"Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him" and author Stephen Mansfield. Images courtesy of Stephen Mansfield

Author of books on presidents’ faith says Trump misunderstands evangelicals

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Author Stephen Mansfield, who has written about the faith of former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, says the current occupant of the Oval Office has captured the "fundamental gripes" of evangelicals but misunderstands just how divided they are these days.

As President Trump completes his first year in the White House, Mansfield has written a book, “Choosing Donald Trump,” about how the chief executive’s faith and relationships with religious leaders helped him get where he is today.

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Mansfield identifies Trump’s "spiritual father” as Norman Vincent Peale, a mid-20th-century preacher who popularized the notion of "positive thinking" and whose Marble Collegiate Church in New York the president used to attend. And the author says Florida prosperity gospel preacher Paula White, who gave the invocation at Trump's inauguration, is the president's “unofficial chaplain.”

Mansfield, an evangelical himself and former pastor who previously wrote “The Faith of Barack Obama” and “The Faith of George W. Bush,” spoke with RNS about the newest president's religious trajectory.

Faith leaders pray with President Trump after he signed a proclamation for a national day of prayer to occur on Sept. 3, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House on Sept. 1, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve written about the faith of George W. Bush and of Barack Obama. Why isn’t this book called “The Faith of Donald Trump”?

Because the other two had faith lives that had defined them for quite some time before they entered the White House. With Donald Trump, he definitely was churched and would always have said he was a Christian, but no one would have said that there was a clear faith life that defined him personally or politically.

As the president concludes his first year in office, how would you sum up his faith?

I think he is the direct disciple of Norman Vincent Peale. Almost every day I hear things coming out of his mouth that are almost straight from the pages of “The Power of Positive Thinking.” For example, Norman Vincent Peale taught that "attitudes are more important than facts." We see this exemplified in Trump’s conduct all the time. I definitely see Donald Trump as a man on a spiritual journey. I think he admires strong spiritual leaders, religious leaders. I think he wants them around him. I think he wants people praying for him.

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How would you sum up his policies related to faith?

I don’t have any indication that his policies are faith-based, other than his loose commitment to religious liberty dealing with the Johnson Amendment and making sure we’re all safe to say “Merry Christmas.” I do see strong evangelical influence in the White House and I do see him intent on being the champion of religious conservatives in America but I can’t say that he really articulates — or anybody in his administration articulates — a direct line between policy and a faith rationale.

You also consider Paula White to have had a profound influence on the president. How do you see that reflected in his presidency so far?

Paula White speaking Jan. 1, 2017, at her church, New Destiny Christian Center, in Apopka, Fla. RNS photo by Sarah M. Brown

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Paula White is not single-handedly but certainly one of the figures most responsible for Trump’s election. We all know about the listening sessions she scripted for him during the campaign. This is where he really got in contact with religious conservatives, understood their needs, learned about things like the Johnson Amendment. That’s how he mobilized what we now know to be 81 percent of white evangelicals, half of all Roman Catholics and half of all regular church attenders. I think she’s the architect of that success with that religious constituency. Late at night, if he gets in a tough moral quandary she’s going to be maybe the first person he calls.

What do you make of the reaction of evangelical leaders who support Trump despite his use of vulgar language?

Actually, the reactions have been quite muted. I think when they hear him calling NFL players SOBs, using foul language as in the recent Cabinet meeting, they’re not that surprised and they’re not interested in emphasizing a moral criticism of Trump because they chose him, they helped to rebrand him, they sold him. I’ve been critical of how they didn’t maintain prophetic distance and how they engaged in a religious rebranding of him. So I think it’s a bit transactional. They can overlook language and other forms of what we might call immorality within the four walls of the church as long as he champions what they hope he champions in public policy.

What has he most understood about his evangelical base of supporters?

I think he most has understood that they have been unrepresented, that they felt traumatized by the Obama years, that they were terrified at the Hillary Clinton years and that they had some fundamental gripes, to put it sarcastically, that weren’t being championed, everything from a "War on Christmas" to the Johnson Amendment to just having the government off the backs, so to speak, of the clergy. That’s what he would have heard at these Paula White listening sessions. So he has understood that this is a wealthy, politically active constituency that feels underrepresented and unchampioned and he decided to step in and become their champion.

In this Dec. 8, 2017, file photo, President Trump takes to the stage at a campaign-style rally in Pensacola, Fla. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

What has he least understood?

What he has least understood, I think, is how the average religious conservative is not in lockstep with the average religious conservative leader. In other words, evangelicalism is multifaceted. It has different divisions. Just because Franklin Graham or Dr. (Robert) Jeffress or James Dobson says “vote this way” or “Donald Trump’s the man” does not mean that you take, in lockstep, all evangelicals. There are evangelicals who are Democrats. There are evangelicals who are evangelicals of color as opposed to the white evangelicals who voted for Trump.

I think he’s going to find that that coalition is increasingly frayed, particularly along generational and racial lines. You simply don’t win three prominent evangelicals and take 90 percent of evangelicals with you. It just doesn’t work that way.

Some still question how he has been able to get conservatives’ support but you said his personal habits reflect the current culture. What do you mean by that?

I think it’s interesting that we talk about the oddities of Donald Trump as though they are not typical of the average American but the average American uses strong language, polls show. The average American is comfortable with people who are divorced, probably has been divorced or has family members who are. The average American doesn’t like to admit it but in private, at the bar, around the breakfast table, with their close friends, they may speak in racially bigoted terms and for humor’s sake if not because they actually believe it. So when they heard Donald Trump, even though he’s a billionaire who’s quite removed from their experience, they felt they heard someone familiar to them. It was like their bubba brother was talking to them over breakfast. That suit-wearing, unusual-hair, private-jet-flying Donald Trump seems like the guy at the lunch counter in the small town to most people.

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What do you hope Trump's evangelical advisers do during his second year in office?

"Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him" by Stephen Mansfield

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

I am hopeful that we can have more sophisticated discussion. I’m hopeful that there are good discussions especially among evangelicals across these generational and ethnic lines, these fissures that we’re dealing with in evangelicalism.

And I’m hopeful that the religious leaders around Donald Trump boldly speak and hold his feet to the fire on moral issues rather than just help to rebrand him. I would say I’m about 80 percent hopeful. The 20 percent part that is concerned is where these religious leaders around Donald Trump are just mainly transactional. I’m concerned that they’re basically on Trump’s PR team. I want them to confront him. I want them to chaplain him. I want them to speak their truth to him and help him be a better man and help his administration be better.


  1. “I don’t have any indication that his policies are faith-based, other than his loose commitment to religious liberty dealing with the Johnson Amendment and making sure we’re all safe to say “Merry Christmas.”

    If this is what you actually think, I don’t think I’ll be wasting even a dime on a free version of your book.

    Not to mention, they went with Jabba the Trump because he was a Republican, and promised them power, money, and dominion, their actual, true gods. If you don’t understand THAT psychology, then you simply don’t understand anything.

    Can I get my dime back?

  2. Trump is no friend of religious liberty and our constitutional heritage of church-state separation. He is a fake Christian who seems unaware of what Jesus is reported to have said in Matthew 23:12: “He who exalts himself shall be humiliated.”

  3. Trump exhibits a shallow and immature understanding of religion, which is to be expected considering his upbringing. I can’t fault him for that. But I do fault those evangelical leaders who exploit Trump’s fortune-cookie religiosity for their own ends.

    I’d love to hear any evangelical leader admit that Trump is a troglodyte and a moral train wreck but that they support him purely for policy reasons. But it seems that kind of forthrightness just isn’t in their DNA.

  4. Can anyone really believe he was or is a Christian? His courting of Evangelicals seems so blatantly insincere I can’t believe people fall for this stuff.

  5. “Prophetic distance”, my foot!

    Don’t flatter yourself, brother Stephen Mansfield! You don’t know who you’re dealing with here, as this what you said in this Q&A proves:

    “Religious conservatives … [that Donald Trump] mobilized … 81 percent of white evangelicals, half of all Roman Catholics and half of all regular church attenders … didn’t maintain prophetic distance [from him … so as to generate] good discussions especially among evangelicals across … generational and ethnic lines … [and] help his administration be better”!

  6. M.O. you mean? D.N.A. to M.O. is nature to nurture. Predeterminism to the winter weather we’re having lately.

  7. A graduate of Oral Roberts University he was. Baker Book House is conservative clearinghouse. He reminds me of Timothy Keller (per his New Yorker article in December), spinning on Evangelicalism out of embarrassment. Face-saving is all. “Houston, we have a problem!”

    I see no sign of repentance before God among my people of faith, do you?

  8. Evangelicals in America backed Trump and voted for him in 2016 simply because they knew he would push their evangelical ideology without really understanding the truth about evangelicals. Evangelicals don’t talk of climate change or Obamacare or helping the poor, or protecting i the country’s wildlife and wilderness. Evangelicals generally speak in the same ;language as that Trump -money,greed and ripping off the poor

  9. We don’t have a constitutional heritage of church-state separation.

    Our Constitution is religion-neutral and forbids establishment.

  10. They believe in the same way people believed John F. Kennedy was a Catholic.

  11. No, I don’t see that repentance at all. What I see is spiritual arrogance of the worst sort, hiding behind faith and proclaiming itself holiness. I’m sure there are a number of people posting here who look in a mirror, and see me. I know I have no wish to harm anyone, or control anyone, or deprive anyone of their faith.

    To me, the most important words in this whole article are “we are free to say Merry Christmas again.”it encapsulates a world view that is at odds with the world, claims as fact a blatant untruth, proclaims a persecution that doesn’t exist, and proposes a “solution” that will, I think, benefit no one except the already rich, the already powerful, and those who can read the Book of Job and miss the point entirely.

  12. “Solid”, my foot.

    Here’s another reason convincing me that Stephen Manfield is full of himself. It’s when he doublespeaks:

    “Evangelicalism as an approach to Jesus and an approach to wanting to convert the world is fairly solid, but evangelicalism as a political movement is definitely in crisis.” (Stephen Mansfield, interviewed by Jessica Taylor in “After ‘Choosing Donald Trump,’ Is The Evangelical Church In Crisis?”, NPR, October 29, 2017.)

    For if truly, truly “Evangelicalism as an approach to Jesus and an approach to wanting to convert the world is fairly solid, … evangelicalism as a political movement” – would’ve NEVER EXISTED AS SUCH IN THE FIRST PLACE! Meaning, since it’s now “a political movement”, Evangelicals have long forsaken this “Jesus” they’ve been propagandizing about for so long since the post-Jimmy Carter era!

  13. Hey, that is what church-state separation means. Read your Jefferson and Madison.

  14. Here you go. Just kind this this morning. Franklin Graham, the epitome of christianhypocrisy.

    Reverend, you just told me that this country has a sin problem and I know you’ve no doubt heard that the president is accused of having his lawyer pay $130,000 to a former porn star allegedly for her silence about his sexual encounter while he’s married,” MSNBC host Alex Witt said. “Does the president have a sin problem?” Witt asked.

    “I can promise you he is not President Perfect,” Graham replied. President Trump I don’t think has admitted to having an affair with this person and so, this is just a news story, I don’t know if it’s accurate,” Graham deflected. Graham then said that even if the report was true, it did not matter, because of Trump’s personal growth during the last decade.

  15. I’ve met born-again Christians with such air of “spiritual arrogance”. Yet they don’t lie, deceive. What you see in them is what you get out them – that “spiritual arrogance”. But now proliferating is this generation of born-again Christian liars and deceivers for Jesus! They lie through their teeth – publicly and while in their private prayer sanctum before God & Jesus. How do they do it, is beyond me, my friend. I’m sure they play some kind of rationale or rationalization in their heads so as to appease their conscience. And now to make things worse here come the brokers, the likes of this guy Stephen Mansfield and Timothy Keller, saying stuffs that are worse than “arrogance”, deceitfulness. It’s their saying, Look to us instead, folks. We’re the better Evangelicals. Look to us to save Evangelicalism, you’ll see. I don’t know, man, it’s getting beyond, “Houston, we have a problem!” or “Game Over, Man!”

  16. Franklin Graham knows his bible well, see. Especially about that guy John the Baptist who decided to expose the powers-that-mustn’t-be – only to get a bloody cross-section of his neck exposed. That’d be the day when Franklin Graham does that to King Trump. Oh that’s the other thing. Not only arrogant, deceitful, but these Evangelicals are a bunch of Cowards for Christ!

    By the way, this article’s interviewee, Stephen Mansfield, has this line in his book about his daddy – the grand mastermind & mentor of them all:

    “Graham’s conclusion about his ministry was telling. After all of his years of friendships with presidents and being asked to comment on politics, he finally realized, ‘I have one message” — the gospel. He decided in his later years that he could have done more good by speaking his truth to presidents and politicians than by allowing himself to be pulled into their orbits, thus dissipating his message” (p. 137).

    “Orbits” – nice word for that abomination.

  17. Christianity has been political for over 1700 years since it rejected the Kingdom to return to the world of man. Fortunately there are those within ‘Christianity’ that follow Jesus and scripture rather than religion.

    We are either of the Kingdom or the world of man according to Jesus. There is no having it both ways.

    If the religious right want to use God to justify their worldly politics, that is their choice and their loss.. Those of us of the Kingdom would prefer mankind instead change to suit the will of God, not use Him like some celebrity endorsement.

  18. Hey, “church-state separation” is not in the Constitution. Read the First Amendment.

  19. Honestly, I’m just glad Trump’s in the White House. He’s the lesser of two evils.

    (Actually the lesser of THREE evils, when you count Obama as well as Hillary.)

    Trump’s biggest contribution to Christianity — and it’s even reflected in his “Merry Christmas” gig — is that he openly bought (and is still openly buying) us American Christians some badly-needed prep time.

    He’s buying one more breathing space, one last swig of grace & freedom, before the Alt-Left cultural hammer FULLY comes down.

    After 2020, Trump’s gone and it will be Revenge Time against the Bible believers. Carpe Diem while you can.

  20. If they were indeed Bible believers their interest would be in the ways of the Kingdom and their loyalties there also. The traditional ways of man are in opposition to the will of God. Your statement is just more of this using God to justify your actions, He’s on your team nonsense. He is on neither side and never will be unless one or both start doing His will and not ours, loving neighbour as self.

    Until then feel free to call yourself a Christian or whatever, but not a Bible believer.

  21. Neither one of us are exempt from politics, Exrayeye. If you’re white, I get to use the same bathroom as you only because a Christian preacher — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr — decided to get his hands dirty with political action.

    Meanwhile, I haven’t claimed that God is on anybody’s side. I’m only talking about who’s the lesser EVIL. I’m just pointing out why Trump is that lesser evil, and what Christians can expect when Trump is gone.

    You are free to disagree, but after 2020 we’ll both see what’s happening. And we’ll both get a chance to practice our Bible-believing skills, won’t we?

  22. Except you didn’t point out why Trump is the lesser of two evils. You just declared Clinton and Obama were evil. Both of them knew their Bible, worshipped regularly in church, and proclaimed the state’s need to provide for the widow and orphan, and respect the dignity of the foreigner in out midst. By no measure is Trump Christ-like or an example of Christ’s impact on a man’s life.

  23. Again if you were a Bible believer you would be living an alternate lifestyle and not getting involved just as the original followers did with Rome. No lesser evil, no playing their game, but an alternate lifestyle instead.

    But yes nothing will change for the better without a push. MLK Jr pushed in the way of the Kingdom and not of man. His ‘political action’ was not a traditional one. As for bathrooms we get to share them with new tenants now also. 🙂

    I also have another story to coincide with your bathroom analogy. If ‘Christians’ had followed the Bible and teachings of Jesus instead of the religion, the result would have been no slavery due to loving neighbour as self instead of deal with it, they will get their reward in heaven. Alternate.

  24. Christianity was much better before it became a political party. The Republicans were much better before they became a religion.

  25. Check out Friendly Atheist’s entry on Graham, Trump, p*rn star. I dug up Graham’s hypocritical statements prior to Trump’s presidency and they got posted at FA. And yet and yet – you were the one to break the news to me!

  26. Yes, Trump got real issues. But the Clintons and Obamas unleashed really serious issues too, and so far Trump’s is lesser.

    Although Barack & Michelle Obama gave a good picture of a stable family, it was THEM that delivered an unprecedented, unthinkable, epochal shotgun blast to American Christians, in light of the survival-critical issues of God, God’s Word (the Scriptures), marriage, family, and religious freedom.

    And Hillary, who openly gave up HER OWN Methodist-inspired moral & political positions to buy Obama’s all-important Alt-Left endorsement? No. That don’t work. Nor does her other stuff.

  27. How can Christians function as “salt and light” (Matt. 5:13-16) in local-state-national government & politics (and science & education, by the way), if they go hide and quarantine themselves from it all?

    Do you believe Christians should not even vote on Election Day?

  28. You set the example and one example of good fruits is not participating in the division game man thrives on. The only division is between the Kingdom and the world man has made. There is where you chose sides if you feel the need.

    And if you vote it must be for one not calling themselves a Christian, but one with or without label, that lives in the ways of the Kingdom. Good luck with that in today’s world.

  29. Yes, I understand that religious hypocrisy isn’t literally a matter of DNA. ‘Twas just a figure of speech.

  30. “in light of the survival-critical issues of God, God’s Word (the Scriptures), marriage, family, and religious freedom.” Oh, I get it now. It’s all about the gays with you, isn’t it. Obama and Clinton were too gay friendly. Sure they were good Christians with stable families and had commendable records of service to our country. But they ruined everything, you think (though I suppose, it was the Supreme Court that really did the damage), You don’t care about Trump’s repeated adultery, lies, and the social norms he constantly violates, as long as he appoints justices who will “take care of” the gays. Trump’s behavior as President has more in common with Nero than Jesus. He seems quite willing to fiddle while our national government collapses around him (as long as he can make money while it happens). But gays, Oh that’s the greater problem. God hates gays as much as you do, you think. You’re sure it’s in the Bible (and those who don’t read it the way you do must be mistaken or craven), I really don’t think you have ever met God, much less know him.

  31. We can trade “You-Ain’t-With-God” barbs later. But today set it aside. When a nation falls into God’s judgment — and check it, America’s in the early stages — it’s not “their” fault, but actually “our” fault. All of us together. (At least per Jeremiah.)

    But the fact is Obama took us all — with flat-out Christian permission — across an unprecedented spiritual line, national gay marriage. Only two percent of the planet has ever crossed that line. Even Russia, Atheist China, ISIS and North Korea had enough last-ditch respect before God, not to cross that line. But we did.

    God loves gays Tom. God loves us all. But God ain’t repealing Jer. 18:7-10 for nobody. Check the headlines.

  32. The Bible is clear, women are forbidden to becoming Pastors. That means Paula White church, New Destiny Christian Center, in Apopka, Fla. is a false Church.

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