Election Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion Politics

Trump’s religion and its popular appeal

Norman Vincent Peale's 1952 best-seller
Norman Vincent Peale's 1952 best-seller

Fair Use

Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 best-seller

During this strange election cycle it has not escaped notice that a major influence on Donald Trump, whose connection to Christianity seems minimal, was Norman Vincent Peale, one of the twentieth century’s best known preachers and best-selling authors. What has not been recognized is the extent to which Peale’s influence explains Trump’s popular appeal.

Trump grew up going to Manhattan’s Marble Collegiate Church, the Dutch Reformed (RCA) congregation dating to the 17th century that Peale served as senior minister from 1932 to 1984. Trump married his first wife Ivana there in 1977, with Peale officiating. Asked by Republican political operator Frank Luntz at the Iowa Family Leadership Summit last July whether he’d ever asked God for forgiveness, Trump pivoted in that direction:

The great Norman Vincent Peale was my pastor…He would give a sermon. You never wanted to leave…It was unbelievable. I still remember his sermons. What he would do is he would bring real-life situations, modern-day situations, into the sermon. And you could listen to him all day long. When you left the church, you were disappointed it was over. He was the greatest guy.

“But,” persisted Luntz, “have you ever asked God for forgiveness?” Audience laughter. Pause. “I’m not sure I have,” Trump, slightly flummoxed, replied. “I just try and do a better job from there.”

In fact, asking God for forgiveness was not what Peale preached. His gospel was all about accessing spiritual power to get the job done. The title of his second book, published in 1938, is You Can Win. Sound familiar?

As the historian Donald Meyer shows in his fine study, The Positive Thinkers, Peale was the latest in a line of popular American spiritual leaders stretching back into the 19th century who promoted Mind Cure — a philosophy that teaches that obstacles to a good life are fundamentally psychological and can (only) be cured by positive attitudes and beliefs.

Peale’s hugely best-selling The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) — “a great book,” Trump told the Iowans last summer — puts it this way:

What we do with obstacles is directly determined by our mental attitude. Most of our obstacles, as a matter of fact, are mental in character.

“Ah,” you may object, “mine are not mental, mine are real.”

Perhaps so, but your attitude toward them is mental.

“The mind can overcome any obstacle,” Trump told the New York Times‘ Marilyn Bender in 1983. “I never think of the negative.”

Where Mind Cure doyenne Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, was fixated on mental triumph over physical ailments, Peale’s focus was success in worldly pursuits. “There was a time when I acquiesced in the silly idea that there is no relationship between faith and prosperity; that when one talked about religion he should never relate it to achievement, that it dealt only with ethics and morals or social values,” he declares in The Power of Positive Thinking. “But now I realize that such a viewpoint limits the power of God and the development of the individual.”

Politically conservative, Peale was a regular speaker at businessmen’s booster clubs and toastmaster at Horatio Alger awards dinners. “The Apprentice” can be seen as Reality TV’s answer to Alger’s novels: reiterated tales of how a determined, hardworking lad rises to the top by impressing the boss with his hard work and determination. The Art of the Deal is a secularized version of The Power of Positive Thinking.

It’s no surprise that, among religious leaders, Trump should be getting his most enthusiastic hearing from promoters of the Prosperity Gospel. But we shouldn’t think of Trumpism in their terms — a straight-up return on an investment of faith (plus material contributions). What Trump the presidential candidate has done is turn America as a whole into one of those psychologically hobbled souls in need of Mind Cure.

For Trump is not so much a congenital liar as a person for whom unpleasant truths exist only as obstacles to be thought away. Never mind what the Mexicans say, of course they’ll pay for the wall. Never mind that U.S. manufacturing and coal-mining jobs are gone with the global wind, of course they’ll be brought back. Never mind that California has had less rainfall in the past five years than ever in recorded history, there is no drought.

What Trump voters are buying is the latest version of a product fashioned deep in their collective unconscious. According to his de-spiritualized version of Mind Cure, the power will come not from The Almighty but from The Donald, a boss so capable of curing a mentally impaired America that we’ll get tired of winning. It’s a beautiful thing, and a wonder to behold.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

30 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • The connection between Trump and Peale is interesting and important, but then you go off the deep end about “What Trump voters are buying…”. A few might be as you describe, “What Trump the presidential candidate has done is turn America as a whole into one of those psychologically hobbled souls in need of Mind Cure.” , but a little more evidence and a little less scorn might might be helpful. There is a famous remark concerning the Nixon election. (pardon my paraphrase) I just don’t understand how he got elected, I don’t know anybody who voted for him.)

  • Pauline Kael of the New Yorker is sidely quoted as saying she knew only one person who voted for Nixon. Whatever, Trump talks about America as a pathetic weakling, always losing to other countries and what he promises is to make the country a perpetual winner — “great again.” So I’m willing to stand firm on that observation. As for “what Trump voters are buying,” I’ll concede that I’m on speculative ground. Nevertheless, the fact that so many have been prepared to vote for a candidate who provides so little rational basis for thinking he can deliver on his promises suggests that they are in fact embracing auto-suggestive prayer — thoughts as things — Mind Cure.

  • Has anyone else noticed that Donald Trump can’t take criticism? At all? Ever?
    It’s a good thing the President of the United States is never criticized.

    “Now accepting bets on what day President Trump resigns.”

  • ” The falacy of democracy is that people will act in their own interest”. Pushing more and more ill informed and ill prepared voters into the pool- a long term Democrat policy- just makes matters worse. Would that I had the luxury of voting against both candidates- yet I must choose. I will vote against Clinton as more dangerious to the body politic than the spoiled brat the Republicans nominated. Better a fool than a villain.

    Clinton, with eyes open, will accelerate the conversion of the country to European Socialism, and will continue to put personal profit from selling her office above the interest of the rest of us. In my book that is treason.

  • I wonder if Trump was influenced in his early years by Napoleon Hill, James Allen, Russell Conwell. (Conwell, in addition to Acres of Diamonds, wrote Every Man His Own University.)

  • I’m not sure that Donald Trump is deep enough to have God involved in his decision making.His ego will never allow a second billing.

  • The European welfare state is the Progressives’ model. Its concentration of power in the central government, economic and social regulation on a massive scale (even in England) and personal tax burdens (and the VAT) that virtually prevent the accumulation of capital by private citizens. Personal freedom and choice are held as of little value compared to the minute regulation of society. This is certainly not what the framers of our Republic had in mind. Today Marxists dominate academia.
    Bernie Sanders Wikipedia page says:”Sanders rose to national prominence following his 2010 filibuster against the Middle Class Tax Relief Act of 2010. He favors policies similar to those of social democratic parties in Europe, particularly those instituted by the Nordic countries, and has built a reputation as a leading progressive voice on issues such as campaign finance reform, corporate welfare, global warming, income inequality, LGBT rights, parental leave, and universal healthcare.” I would happily trade his agenda for a better economy, more jobs, and more opportunity for those willing to work hard, to improve their lives. Interesting, that so many of us who grew up poor and needy, have little use for these perverse social welfare schemes. (poor means going to bed hungry and cold, and not having necessary health care).

  • You discuss Bernie, not Hillary, Samuel. And you might have mentioned that the VAT has been embraced by Republicans (notably Cruz and Rubio), not Democrats. Confiscatory tax rates, which aren’t coming back, didn’t slow U.S. growth after World War II. This is not a convincing argument.

  • Obama, Hillary, and Bernie. Today, I see little difference in their social policies. Most commentators see Clinton taking a hard left, out of necessity. (Granted Trump has no coherent policy proposals). After WW2 we had the only economy not bombed out. Britain was still rationing food years after Germany’s defeat. Come on Mark, neither of us is an Economist. I can only speak to general trends. As to the VAT. It is what it is, and does what it does.

  • As far as general trends are concerned, I’d say the U.S. (along with Western Europe itself) has only moved away from the parameters of 20th-century European social democracy. Among other things, marginal tax rates have been lowered, deregulation of business has been the order of the day, public higher education tuition costs have increased, etc. Health care in the U.S. has been something of an exception, to be sure. But the idea that Obama and Clinton stand for anything left of a conventional version of what used to be called the mixed economy seems to me nonsensical.

  • Nonsensical or not, exhibit number one is Obamacare. The professionals I know in that field are less than thrilled, as am I. My idiot nephew, who once went to the charity hospital, now does without, since he cannot produce proof of income (never filed) he is on the outside of the system. (My wife volunteers at a free clinic that asks no questions)
    I will put the questions to you straight, do you or do you not value freedom of choice and taking personal responsibility for one’s life? Is helping the less fortunate charity or duty? What is the long range result of dependence? Of creating a permanent class of dependents and a permanent class of public workers dependent upon these dependent persons?

  • Answers: I value freedom of choice but not absolute freedom of choice and I value taking personal responsibility for one’s life to the extent that that’s possible. I think a decent society should provide health care for those who cannot afford it, and that it should do so in as comprehensive a way as possible. I do not believe in letting people who haven’t taken personal responsibility for their lives die in the street. There is, in my view, a collective duty to help those in need. A the long range result of dependence may be good, bad, or indifferent depending on who the dependent person is and what condition he or she suffers from. To the extent that a society creates a class of dependents who would otherwise be doing a good job of caring for themselves, that’s a bad thing. Aid to Families with Dependent Children did have a perverse effect of that sort, to some extent. It was done away with in 1996. By and large, we are, in my view, better off with social safety nets such as Social Security and Medicaid than we are without them.

  • I agree, such things are always judgment calls, and as such there are no “correct” answers. I enjoyed our discussion and look forward to reading your column in the future.

  • Mark, I believe Marble Collegiate is (and Norman Vincent Peale was) Reformed Church in America, not Dutch Reformed (which is now known as Christian Reformed). Big difference. Robert Schuller, who followed in Peale’s footsteps with his “power of possibility thinking” was also Reformed Church in America, as was the Crystal Cathedral.

  • You’re right. I was referring to its origins in the Netherlands, but I get the denominational confusion.

  • It’s pretty lame, even for Mark Silk, to lay Trump’s behaviors at the feet of Norman Vincent Peale. It’s equally lame to paint evangelicals with this broad brush. Billy-Graham evangelicals were found mainly in the South, and were little influenced by this New York pastor and prolific author, whose light-bright stuff was considered extra-Biblical fluff..

  • Isn’t Presbyterianism part of the Reformed tradition, so what’s the difference then?

  • Millions of Christians are going to vote for a man who calls himself a “strong Christian,” yet never asked God for forgiveness for anything, ever, his entire life, and who couldn’t name a single Bible verse. Remember that when they call Hillary a liar.
    I never knew about the Peale-Trump connection or that he ever actually stepped foot inside Marble Collegiate. Maybe it explains some of his hostility toward Pope Francis.

  • Dave, Aren’t they all local forms of neo-Calvinism? But then how do they make the jump to self-celebrating sunniness? I’m asking. I’d love to have your thoughts or correction.

    And changing the subject rather a good deal, am I sinful to smile at the thought that the Crystal Cathedral was bought up cheap in bankruptcy by the Catholics? 🙂

    -dlj.

  • Samuel,

    Um, so the ACLU is a branch of your local Chamber of Commerce? How come all the civil rights, civil liberties, right-to-representation, and ACLU folks I meet are lefties?

    And how come the anti-Progressive agenda is more jails, more military, more unilateral foreign wars, more regimentation, censorship, and bedroom invasion?

    -dlj.

  • TRUMP is the embodiment of the wealth, arrogance, greed and lack of compassion. His 3,500 law suits, his $0 tax payments, his racism, his lies, his HUBRIS.
    Christ said to the rich man: Give up your worldly possessions, take the cross and follow me. I don’t see Trump doing this. The bible tells us : Mark 10:25
    It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
    Even the Pope Francis said : “TRUMP IS NOT CHRISTIAN

  • The dangerous part is that Trump is “using” conservative Christians’ fears to manipulate them into supporting him. They are so desperate to “win” that they will lose their collective soul (as Michael Gerson wrote in WashPost) in order to re-acquire political power. This can only mean that all Christians (and many Jews?) will be painted with the same sloppy broadbrush that these “Christians” have colored themselves. I fear for my faith community. And I fear for my country.

  • “I just try and do a better job from there.” Seriously? First of all, you can’t earn your salvation. It’s stupid for a man that converted from EXTREMELy democrat to a republican candidate to declare a religion that he sticks to. Clearly he has a hard time making up his mind. Why should we believe he will carry his beliefs as he does his political viewpoints, because his political viewpoint has changed drastically.

ADVERTISEMENTs