Government & Politics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion Politics

Trump’s theology: More Peale than Nietzsche

Portrait of Nietzsche by Edvard Munch (1906)
Portrait of Nietzsche by Edvard Munch (1906)

Public Domain

Portrait of Nietzsche by Edvard Munch (1906)

Donald Trump’s theology is more Friedrich Nietzsche than Jesus Christ, or so claims former Republican apparatchik Peter Wehner in today’s New York Times. According to Wehner, Trump’s exaltation of winners over losers, his open contempt for the least among us, is best understood by way of the Nietzschean Übermensch, not the Sermon on the Mount’s “Blessed are the meek.”

But as the Donald makes his run to inherit the earth, we do better to focus on the native American roots of Trumpology than to identify him with a caricature of the complex German thinker whom, Wehner admits, the real estate/Reality TV celebrity has in all likelihood never read.

The religious thinker Trump has read, whose sermons he listened to as a boy and who officiated at his first marriage, is Norman Vincent Peale. While Peale himself did not make a practice of sneering at the meek, his mid-20th-century gospel of positive thinking is the source of the theology that Trump manifests.

As I noted a few weeks ago, Peale drew heavily on the 19th-century tradition of Mind Cure that gave us Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science, as well as the flood of spiritual self-help books that has never ceased. Against the image of a religion designed to succor those whom life had ground down, Peale also valorized worldly success in line with advertising man Bruce Barton’s 1925 best-seller The Man Nobody Knows, which portrayed Jesus as “the world’s greatest business executive.”

It thus should come as no surprise that Trump’s biggest backers in American Christianity are faith-based entrepreneurs like Jerry Falwell, Jr. and James Dobson, and personal empowerment preachers like Paula White. To dismiss their support of Trump as nothing more than a hypocritical desire to cozy up to the princes of this world misses an authentic dimension of their religious worldview.

But they do not represent American Christianity as a whole. Last week, a poll of 600 Iowa voters showed weekly worship attenders favoring Trump over Hillary Clinton by just 43 percent to 39 percent. In 2012, weekly attenders in Iowa voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama 63 percent to 37 percent.

If the God gap disappears in November, it will because a lot of American Christians, including a lot of conservative white ones, have stuck with the Sermon on the Mount, or at least the Golden Rule.

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

8 Comments

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  • Peale would be very much to Donald Trump’s thinking, to where you are the most important and everything else will follow. Donald Trump could never put the other person first and you will follow. As the meaning of The Platinum Rule states,”Treat others as they want to be treated.”

  • There’s no call for theoretical speculation here. We have a ton of empirical evidence of how Donald Trump behaves.

    When we’re thinking of Rules, surely the Trump paradigm is his treatment of his Polish workers on his wrecking site: illegal, and hence living in fear and and unable to negotiate; unprotected, without helmets and safety enforcement by union stewards or government; and underpaid in all cases, unpaid — their work simply stolen — in some or many, apparently.

    “Do onto others what you can get away with”? I leave naming that Rule to others. Something brown maybe?

    -dlj.

  • The author of this article needs to get his scripture interpretations corrected. Blessed are the meek does not mean those the most unfortunate in life, it means those who fully submit themselves to the will of God. That shoots down his entire premise, but then, he does write for the NY Times a once outstanding news source that has fallen to the level of the National Enquirer.

  • Does this theory hold up to the cold light of fact? Do you honestly believe that D.T. has the homespun, grass roots, common man in mind as he crisscrosses America in his corporate jet calling anyone who doesn’t drink the Kool-Aid a loser? Why do so many ignore or pretend they don’t here the childish rants filled with diatribe and “made-up facts” that froth from his mouth like a geyser. Trump is a low-end spectrum sociopath who is driven by nothing more than the need to be adored by the masses. Money and power are not enough. He needs to be in the lime-light and talked about constantly. He will say or do anything to achieve it. Whatever comes out of his mouth is the truth in his mind, regardless of the cold evidence that illuminate his prevarications. He’s donated millions to charity; he hasn’t. He’s never hired illegals to work for him; he has. He saw thousands of New Jersey Muslims laughing and singing from the roof tops; he didn’t. Trump is not the Antichrist, but he does not need to be President. He would hate it if he were. The President has to share power with Congress and the Supreme Court. And sharing is not in his vocabulary.

  • It’s called prosperity theology..A monetized form of “religion”..where you “grow your church” much like a multi level marketing scam of the 80’s.. where growth in numbers levels you up to the next point bucket of funding and visibility in the highly competitive prosperity theology media circles and franchises. It’s certainly for “personal enrichment” not spiritual growth and perfecting a golden rule to live by. Loving your neighbor becomes a marketing op for recruitment (free coffee anyone?) , rarely the genuine human to human openness of heart found in poorer, less affluent bent communities.
    Prosperity theology is the complete anti thesis to true spirituality or Christianity , where the kingdom “is not of this world”.
    I believe truly that kingdom, the real one, begins in the heart, and extends outward towards it’s fellow man..not their wallet.. In a spirit of goodwill not gteed. That renders the whole crowd a comical farce of the credit card hoard variety. . “what’s in your wallet?”
    Politicians, like prosperity theologians, need to challenge themselves, and get a real reality check on exactly what they are doing and why..and do it in the light of knowing their fellow man’s plight..Are they self serving mammon? Or selflessly serving their fellow man? My hope is in the later.

  • I don’t think Dr Peale would be very taken with Trump’s vulgarity or his ugly rhetoric directed at the very hard-working people who come from South of the Border to do backbreaking work, often in intolerable heat. In fact, like any decent person, I’m certain Peale would recoil from any suggestion that one may aggrandize himself by trampling on the already vulnerable.

  • One day, obviously years ago, I went to the Crystal Cathedral and Norman Vincent Peale was the preacher. He preached an old fashioned revival sermon in which he called attention to the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ and invited hearers to commit their lives to Jesus.

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