hearing such messages as the one that opens the pastor’s best-selling book The Power of Positive Thinking: “Believe in yourself!” He clearly learned that one.

It’s clear that Trump has had virtually no other exposure to Christianity, with the possible exception of Joel Osteen, another feel-good-about-yourself TV preacher he counts as a friend. How many churchgoers would call Second Corinthians “Two Corinthians,” as he did earlier this year? The name of that epistle from Paul is mentioned whenever passages from it are read during services, yet when caught in the error, Trump didn’t say, “Oops, I have a lot to learn.” Instead, as is his wont, he lied, claiming that lots of Christian churches around the world call the book “Two Corinthians.”

This wasn’t the first time he has lied about the Bible to gain an advantage. In August 2015, after his presidential campaign had begun, Trump said his favorite book is the Bible. In 2007, Trump told Forbes his favorite book was The Art of the Deal, by Donald J. Trump, saying, “It was a great read in 1987, a No. 1 best-seller then, and nothing has changed.” What changed is that he decided to run for president and knew he needed the evangelical vote.

It is a very good bet that Trump has never read the Bible and knows little about even the basics of Christian theology. During the campaign, when asked whether he preferred the Old Testament or New Testament, he replied, “Probably equal.” These are not the words of a man who understands or cares about Christianity.

Asked in 2015 for his favorite biblical passage, he refused to respond, saying it was too personal. Seriously? Later, when pressed again for a biblical passage that influenced him, he latched on to a few words from the Old Testament known even to heretical 6-year-olds. “Well, I think many,’’ he said. “When we get into the Bible, I think many, so many. And some people, look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that.’’

Of all the words Trump could possibly have selected, he chose some of the few from Mosaic law specifically repudiated by Jesus. Matthew 5: 38-41 quotes Jesus as saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” Trump is famous for seeking revenge against anyone who opposes him—including you, Mr. Speaker—and suing rather than handing over his coat, so it is not surprising he doesn’t know that the Old Testament passage of vengeance was supplanted by Jesus’s New Testament message of love and forgiveness.

Trump has referred to the symbolic—or, for you, Mr. Speaker, as a practicing Catholic, the literal—blood and body of Christ taken in communion as “my little wine and my little cracker.” He has also declared that he never asked God for forgiveness because he could handle things himself. That goes against everything in the teachings of Jesus (1 John 1:9, Romans 5:8, Matthew 6:14-15 and so on.)

09_02_TrumpLetter3_03 A local resident is reflected on a religious picture as he votes in the U.S. presidential primary at a church in Concord, New Hampshire, on February 9. Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty

And this is a man who, according to the beliefs of evangelicals, needs a lot of forgiveness. Just take the Ten Commandments prohibition against adultery. In a sealed deposition taken during divorce proceedings in 1991, Trump refused to answer questions 97 times, the vast majority of which were about various infidelities and suspected mistresses. (Everybody knew the identity of his mistress, since it was daily fodder for the New York tabloids.) Now this was not a criminal case, in which he would have the right to take the Fifth Amendment—he was refusing to answer questions that, if the case went much further, he couldn’t avoid. Trump avoided ever answering those questions by settling instead of going to court, giving up a lot more money than was required under his prenuptial agreement. He went on to marry that mistress. Later he divorced her and married a third time.

As you know, Mr. Dobson, the hypocrisy of divorce among evangelicals has been discussed as a crisis by many of the movement’s leaders, and even Peale said divorce makes someone unfit for the presidency. Are “feel-good” pop-Christians more devoted to the Bible than evangelists?

When standing in front of evangelicals earlier this month, Trump said he needed to win the presidency because “I figure it is probably, maybe the only way I'm going to get to heaven.” I know you understand what that means, Mr. Dobson. Trump does not see faith in Christ as the path to the afterlife. This runs counter to everything taught by the Apostle Paul and by evangelism.

How can a man who claims to be devout know so little about Christianity? There is a term for this, one usually used to describe situations in which the religious are taken financially by someone professing the same faith: affinity fraud. By pretending to be a religious Christian, Trump has fooled those who want to believe he is like them. They are being conned, into giving up not their money but their vote. A man—one who has repeatedly lied after swearing to God to tell the truth, who regularly walks away from financial and personal obligations, who knows nothing about Christianity—has tricked them. He publicly proclaimed his commitment to abortion rights and gay rights when it helped his reputation in New York City and now has reversed himself on both issues while running for president. He declared his own book the best he has ever read, until he realized he needed to praise the Bible to win the support of evangelicals. He is human Silly Putty, endlessly flexible and bearing the imprint of whatever surface he last touched. Mr. Speaker and Mr. Dobson, you have no reason to believe that, once in office, he would not again change his beliefs—on abortion, on homosexuality, on anything of value to evangelicals—with the ease others change their clothes.

What about the Democratic candidate for president, Hillary Clinton? Numerous biographies have detailed her deep religious belief. She maintained a spiritual relationship with the Reverend Don Jones, the youth pastor in her Methodist church during her childhood in Park Ridge, Illinois, for 20 years. She carried a Bible while working on the presidential campaigns of 1972 and 1992. She taught Sunday school. She gave sermons about Methodist theology when she was the first lady of Arkansas. She says grace before meals, she has joined prayer groups. When faced with troubles in her marriage, she stuck with her philandering husband rather than seek a divorce. (Amazingly, evangelicals ridiculed her for not ending her marriage, rather than following the teachings of the Bible on this point.) I am not suggesting that you support Clinton; rather, the point is, if you are going to claim that faith is a primary basis for judging a candidate, then you have to explain why Clinton falls short. There is nothing to suggest her devotion is shallow, while Trump’s purported faith is an obvious fraud.

09_02_TrumpLetter3_02 Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and vice presidential candidate Governor Mike Pence pray during a campaign rally on July 25 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Evan Vucci/AP

Speaker Ryan and Mr. Dobson, you are both welcome to gamble on Trump—as a casino operator (hardly a job of the spiritually driven), he is well-trained at taking bets. But should you continue to do so, you will be exposed as fools who can be tricked by any carnival barker or, worse, prove the critics of evangelism right: that it has become an empty shell of political babble that has sacrificed its commitment to the Bible for secular power.

Gentlemen, the choice is stark: Withdraw your endorsements or lose all your credibility. If you want to save what you purport to value dearly, you must condemn Donald Trump.