THE BLOG
01/21/2017 01:45 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2018

Donald Trump's Vision of Religion and America

Donald Trump's inaugural address, delivered in the very direct and even pugnacious style for which he has become famous, revealed something interesting about his view of the how the USA and religion are related. Like so much of President Trump's vision for the country, his view of religion's relationship to it hearkens back to an earlier era. That time was the one in which he grew up, from Trump's birth in 1946 (the first year of the baby boom) through end of the 1960's, when be entered young adulthood. In those days, and especially during the 1950's, the American establishment embraced religion in general even as it rejected government endorsement of any one faith in particular.

The "non-preferentialist" position as constitutional scholars call it was supported then by American presidents, Congress and the Supreme Court. One clear sign of that came in 1954, when Congress passed and President Eisenhower approved a federal law officially inserting the words "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance, which was being recited daily then by the largest cohort of young, school-age children in American history (including Donald Trump). That same sense of America as a land of religious people that did not endorse any one faith tradition but was friendly to religion in general was also supported then by rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court. Helping strengthen that official attitude was the ongoing pressure of the Cold War, because the leading countries on the other side (the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China) rejected religion in general as a false belief system. In President Trump's childhood, the official view was that God was on our side, both historically and in that Cold-War struggle. It was a message that private military schools like the one he attended during his high school years especially emphasized. That vision of America's relationship to religion tended to ignore, if not ostracize, non-believers.

President Obama's first inaugural address represented something of a rejection of that view by publicly acknowledging that there were Americans who were not religious and that they, too, were part of the people. Like so much of his vision for the country, Obama's sense of the relationship between it and religion reflected a newer conception that first began to emerge in the later 1960's and early 1970's. The new view was one of government neutrality with respect not just to particular faiths but also to the issue of faith in general. What gave that new way of thinking a boost, more than anything else, was the decline in Cold-War tensions that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990's.

That new relationship with religion, like much of the rest of Obama's vision of what the country was becoming, has produced a backlash, which could be seen in Donald Trump's Inaugural Address. What references to God he made there came shortly after his discussion of "radical Islamic terrorism," which he pledged to "eradicate completely from the face of the earth." From there, Trump moved to America's relationship to religion by saying, "The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity." He also sought to strike a reassuring note, by saying that Americans enjoyed not just secular but also divine protection in going about their lives and work. In Trump's words, "We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement and most importantly, we will be protected by God." The overall message was simple: God is still on our side, and will protect us as we do battle with our enemies. Excluded from that vision of the American people are those without religious beliefs, even though their numbers have grown over the years.

Like Trump's overall campaign message, his view of America's relationship to religion is both authentically populist (many, perhaps most, of the ordinary people of the country agree with it) and troublingly insensitive (to the minority that does not). The USA is a more varied place that it was in Trump's childhood, and he clearly wants to make it less so again as a way of uniting it. However, his tone and manner in doing so often come across as heavy-handed, which can undermine the very thing he is ultimately trying to accomplish. Whether he can find a way to fight for what he wants so as to bring people together - rather than drive them apart - very much remains to be seen.