Despite criticism of Donald Trump by a Christian magazine and misgivings about his moral outlook, the US president will continue to play the ‘God card’, writes TP O’Mahony
Last December, a prominent Christian magazine in the US described president Donald Trump’s conduct as “profoundly immoral” and said he should be removed from office.
The editorial in Christianity Today was the first sign of unease about Trump among America’s evangelical community.
Support from within this community — a collection of conservative Protestant churches, many of them based in the southern states — was crucial for Trump in the 2016 election; he took over 80% of the evangelical vote. Holding on to that support is vital if he is to secure a second term in November.
The fact that the critical editorial appeared in Christianity Today, a magazine founded in 1956 by the late internationally-renowned evangelist, the Rev Billy Graham, who was a frequent visitor to the White House during successive presidencies, gave added cogency to its contents.
The Illinois-based publication, which has 80,000 subscribers to its print edition, has been described as the “flagship magazine of evangelicalism. It described Trump as “morally lost and confused”.
Typically, Trump responded by saying it was a “far-left magazine” and claiming that “no president has done more for the evangelical community”.
Despite the fact that Trump has been married three times and has made demeaning comments about women — as well as having to face sexual assault allegations and involvement in a legal wrangle with Stormy Daniels, a well-known porn star — leading figures among the evangelical churches have stood by him.
His appointment of judges hostile to Roe v Wade — the landmark 1973 case in which the US Supreme Court ruling made abortion legal in the US — has played a central role in shoring up support for Trump, not just among evangelical Protestants but also within a sizeable segment of the Catholic community.
Shortly after the attack by Christianity Today, Trump attended an evangelical rally on the outskirts of Miami and told the cheering crowd that his Democratic opponents would tear down crosses, and he pledged to put prayer into public schools across the US, even though this would require a constitutional amendment.
“I do believe we have God on our side,” he told supporters at the rally in the King Jesus International Ministry mega-church. “We are defending religion itself, it’s under siege. A society without religion cannot prosper.”
At the opening of the Evangelicals or Trump rally in Miami, the 45th president of the United States was joined on stage by faith leaders who prayed over him as they formed a protective circle around him.
“Lord, I thank you that America did not need a preacher in the Oval Office. It did not need a professional politician in the Oval Office, but it needed a fighter and a champion for freedom and, Lord, that’s exactly what we have,” said one pastor, as Trump stood, head bowed.
“God is great in America again.”
Nowhere in the Western world does religion play a more important role in elections than in the US. Nobody knows this better than Donald Trump.
He does not have to be reminded that, unlike Europe where Christianity has been hollowed out, God is big in American politics. For him, therefore, playing the “God card” will be a central feature of his campaign for re-election.
As Madeleine Albright has explained, “every president has seen fit during his inaugural address to mention God in one context or another”.
Albright, who was raised as a Catholic in Czechoslovakia, and made history in 1997 when she became the first woman to serve as US secretary of state, is well aware that Americans’ belief that their country has been the special recipient of God’s favour is deep-rooted.
She explored the background to this in her bookand she is well aware that the resurgence of religion, particularly evident since 9/11, means that playing the God card is more important than ever for anyone seeking to win the White House.
Trump is acutely conscious of this. And the persistence of religious vitality — in marked contrast to the situation in Europe — reinforces Trump’s recognition of the political importance and impact of religion in the US. That’s why he will shamelessly seek the support of Christian evangelicals.
“For a Briton, coming from a nation where regular churchgoing is a declining habit, and where Christian religious contributions to the national debate tend to be corralled, sanitised and de-fanged so as not to cause offence, it is hard sometimes for a foreigner to appreciate the ubiquity, passion and occasional ferocity of the Christian voice beamed out across the USA,” wrote Stephen Bates in his book God’s Own Country: Religion and Politics in the USA. “It is a country with 200 Christian television channels and 1,500 Christian radio stations.”
While it may be unfashionable in Europe to claim that religion matters significantly in public life, the reverse is true in the US. This is a puzzle for some scholars, especially those who, for too long, neglected religion as a political force.
Unlike other advanced or modern societies, America has not experienced widespread secularisation, and certainly not in the sense of keeping religion out of politics.
“Secularisation, or the decline of religion, has often been seen as an inevitable consequence of modernisation,” explains Linda Woodhead, professor of the sociology of religion at Lancaster University.
“A good deal of evidence from Europe, where church-going has declined for well over a century, supports this idea. However, secularisation in Europe has not been matched elsewhere. Not only is religion flourishing in other places, but even in the richest, most powerful and arguable most ‘modern’ of all Western societies — the United States of America — religion continues to have a central place both in private and public life.”
This is the background against which Trump talks repeatedly about God, faith, and prayer. Trump knows full well, for instance, that promising to introduce prayer in public schools is just playing to the gallery, but then he has shown himself to be very good at that.
The First Amendment of the American Constitution enshrines the separation of church and state: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
This was based on the idea of creating a system of government that neither supported nor depended upon religion.
In her book, Albright expands on this. “Separation of Church and State rests on three ‘nos’: No religious tests for public office, no established state religion, and no abridgement of the right to religious liberty.
“These principles are essential to America’s democracy and to its identity as a nation. However, we must recognise that such a separation does not require and has not led to the removal of God from the civic life, currency, coinage, patriotic songs, or public rhetoric of the United States.
“This reality reflects both the depths of America’s religious roots and a universal rule of practical politics: religion may be separated from government, but it is intimately connected to how leaders are judged.”
Trump doesn’t need to be reminded of this. He will continue to make pledges about prayer in public schools, undeterred by the knowledge that amending the American constitution is a complex procedure (vastly more complex, for instance, than amending Bunreacht na hÉireann), and he will continue to brazenly play the “God card”, even though his own personal conduct and his policies on race, gender, and immigration are manifestly in violation of gospel precepts.