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Donald Trump's Religious Background and the 2016 Presidential Election

07/19/2016 02:14 pm ET | Updated Nov 09, 2016

Now that the Republicans are about to nominate Donald Trump as their party's presidential nominee, a look at his religious background seems in order. It will likely tell us how well he will fare with churchgoing voters, and especially the most committed Christians among them, this fall.

One key factor in this area is generational. American religion has changed a lot over time, and Trump's generation was a distinctive one in terms of what religion was like when they were growing up. Donald Trump is an "early" baby boomer. Like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Trump was born in 1946, the first year of the post-World War II baby boom. Trump grew up in New York City during an era when a higher fraction of Americans engaged in weekly religious observance than at any other time in modern American history.

Trump's parents were Presbyterians, and they and their five children attended Marble Collegiate Church in lower Manhattan. Donald Trump retained a connection to that church in his adult life. He and his first wife, Ivana, were married there in 1977. Though not currently an active member, Donald Trump has stated publicly that he considers Marble Collegiate to be his church.

It is no ordinary one. Marble Collegiate is one of the oldest continuous Protestant congregations in North America. During Trump's formative years it was led by the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale. Under his leadership, Marble Collegiate acquired a huge congregation numbering in the thousands. Most of those attending, in conventional Fifties' fashion, went once a week - mostly to hear Peale's sermon - but were not otherwise much involved in religious activities. Thus, Marble Collegiate was huge, but not a megachurch in the modern sense, which tends to provide lots of other kinds of programming in which many members participate.

Peale's message was a fairly simple one: Think positive thoughts (which can drive out negative ones), be optimistic, and concentrate on personal fulfillment. Peale elaborated on those ideas in many books, the most successful of which was called The Power of Positive Thinking. Published in 1952, it spent 186 consecutive weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. By 1958, the book had sold at least two million copies. Although many clergymen and mental health experts criticized the book's message as overly simplistic and even harmful, many others praised it. The clarity and simplicity of Peale's message may have reflected his roots in the Methodist Church (he was ordained a minister in the Methodist Church before switching to the Reformed Church in America).

Peale's message also seems to have been a response to the formative life experiences of what some have called America's "greatest generation." By far the most important were the Great Depression and World War II. Those who managed to survive, more or less intact, those deeply traumatic experiences tended to find an optimistic outlook and a focus on personal fulfillment very appealing. As the American middle class grew in the 1940's, '50's and '60's, so, too, did the appeal of that sort of middlebrow message. The advent of the Cold War in the late 1940's also increased the appeal of Peale's sermons. At a time when the danger of nuclear war seemed great, and New York City the most likely target of Soviet attack, Peale's emphasis on trying to stay positive and build a successful private life spoke to people who felt more than the usual need for reassurance.

Many clergymen thought Peale's form of Protestantism too simplistic and generic. Although it is hard to know for sure, one suspects that to the extent Donald Trump went to Sunday school at Marble Collegiate, what he would have learned there would have been simple moral lessons based on bible stories drawn from both the Old and New Testaments. That plus Peale's weekly sermons would likely have constituted the entirety of Trump's religious instruction through church. Kids who experience religion that way tend to be almost biblically illiterate in terms of specifics about theology, and in that regard Trump is no exception. What they tend to retain is, at most, a certain kind of Christian sensibility, basic lessons in values and behavior, and not much more.

That kind of doctrinal looseness can have some positive results. When Trump's daughter Ivanka married a Jew (real estate developer Jared Kushner) and then converted to Judaism in 2009 (via an Orthodox ceremony), Donald Trump was supportive of her decision. All the indications are that father and daughter Trump remain very close.

Helping here, one suspects, is that Ivanka married someone in the same line of work as her dad. The values and behavior that are most central to Donald Trump appear to come from that world, rather than the spiritual one. The key teacher in his life wasn't Norman Vincent Peale, but rather Trump's father, a hard-nosed businessman. Fred Trump wanted son Donald to enter the family real estate business, and so groomed him to succeed in that intensely competitive and materialistic world. What is so interesting about Donald Trump's religious background is that much of Norman Vincent Peale's message went along with Fred Trump's rather than against it. Trump is, in a way, a cosmic optimist, embarked on a quest to "make America great again." By that he seems to mean: making America more like it was when Donald Trump was growing up. Trump's life story is also Pealesque in the sense that Trump has pursued personal fulfillment intensely, achieving worldly success beyond the dreams of most people.

On the other hand, Trump has also come to embody values and behavior to which Peale would likely have objected. Peale was a native Midwesterner from Bellefontaine, Ohio, and a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan. He thought of himself as a moderate, theologically and otherwise, and had the warmth and friendliness so typical of people with his background. Trump's angry side (and his negativity toward immigrants especially), his egotism, his sometimes boorish behavior, and his excessive materialism would all have disappointed Peale, one suspects. So, too, would Trump's chauvinistic attitudes toward women, which seem much more like Hugh Heffner's than Norman Vincent Peale's.

What, then, does Donald Trump's religious background tell us about the likely extent of his appeal to Christian voters this fall? First, that he has enough exposure to Christianity so as not to seem entirely foreign, religiously speaking, to such voters. Second, that he is far from being strongly appealing to them. Third, that Christians for whom religion is the central thing in their lives will likely be more put off by him than those whose connection to Christianity is more limited. That last point is an important one, because many evangelical Christians see their faith as the driving force in their lives. Without a robust turnout from voters in that group, it is hard to see how Trump can win.

The selection last week of Indiana Governor Mike Pence as the vice presidential candidate reflects that concern on the part of Trump and his aides. Pence, the onetime Catholic altar boy turned evangelical Protestant, connects very well with Christian conservatives, especially the most pro-life of them. Donald Trump now has an effective surrogate he can dispatch to speak to those kinds of voters. Pence's campaign style also nicely complements Trump's, in the sense that Pence renounced negative campaigning many years ago. He is as positive as Trump can be negative, and many conservative Christians will respond well to that quality in Pence's campaigning. Delegating the task of reaching such voters has only one real drawback: Most voters don't choose a president based on his or her running mate. And so it's not clear how much Pence can help, unless Trump himself tries harder to be the kind of candidate Norman Vincent Peale would have wanted him to be.

The author gratefully acknowledges of the assistance of Reverend Tim Ahrens of First Congregational Church in Columbus, OH and Professor David Brakke of the Ohio State University History Department in preparing this blogpost.

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