Trump’s religious beliefs hard to pin down

Donald Trump. Photo Reuters
Donald Trump. Photo Reuters
Is it possible to have faith in Donald Trump, asks David Tombs.

Earlier this month the humanities division at the University of Otago  held a public panel discussion on the 2016 US presidential election. In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s extraordinary triumph, the panellists looked at "What Happened? What Next?"

How was it that  Mr Trump  lost the popular vote by an estimated 2.7 million votes, but still won the election? Why is the US so polarised that some are calling it the Divided States rather than the United States?

Another question in the discussion was about  Mr Trump’s religious beliefs, and how religion in the US influenced the election.  Hillary Clinton’s outlook was more clearly influenced by her Methodist background than  Mr Trump’s was by his Presbyterianism; yet, it was  Mr Trump who benefited most from overtly religious supporters.

Mr Trump’s own religious beliefs were hard to pin down during the campaign. At times, he boasted of a "great relationship" with God, but at other times he was vague, and almost evasive, on his personal beliefs. Mr Trump admitted  he did not ask God for forgiveness and he clearly had little familiarity with Scripture.

Many voters in the United States expect candidates for political office to profess Christian commitment and values. Very few voters regard such religious profession negatively, even if the voter does not feel they are necessary. So politicians have little to lose, and much to gain, by playing up their church credentials. 

More than  80% of the population describe themselves as Christian, and about 25% of the population identify themselves as evangelical. In recent decades, the political support of evangelicals has been a key factor in electoral success.  More than 35% of registered voters call themselves evangelical.

Evangelicals largely withdrew from party politics between 1925 and 1975, but were drawn back into politics in 1976 to vote for Jimmy Carter.

They saw  Mr Carter  as one of their own. He was a born-again Southern Baptist and he wanted to make honesty and integrity central to his presidency. This motivated many evangelicals to support him. However, in the 1980 race, most evangelicals switched from the Democrats to the Republicans, and backed  Mr Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan.

It was Mr Reagan’s conservative social policies, rather than his personal faith, which won over the evangelicals. Similarly, conservative polices, especially on abortion and family values, have kept most evangelicals as reliable Republicans ever since.

Likewise, it was  Mr Trump’s policies and his choice of running-mate, rather than his personal faith, that prompted evangelicals to vote Republican in 2016.

  Mr Trump  tapped into a wish for radical change. He presented a prospective Clinton White House as being just another case of  "business as usual", a political elite disconnected from the lives of ordinary people. This protest appealed to many evangelicals, especially because  Mr Trump also promised to make conservative appointments to the Supreme Court and revived  Mr Reagan’s pledge to "Make America Great Again".

However, not all evangelicals felt the same way. Exit polls suggested 80% of white evangelicals voted for  Mr Trump but African-American, Hispanic and Asian evangelicals were much more likely to support  Mrs Clinton.

In addition, some white evangelical leaders spoke up during the campaign to ask if evangelical support for  Mr Trump was a betrayal of their core values.

What did it mean for honesty, decency and integrity in politics, which had previously drawn evangelicals to support  Mr Carter  after  Richard Nixon and Watergate? And how well did policies like "Build a Wall", and tweets on Islam, fit with Christian values like "love of neighbour"? 

There is no avoiding compromise in politics. It is fair enough for Trump supporters to claim, as many have done, that he was not their perfect candidate, but he was still their preferred choice in this particular election.

Even so, this still means that  Mr Trump’s policies and well-publicised personal flaws and failings were clearly not enough of a deal-breaker to make the compromise impossible.

Some evangelical leaders have warned of the long-term damage this opportunism and hypocrisy will do to the way that evangelicals are seen by others.

Fuller Theological Seminary, which is one of the most renowned evangelical education institutions in the US, issued a bold statement after the election. It condemned the words and actions by some evangelicals as a "disgrace", and lamented the hate that had been directed against people of colour, immigrants, women, Muslims, and members of the LGBT community during the campaign.

Many people hope Mr Trump’s administration will be different from his campaign, but his appointments so far do not give grounds for optimism.

If  Mr Trump pushes ahead with the violent, racist and anti-environment policies his campaign promised, Christians who voted for him will need to ask what their faith in Christ really means for their faith in Mr Trump.

- David Tombs is Howard Paterson professor of theology and public issues at the University of Otago. 


American religion is inextricably linked with the political system due to the Founding Fathers, a sect that England was only too happy to be rid of, and the Native Americans were unhappy to host.

The so-called 'faith' Trump believes in is the real-world power of a tribal group that can be motivated and exploited to help him win. He says what it takes to obtain power and does not care about the implications of his statements beyond their effect motivating his supporters and crushing his 'critics'.
The only people who can correctly believe his statements on faith are good news for their beliefs and values are the right-wing white power extremists.