5 faith facts about Donald Trump: A Presbyterian who collects Bibles

(RNS) His late and awkward efforts to draw in conservative Christian votes might still work for him when the primaries get rolling.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was declared the winner in South Carolina minutes after polls closed. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

(RNS) Donald Trump, the New York real estate billionaire and reality television star fabled for bluster (and bad hair), has dominated the contest this year for the  Republican presidential nomination.

And he’s done it with minimal — and late — attention to the GOP’s most loyal base of conservative evangelicals. Making up perhaps for lost time, Trump went to the nation’s largest Christian university, Liberty University, in January to pledge, “I’m going to protect Christians,” who he said are losing their power in American society.

Even a tangle with Pope Francis over whether Trump’s views on migrants were “not Christian” didn’t halt Trump’s ability to draw votes from across the religious spectrum right up through Super Tuesday.

Here are five faith facts about Donald Trump.

READWhat do 2016 election contenders believe? Check the RNS ‘5 faith facts’ series

1. He identifies as a Presbyterian.

He told Christian Broadcasting Network in 2012: “I’m a Protestant; I’m a Presbyterian. And you know I’ve had a good relationship with the church over the years. I think religion is a wonderful thing. I think my religion is a wonderful religion.”

For years he’s attended Marble Collegiate Church, a Reformed Church in America congregation and once the pulpit of Norman Vincent Peale, author of the mega-best-seller “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Trump has mentioned Peale so frequently in his campaign that the late minister’s son told media his father would not have been pleased.

Then Trump added: “I’m a Sunday church person.” He made good on that statement in January in Iowa when he attended the Sunday morning service at First Presbyterian Church in Muscatine, Iowa, one week before the Iowa caucus.

The Associated Press reported Trump sang hymns (including “God Is Here”) and dropped $50 bills in the offering plate. The subject of the sermon — how Christianity requires the welcoming of the stranger — was particularly relevant for Trump, who has called for banning Muslims from entering the United States.

2. One religion Trump seems to think is not so wonderful is Islam.

In the lead-up to the 2012 presidential election, Trump told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that there is a “Muslim problem.” “I don’t notice Swedish people knocking down the World Trade Center,” Trump said, and then moved on to the so-called Ground Zero mosque. “I came out very strongly against the mosque being built virtually across the street.”

But Trump assured O’Reilly there are many “fabulous Muslims” in the world.

Trump berated political activist Pamela Geller in May 2015 for launching a “Draw the Prophet” contest in Texas. “What is she doing drawing Muhammad? I mean, it’s disgusting,” he said on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends.” “Isn’t there something else they could be doing? Drawing Muhammad?”

But that tune has changed. In March 2016, he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “I think Islam hates us” and reiterated his belief in the use of waterboarding and “a lot worse.”

3. He collects Bibles.

In the same 2012 CBN interview, Trump said fans often send him Bibles and he keeps every one of them “in a very nice place.” “There’s no way I would ever throw anything, to do anything negative to a Bible,” Trump said.

Trump has been known to take one along to wave at campaign events, but he has said: “I would have a fear of doing something other than very positive, so actually I store them and keep them and sometimes give them away to other people but I do get sent a lot of Bibles and I like that. I think that’s great.”

4. While some evangelicals love him, others are still skeptical.

Exit polls show Trump captured evangelicals in early primaries, but as the field has thinned, so has some of his support there.

Popular Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans points out, “His scant church attendance and clumsiness at citing Scripture have not gone unnoticed here in the Bible Belt.”

Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has said that evangelicals who vote for Trump abandon their values and join the side of the culture war where “image and celebrity and money and power and social Darwinist ‘winning’ trump the conservation of moral principles and a just society.”

When Trump spoke to students at Liberty University, founded by the late evangelical power broker Jerry Falwell, things were a little bumpy — Trump misspoke the name of a book of the Bible and named his book “The Art of the Deal” as the second-best book in the world — after the Bible, of course.

A recent New York Times piece by economist Eduardo Porter asked if Trump’s popularity, despite his being perceived as the least religious of the candidates, is a sign that evangelicalism’s political heft is on the wane: “It does suggest that Republicans’ longstanding strategy of building majorities for their anti-tax platform by appealing to working-class voters’ Christian morals has lost a lot of its power.”

5. On the campaign trail …

He is confident in his own powers as well as a higher power. Trump has said:

In September, Trump met with three dozen evangelical and Pentecostal leaders, including televangelists Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, pastor David Jeremiah, broadcaster Jan Crouch, Paula White and pastor Darrell Scott. According to the Christian Broadcasting Network, the meeting ended with a laying-on of hands — a Pentecostal practice of physically touching a person being prayed for.

The pre-Iowa highlight for Trump’s religion pitch may have been his address to more than 10,000 Liberty University students in a sports arena and thousands more online. He cited Liberty as a place that has lived up to the biblical passage from 2 Corinthians 3:17,  “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” Trump pointed out how evangelicals have been betrayed in the past by politicians who made promises to gain their votes and turned their backs once elected.

But what stuck was the laudatory introduction from Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty, who said Trump “lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment.” Days later, Falwell formally endorsed Trump. And Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist, led opening prayers at his events in Iowa.

Since then, Trump went on to win several Southern states, helped by large numbers of evangelical voters.

When critics pointed out that his raise-your-right-hand pledge to vote for him — a popular theme at his March rallies — was a visual play on Germany in the 1930s, he was unapologetic.

(Kimberly Winston is a national correspondent for RNS; Cathy Lynn Grossman contributed to this report)

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