What Donald Trump And P.T. Barnum Have In Common

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Brody and Lamb’s book highlights everything wrong with the morphing of American evangelicalism into a post-Jesus cult of personality looking for salvation delivered by politicians—including its hypocrisy and sophistry regarding Trump and morality. The authors quote one evangelical leader saying that evangelicals’ relationship with the president is authentic, not transactional. But a few chapters earlier, the same individual described a conference call he led with the Trump campaign’s evangelical advisers just after the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged about assaulting women. During that call, “all of us agreed to stand behind the candidate.” After all, Trump “had sacrificed his entire life, in my viewpoint, and supported us. How could we not support him?”

We can wink-wink at Trump’s misdeeds because he does good things for us. The authors actually write that “when assessing the faith of Donald Trump, the significance of the Neil Gorsuch nomination cannot be underestimated.” Really? That is essential to assessing Trump’s faith? More than his sexual proclivities and adulteries, which are barely touched upon in the book? In a few spots in the book, the authors blame American culture for Trump’s sexual ethics, and in one passage, they even find a way to implicate evangelicals in Trump’s sexual behavior. Follow the twisted logic: First, Brody and Lamb quote another biographer who says that “Clint Eastwood, James Bond, and Hugh Hefner” are the figures who dominate Trump’s self-image. Then we are told that Trump boasted about being a womanizer roughly around the same time that Pierce Brosnan’s first James Bond movie came out. And who do we have to thank for Bond’s having a place in Trump’s mind? “Americans—including evangelicals—fund these culture-shaping products with their book purchases and ticket sales.” So if you’ve ever seen a Bond movie, you’ve contributed to the culture that made Trump Trump.

More egregiously, in another passage the authors suggest that Trump’s rapacious libido is just his misguided quest for God. I wish I were kidding. The authors prominently quote a character from a 1944 Bruce Marshall novel: “I still prefer to believe that sex is a substitute for religion and that the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.” Brody and Lamb’s book was printed before the appearance of press reports about Trump having had sex with a porn star around the time his wife was giving birth to their son, but one gets the sense that the authors of The Faith of Donald Trump and the evangelical casuists they quote would have no trouble spinning that infidelity as something unimportant or, in a roundabout way, even admirable.

When not justifying or shifting blame for Trump’s sexual escapades, the authors turn to anonymous sources to assure us that Donald Trump’s heart is not bent on greed. “These off-the-record friendly interviewees sense that Trump’s ambition stems from a deep-rooted need to command respect.” It is certainly true that he enjoys receiving praise and respect—including from the book’s authors. One five-page chapter recounts a lunch at the Polo Bar in New York City with one of the authors (Brody), his wife, and Trump. George Lucas, Ralph Lauren, and Michael J. Fox all come to Trump’s table to genuflect. Trump then brags to Oprah that he is meeting with the Christian Broadcasting Network. The chapter ends. Time and again the authors boast about their access to Trump, giving away the game of just how Mean Girls evangelicalism has become.

While the authors praise Trump for his supposed authenticity in being willing to meet with them, Mitt Romney is criticized for talking to evangelical leaders through conference calls and national meetings: “Past Republican nominees like Mitt Romney and John McCain would come in front of a Christian audience but only minimally, knowing it was a political rite of passage to do so. . . . Trump, on the other hand, not only did substantially more interviews with us, his staff didn’t even bother to ask us what we planned to talk about.” See there, Trump gave them access, so he must be a believer. It clearly wasn’t a transactional relationship.

* * *

So if Brody and Lamb don’t grapple seriously with Trump’s moral character and choose not to answer the question of whether or not Trump is a Christian, how do they fill their hundreds of pages?

The book is stuffed with supposition. At one point we are assured that if Andy Warhol were alive today, he’d watch The Apprentice. This comes one page after announcing how much Warhol hated Trump. “If young Donald Trump” did something or other is a recurring theme. If he had picked up a book on church history he would have discovered all sorts of things. “If Trump recalled his Old Testament Bible stories,” he would have clearly understood what he was talking about by referencing the promised land in a speech. If frogs had wings they wouldn’t bust their asses every time they jump. That’s not actually in the book, but I kept thinking about it when whole sections of the book were premised on if Trump did or read or saw something.

Much of the book is padded with descriptions of every conceivable Christian influence on Donald Trump, no matter how attenuated. Brody and Lamb make him out to be the heir of Martin Luther, John Knox, John Winthrop, John Witherspoon, and Billy Graham.

Trump’s paternal German ancestry gives the authors the excuse to bring in Luther, in a chapter called “Making Augsburg Great Again.” And Trump’s Scotland-born mother lets them bring in Knox and speculate on “five specific ways in which Scottish Presbyterianism impacted either the history of the United States or the life of Mary Anne MacLeod,” Trump’s mother. Presbyterians, we are told, “emphasized using the Sabbath day for the spiritual training of children,” and while the Trumps went to church on Sundays, there is no evidence Mrs. Trump worked through the catechism with Donald.

We get a lengthy disquisition on Donald Trump’s parents, Fred and Mary Anne, marrying in a liberal Presbyterian church. It was probably only because a relative who worked for a rich person Fred admired who lived down the block from that church recommended it. Or maybe it was because someone who worked for Andrew Carnegie who had the same name as Donald Trump’s mother recommended it. But the couple did not stay at that liberal church, they only got married in it.

Instead, Fred and Mary Anne went to another liberal church, First Presbyterian Church in Queens, after they were married. Pay no attention to the church’s liberalism because in 1936 an elder in the church named Frank Donaldson sided with Dr. J. Gresham Machen when the liberal Presbyterians voted to kick Machen out for being a conservative. And if that is not enough of a reassurance about Donald Trump’s conservatism in the liberal church into which he was born, consider this. Donald Trump went to a liberal church that had once been a theologically orthodox church and at that time the church was filled with people who prayed for the future generations of the church. So Trump must be a believer. And if that’s not enough, consider this. “He grew up in a church birthed by fresh-off-the-boat, religious-liberty-seeking Puritans.” Never mind that that was 300 years prior to his arrival on the scene.

Donald Trump grew up and moved to Manhattan, where he attended the church of Norman Vincent Peale, the author of The Power of Positive Thinking. Here the authors descend into hucksterism. They argue that Peale was not an enormous influence on Trump. “The Trumps didn’t start attending Peale’s church until the 1970s, when Peale was in his seventies,” they note. They conclude that it was Fred Trump’s friendship with Peale that was really influential. There is just one problem. Donald Trump, Donald Trump’s lawyer, Donald Trump’s friends, and Donald Trump’s spiritual advisers are all quoted in the book identifying Peale as a huge influence on Trump. The authors themselves later reference Peale’s influence on Trump. But in the specific chapter on Peale they prioritize downplaying Peale to take cheap shots at evangelical critics of Trump.

This is perhaps the most ridiculous part of the book except for all the other parts. They introduce the chapter on Peale’s relationship with Trump by noting that Peale had been long forgotten until Trump ran for president and the relationship surfaced. They then try to claim Peale had no real influence on Trump while quoting Trump and others saying the opposite. Then they claim Peale really wasn’t as theologically liberal as he really was by the time Trump knew him. Then they attack evangelical critics for waiting until Trump ran for president to be vocal about the man they acknowledged had largely been forgotten until Trump ran.

Then we learn that Donald Trump had two great-aunts who attended a Pentecostal church in Manhattan in the early twentieth century. Trump never knew them and had nothing to do with them. But in the quest to build up Trump’s Christian cred it helps to get all the family holy rollers in there. They are thrown in just before a random story about a friend of Pat Robertson’s speaking in tongues to Norman Vincent Peale’s wife, who, again, had no influence on Donald Trump despite Trump’s longtime lawyer calling Peale “his childhood spiritual mentor.”

Brody and Lamb document all the conceivably Christian influences in Trump’s life—the histories of his churches and pastors, how much he watched Billy Graham on television with his dad, a description of the picture taken the day young Trump was confirmed into the church, and even how Trump carries around his mother’s Bible. But then they expose the evangelical political movement’s shallowness and lack of discernment by quoting Paula White at Trump’s inauguration: “[Trump] doesn’t know our ‘Christianese’ ”—the language of a regular, churched believer. This calls to mind James Dobson’s famous characterization (strangely, not quoted in the book) of Trump as a “baby Christian.” Trump is, you see, really new at this Jesus stuff. Except the authors just spent well over 100 pages copiously documenting the multitudinous interactions the man has had with the faith since his birth while apparently learning absolutely nothing.

What is missing from the book is what is necessary to really buy into the notion of Trump’s Christianity. There are stories of Trump praying with people. There are stories of his meetings with evangelical leaders and of him writing them large checks. But there are no stories of repentance. Trump famously said during the campaign that he has never asked God for forgiveness:

I am not sure I have. . . . Now, when I take—you know, when we go in church and when I drink my little wine, which is about the only wine I drink, and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness. And I do that as often as possible, because I feel cleansed, OK?

True to form, Brody and Lamb praise Trump for this, casting it as an admirably candid moment. But a Christian is commanded to repent and accept Jesus as his Lord and savior. Donald Trump never has. There are plenty of people who attest to his faith. But no one has a story of Trump publicly or privately acknowledging he is a sinner in need of saving. The best they can do is let Paula White take Jesus out of context about casting stones.

The Bible is very clear that Christians are to judge the conduct of other Christians. Consider 1 Corinthians 5:

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

This is why Brody and Lamb must dance around the issue: If they claim Trump is a Christian but there are no stories of repentance, then Christians must rebuke Trump.

Evangelical leaders will not rebuke him. They have access to him. He loves their company and makes a show over them. They love being able to interview him, go to the White House, and feel as if they are shaping public policy. When other evangelicals call them out on their behavior and the president’s, they behave like Amaziah the priest of Bethel did when Amos declared Israel needed to repent: “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there.” In other words, we’re making money here—you go make money somewhere else. It is a racket to them, so it must be a racket to everyone else.

You should know that I read The Faith of Donald J. Trump in the English version and can only guess at what was lost in the translation from the original North Korean. Donald Trump has, it is clear from this book, become Dear Leader, Generalissimo, Eternal General Secretary, Eternal Chairman, and Eternal Leader of the People’s Evangelical Party of America. The Soviets, Chinese, and North Koreans would find it very familiar.

I assume the book had no editor. Chapter 2 references events to happen in chapter 4 that actually happen in chapter 7 in a vastly more understated way than promised. At another point Donald Trump is quoted saying Roe v. Wade was “strongly decided” when he clearly said or meant to say “wrongly decided” given the context of the paragraph in question; it is unclear whether Trump misspoke or his words were mistranscribed. And the book has completely unnecessary digressions. At one point, the authors feel compelled to go off on a tangent about Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, having an affair. Life stories of ancillary figures fall throughout the book, serving no purpose but to fill space.

In the end, Brody and Lamb’s book exposes how the leaders of the evangelical movement, long treated as outcasts from mainstream culture because of the charlatans in their midst, now enjoy an utterly transactional relationship with Donald Trump, each using the other for an end they believe justifies the means. The long-term damage to the American evangelical movement, which has spent decades working toward respectability and intellectual seriousness, remains to be seen. And a president in need of a savior is surrounded by men and women of faith who are more interested in doing business with him than calling him to repent so that his eternal soul might be saved.

But Gorsuch!

Erick W. Erickson is the founder of the Resurgent and the author of Before You Wake: Life Lessons from a Father to His Children.

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Source : http://www.weeklystandard.com/the-apotheosis-of-donald-j.-trump/article/2011600

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