Normally, when someone becomes President, or achieves fame and honor in some other capacity, people and institutions from that person’s past line-up to associate with their success.
A president’s elementary school might rename itself after him. His hometown may erect a statue in his honor. Maybe the marching band from his high school will appear in the inaugural parade.
Not Donald Trump. The only line forming is the one to disassociate with him. Two churches central to the Trump family’s history and the President’s upbringing in New York have publicly distanced themselves from any link they may have to Trump’s past.
Parishioners of the First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens – President Trump’s childhood church, where he was confirmed – want nothing to do with their Commander in Chief. The church is much more diverse now than it was when the Trump family attended in the 1950s, and his positions on issues like immigration strike a nerve.
As part of a scathing exposé into Trump’s religiosity – or lack there of – CNN reached out to parishioners of First Presbyterian Church, and they didn’t hold back:
“The policies he’s promoting go against our biblical teaching,” Malebranche said. “Our president should be representing us and not a minority of people.”
Asked whether Trump would be welcomed at the church, Malebranche asked: “What spirit would the President bring to this congregation on a Sunday morning? I would be very skeptical.”
Another parishioner, Atsu Ocloo, told CNN, “The whole world is in this church. Every day I pray for (Trump), so that the Holy Ghost should enlighten him.”
This isn’t the first time Trump has faced a religious backlash like this. In the early days of his campaign, just as the Republican Party primary was getting underway, the son of a minister and author Trump pointed to as a spiritual influence in his life publicly renounced him.
Norman Vincent Peale wrote the best selling book, “The Power of Positive Thinking” in the 1950s, a book still quite influential in the self-help genre. Trump’s parents joined Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan in the 70s, and the President himself attended services there occasionally. Peale even presided over Trump’s marriage ceremony with his first wife, Ivana.
In January of 2016, the Washington Post interviewed Peale’s son, John. He told the Post that, nearly 20 years after his father’s passing, “he winces when Trump invokes his father’s name, as the candidate has several times since launching his presidential campaign.”
“I cringe,” Peale said in a phone interview. “I don’t respect Mr. Trump very much. I don’t take him very seriously. I regret the publicity of the connection. This is a problem for the Peale family.”
“I don’t think the image of Norman Vincent Peale that comes through Donald Trump is any connection to the idea I have of him. He doesn’t recognize the significant character of Dad’s ministry, which is a sincere desire to help people.”
One of the enduring mysteries of the Trump phenomenon is how, exactly, he was able to win-over the large and influential Evangelical Christian wing of the Republican Party.
Evangelicals have long served as the gate-keepers to the GOP presidential nomination, and anyone wishing to pass needed not only a sufficiently Christian view on key social issues like abortion and gay marriage; they needed to live – or at least appear to live – ostensibly Christian lives. Trump did neither.
Dedication to one’s family, commitment to one’s marriage, attending church regularly, outward professions of faith when speaking in public, and forgoing vices like gambling and womanizing are just some of the signs evangelicals look for in any potential candidate. Demonstrating a command of the Bible, or at least making a plausible case that its tenets and teachings will guide your decision making in office, is important, too.
How then, one wonders, did a thrice married man with children from three different women; one who’s had at least one extra-marital affair and rumored to have had many more; who never attends church; who’s owned multiple casinos; who only began to mention the Bible on the campaign trail (an embarrassed himself in the process); and who regularly engages in un-Christian behavior – ever get the GOP nomination, let alone the White House?
Despite his family history of loose associations to mainline protestant churches in New York, religion has never been a big part of his life. His half-hearted Christian platitudes during the campaign could not have sounded less authentic if he said them wearing devil horns.
In defense of Evangelicals, their support came late in the primary process. Most backed Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, both of whom have walked the line both publicly and privately that most Evangelicals look for in their candidates. But down the stretch, when it mattered most, they fell in line with possibly the least authentically Christian Republican candidate to run for the President in modern history.
At the end of the day, this explains the selection of the very religious Mike Pence as Trump’s running mate, but does one saint cancel out the misdeeds of a sinner?
Either Trump fooled evangelicals, or they sold their souls and voted for him anyway for political gain – which means it isn’t really isn’t about religion for them at all.
Finally, however, it appears at least some religious institutions closest to Trump are beginning to clear their consciouses.
Peter Mellado is a writer, producer, and a branding and messaging specialist with over 15 years experience. He studied history at San Jose State University, and resides in Los Angeles.