We all know a little something about President Donald Trump, how he bankrolled his family fortune into celebrity. But what do we know about his religious history? Our guest for this episode is author, speaker, podcaster Stephen Mansfield. Stephen is the New York Times bestselling author of Choosing Donald Trump.
The charismatic preacher and author of The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peele, preached before the Trump family when Donald was just a boy. Principles of that ministry can still be seen in the president today: thinking of oneself as blessed, denying negativity, seeing oneself as deserving of God’s blessing. The president was also heavily influenced by Paula White, a Pentecostal preacher and a member of his Faith Advisory Council.
Though Donald Trump may offend many Christians, he lays claim to our faith. What do we do with that information?
As a note, this episode was recorded before the passing of Billy Graham so there is one reference to him as if he is still alive.
Truce is a listener-supported podcast. Leave us a comment on iTunes and be sure to visit us at www.trucepodcast.com. You can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Our host is Chris Staron, author of Cradle Robber and writer/ director of the films Bringing up Bobby and Between the Walls.
CS: Recently I had the honor of chatting with Stephen Mansfield…
SM: My name is Stephen Mansfield. I head an organization called The Mansfield Group.
CS: About his book…
SM: Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Religious Conservatives Supported Him.
CS: I’m Chris Staron, and this is Truce.
CS: So, first of all, why did you dedicate your book to millennials?
SM: Well, it’s a great question. I spend a lot of time with millennials even though I’m in my fifties. I’m on college campuses a lot, I have millennials on my staff, et cetera. And I…. they’re often depicted as snowflakes and spoiled and what have you. But I find their sense of social justice to be inspiring. I think that they are grappling with the social issues of our society, even though they’re not in power yet in terms of socio/economic and political power. And I admire them and think they’re going to help us a lot and our country and the western world so I wanted to encourage them a bit by dedicating the book to them. Plus, by the way, I know that they’ve been traumatized by the 2016 election and I don’t want to see them disheartened.
CS: And what made you want to write this book, “Choosing Donald Trump”?
SM: Well you know I had done the book on George W. Bush called “The Fatih of George W. Bush”. I’d also done the same kind of treatment on Obama, two very different men religiously. But I didn’t want to do the same kind of book on Trump because I don’t think he has a defining faith like the other two. Instead, I think what faith he’s come to is relatively recent, even though he’s been shaped by a long-term theological message coming out of Norman Vincent Peele, I’m sure we’ll talk about that. So, I wanted to write the book to identify the religious issues around the 2016 election, but also take a stab at telling Donald Trump’s rather unusual spiritual biography, despite the fact that I didn’t want to do the entire book on that theme. It was an attempt to explain the election, explain him, but not do the same kind of treatment that I had done with the other two presidents.
CS: How did Norman Vincent Peele’s method of preaching and his style impact Donald Trump?
SM: Well, he was raised in the church. When he first came into the world his family was attending a Presbyterian church in New York. Over time they became enamored with Norman Vincent Peele, the very famous clergyman, and motivational teacher, and so they began attending his church, Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. And they developed a very close relationship with him. He because, sort of, the family chaplain and not only their pastor but also the chaplain to the companies and the chaplain to the family. He would dedicate the buildings, do the weddings, do the funerals, etc. So he was very much shaped by the life and ministry of Norman Vincent Peele. So in his sense, he spent his whole life being shaped by sort of a Christian religious motivational influence. But I think it really has been recently that he’s been surrounded by some evangelicals who like him and want to help him and they’ve begun to press him about the claims of his own Christianity maybe in a more substantive way. He’s definitely a work in progress, he’s definitely a mixture as we all know. But it’s not as though he’s come to a Christian faith or any kind of a Christian influence recently. He’s basically been churched his whole life, but he absorbed more the motivational side of Norman Vincent Peele’s teaching as opposed to the transformational message of Christianity. Norman Vincent Peele basically had two streams coming out of his life and ministry. One was the more traditional Christian gospel, you know, live for Jesus transformation in Him, walk humbly with your God kind of theme. That was definitely there in Norman Vincent Peele’s church life. But in Norman Vincent Peele as a motivational speaker, he wrote the very popular book called, “The Power of Positive Thinking.” He was a guy who believed that you were made to be a success and to win. And that, uh, your attitudes, your words, your actions could change your reality, etc. Themes we’re very familiar with now, but they were new when Norman Vincent Peele first wrote the book and began to bring that emphasis. The way I like to say it is that Donald Trump drank from the one stream and not the other. His version of Christianity was more the Norman Vincent Peele, sort of Norman Vincent Peele giving him footnotes for his belief that he should win, that he should conquer, that he should achieve, that he should be a success. So even though Donald Trump was sitting in church he wasn’t hearing a humble yourself, walk with God, serve others message. He was hearing a here’s how you can win, here’s how you can conquer, here’s how you can achieve kind of message coming from Norman Vincent Peele. And, again, that has been Christianity for Donald Trump for most of his life. I think he’s being challenged differently now. But I think that’s why we have a guy who, on the one hand, says he’s a Christian and talks about reading the Bible a lot, but on the other hand whose life seems to be at odds with what we all understand to be the fundamental message of Jesus Christ.
CS: Right. Even to the point of when he was asked, “have you ever asked God for forgiveness?” he said “no”.
SM: No, I mean that’s the mystery of Donald Trump. That’s why he can have been in church for, you know, off and on for seventy years. And yet, you know, the famous humorous moment was during the campaign when he was sitting in a Presbyterian church in Iowa and the communion tray came by and he started putting money in it. He’s so inexperienced, so non-reflective he wasn’t even sure what the difference was between the communion tray at church and the offering. It’s also why he says he reads the Bible more than anyone else, but he couldn’t really name a favorite scripture, and when he did he said it was the scripture “an eye for an eye”. [laughs] Which, you know, I can’t think of anybody who really thinks that’s their favorite scripture. So, it’s why, on the one hand, he’s been in church almost since day one, but he’s so amazingly clumsy when it comes to talking about his faith. And people often say man, he’s got to be a complete hypocrite. Well, no. I think he’s simply absorbed the motivational side of his Christian experience and not the traditional gospel side and it’s why he can extol religious liberty one minute then pick a fight with somebody viciously or call NFL players SOBs the next minute. It’s just who he is and what these religious influences have left him with.
CS: And so then from Norman Vincent Peele he then transitioned on to Paula White. And how has she shaped his faith experience and his connection to Christianity?
SM: Well, Paula White, a very well known Christian teacher, pastor of a church, co-pastor of a church. Certainly had her own bruises and woundings. She’s been through a divorce and was sexually abused as a child. Donald Trump really related to a series on vision he saw on television. Called her, invited her to visit with he and his wife. And Paula White sorta became the chaplain to his company. Paula White comes more from the charismatic/ Pentecostal side of Christianity. Very demonstrative, very emotional, and the real strength I think is that he related to her because she did have sort of a motivational side to her message. She did talk about vision, she did talk… he did… she does preach about success and things like that. And these are things that Donald Trump really relates to. What I think is most important about Paula White is that when Donald Trump decided to run for president, 2015-2016 he turned to Paula White and asked her to put together some listening sessions for him, meetings with prominent clergy around the country. And he wanted to know what they were dealing with and wanted to win them over. And to her credit, Paula White again, though she comes from the charismatic/ Pentecostal side of things, she very much began to reach across denominational lines. She invited Catholic bishops, she invited Orthodox priests, she invited a rabbi or two, she invited even a mullah, an Islamic mullah or two to these meetings. And here is where Trump really began to get an education. He began to learn about religious liberty issues, he began to learn about what it was like to pastor a church in an inner city in America. He also began to learn about things like the Johnson Amendment that he talks about so much and so on. And so after that moment, after those meetings, he was able at least to talk in the language of the religious right, and of religious Americans, even if some cynics said he doesn’t really absorb that message, he doesn’t really believe it. At least he was able to sound those tones during the campaign. So I think that a lot of his victory in 2016 is due to Paula White’s creating those listening sessions.
CS: And you speak in the book about there being a sort of transactional relationship between a lot of Christian leaders and Donald Trump. So we… Christians kind of help him get elected, but what is it that Christians are getting out of that in return?
SM: Well, that’s the big question that we can’t quite answer yet. I mean, there’s no question that if you go back to 2016 and the election that most religious conservatives in America felt traumatized by the Obama years and pretty terrified of the Hillary Clinton presidency from a religious perspective. Its… surveys just show this. They felt like Obama was bombarding their faith, you know, lawsuits, his justice department going against the Greene family of Hobby Lobby for now wanting to include abortifacients in their medical coverage for the insurance cover for their employees, even one point prosecuting against a small order of nuns. Things of this nature. And so, you know, the… if you scan the Internet and look for warn on religion you’re going to find that right next to Obama’s name. That’s how conservative, religious conservatives thought. So, I think what’s important is to understand that most evangelicals, most religious conservatives don’t think that Donald Trump’s the ideal Christian and all, but they did think that he could win. They did think that he could beat Hillary, and he did seem to at least make a head fake towards a lot of things they believed in. Now, there’s been a certain amount of buyer’s remorse since the election. Surveys show there’s been, oh about a 10-15% loss of support among evangelicals. A lot of it having to do with his language and picking fights on Twitter and things like that. But I think, fundamentally… there was an article in the Washington Post not too long ago that asked the question… is there anything that Trump could do that would lose evangelical support. And a lot of the prominent evangelicals who were interviewed said, well, Trump gives us access that no other president’s given us. And so I think you do have a transactional thing happening. I think Trump is giving them access, Trump is supporting some of their values. Trump is putting people on the Supreme Court they agree with. And so they’re providing support. I think there’s going to be some blowback. I think there’s going to be some damage from this. We already know that, as we discussed at the top of our time together, millennials very traumatized by the election. I know a lot of young evangelical millennials who are leaving their churches because they can’t believe their church is so stridently pro-Trump. You’ve got a lot of evangelicals of color who are upset with their white evangelical friends who say, I guess it didn’t matter to you that Trump was comfortable in a racist environment, etc. I think the jury is still out on exactly what the evangelicals supporters of Donald Trump are going to get from him. But, so far, although there’s been a little bit of drop off, they seem to be getting what they bargained for and they’re not necessarily deceived in thinking he’s the ideal Christian.
CS: One of the more interesting parts of the book, I thought, was the discussion of how Trump isn’t so much of an outsider, but one of us, a reflection of our culture. Can you expand on that idea a little bit?
SM: Yes, I mean… It’s interesting. One of the things I wanted to answer as I did research for the book is, why did people so akin to Donald Trump? I mean, Donald Trump was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, as they say: wealthy, incredibly wealthy, stunningly wealthy, every single day of his entire life. Privileged, upscale… and yet… common, blue-collar Americans… you know, I live in the south so I can say it, “bubba-Americans” felt very much kinship with him. Well, a lot of it is because the way he lived, the way he talked was a lot like the way they are around their own breakfast table. Okay, so he cusses, well most Americans report cussing, as surveys show. He has some racist attitudes, well most Americans will talk in more racially offensive terms privately at the bar or around the breakfast table than they would publicly. He’s divorced, well most Americans have made peace with divorce. That’s just what the trends have done. I could go on and on. So, everything that the evangelical might point to, or the religious conservative might point to that is, you know, theoretically offensive about Donald Trump or shows that he’s less than the example of Jesus is exactly where most Americans are. So, his anger over economic issues, his cussing, his divorces, his racial attitudes…. that was not that offensive to a large segment of American society because that’s who they are in private. That’s who they are behind the scenes. They may not talk that way in church, they may not talk that way in public, but they will talk that way over their breakfast table or over drinks with some friends. And they felt a commonality with Donald Trump. And I think its, you know, it’s for better or worse one of his gifts. He can make the doorman at the hotel he owns in New York feel like he’s with him. Because he’s just a blue and off-color and raw as the doorman is, even though Donald Trump is this very wealthy businessman whose feet rarely touch the ground, so to speak. He’s always in a jet or limo or, you know, being carried around by his staff, so… this is one of the conundrums of Donald Trump. He once said, “I’m your voice”. I believe that that really is true. It’s even truer that he even meant in the sense that he is giving voice to a lot of Americans who just haven’t had somebody as raw, as unscripted, as angry, and as flawed as he is on the public stage.
CS: And, uh, of course, President Trump has this Faith Advisory Council advising him. You also… you mention so the relationship between Billy Graham and previous presidents. What are things that maybe this current Faith Advisory Council could learn from Billy Graham’s experience?
SM: Well Billy Graham, of course, we’ll probably lose him in the next year or two. He’s getting much older, not healthy. He was arguably the most famous evangelist in the world. He was also the friend of presidents ever since the Truman administration he was a regular in the White House. In his later years, he began looking back with at his relationship with some of the presidents and saying, you know, I think I got used. He was particularly talking about Richard Nixon. He said, I would meet with Richard Nixon and he would talk about religion, but he was really talking more in sentimental terms. He would talk about his mother’s Bible, you know… the faith that his family shared when he was growing up. But then Billy Graham heard the White House tapes, the Watergate tapes and heard Nixon being cynical and harsh and cussing and crass and un-Christian in every way and Billy Graham came to conclude that he really got played. And his concern was that as the more there was a marriage between the religious right and the political right that many clergy people would be played, that they would be manipulated. And so, his council, I think, to the current council of evangelical advisors around Donald Trump would be, speak your truth, speak it boldly but don’t make it transactional. Don’t make it about, you know, we’ll support you in exchange for something else. Speak God’s truth, keep your distance, help them as you can spiritually, hold up a moral grid, remind the powerful of the poor and social justice and racial issues and moral truth, but don’t get in bed with them, so to speak. Don’t jump on their team, don’t become a part of their PR team. And I think that Billy Graham’s experience is a very good one for those of us who are Christians or religious of any stripe and are in the lives of the politically powerful. I think Billy Graham would say, you can be played, you can be manipulated and many times that’s exactly why the politician, the powerful person, has given you access in the first place, so be careful.
CS: And tied into that was the notion of prophetic distance. What is prophetic distance and why is it important?
SM: Well prophetic distance is a phrase we use to describe the idea that you have to maintain a certain amount of distance, a certain amount of, um, oh a lack of involvement. I don’t want to say it as though it’s a cold thing. But a certain amount of removal from the political process. In other words, if I’m asked to… let’s say I’m asked to speak to the next president and I’m their spiritual counselor. Well, I can’t be about promoting their career, I can’t be about helping them their PR problems, I can’t be about helping to rebrand them for the American people. I have to be able to speak truth to them but not want anything from him or her. In other words, I need to be able to speak truth, help them spiritually, help their family if I can, be a chaplain, be a pastor if that’s what I’m called upon to do. Speak religious truth, eternal truth to the political process, or to their political decisions. But I can’t be bought off, allow myself to be bought off by prominence or a position on the stage or by anything that, you know, that would be sort of transactional. I have to be clean, I have to be free from agenda. That’s what we mean by maintaining prophetic distance. It’s that you speak your truth, but you’re free of an agenda. You can’t be bought off, you can’t be manipulated. And that’s where people are… people who speak truth do best when they’re not looking for position, they’re not looking for power, they’re not looking to be on stage, they’re not looking to be invited to a White House dinner. They just simply want to do the will of God as they have access in that person’s life. And that’s, again, prophetic distance. A distance from the give and take and manipulations of politics.
CS: Do you think with our current Faith Advisory Council that that distance exists?
SM: I don’t think that it exists to the extent that it ought to. Some of the people on that advisory council really misbehaved, I think, during the 2016 election. We began hearing this religious rebranding of Trump, you know, he’s Churchill, he’s Lincoln, he’s Darius the Great, I heard him compared to Jesus in one introduction. I mean it got ridiculous. I think that some of the people on his council are in that transactional mode, are in a we’ll be on your council and make you look good, you give us access we wouldn’t have had otherwise. But I don’t think that’s the best. I’m not saying all of them are that way, but some of them definitely are because that’s the way they behaved during the election. But there are some there who are… they’re maintaining an appropriate distance, they don’t want anything politically. They’re just there to serve God and speak His truth, and I think that’s a valid thing. And almost every president has that. Obama had it, Bush had it, you know that’s what you want. You want good clergy people around them who are clean and don’t have an agenda but simply want to remind the person in power of higher values. And I think there are people like that on the current evangelical council and then, of course, there are some who concern me because of the way they behaved during the election.
CS: In the long term, what effect do you think our association with Donald Trump is going to have on our witness? How is it going to impact our ability to share the gospel?
SM: Well, I think that in order for us to share the gospel we’re going to have to distinguish ourselves from a kind of political Christianity, from kind of a “I believe in God but I can do whatever I want with power”, or “I believe in God but… and I believe in Christian truth, but I’m not submitting to the claims of the gospel”. We’re going to have to clean it up a little bit, we’re going to have to have to have a purer kind of witness and be willing to have the courage to say, Donald Trump may say he’s a Christian but he’s not a great exemplar of the Christian faith. I think that unfortunately in our current generation that a lot of the ways we define ourselves in public view is by saying what we’re not aligned with. And so you want to say it positively you want to say it negatively. And so, you know, I’m more Christian than I am a political conservative. I can pray for Donald Trump every day, and I do because he’s the president of my country, but I can also decry racist attitudes in the administration or… you know, I helped chaplain an NFL team, and so some of the guys who are kneeling during the national anthem are my friends and they’re good people and they’re Christians and they’re patriots. But they’re… but they shouldn’t be called SOBs by their president. So when I speak, when I talk to people I say, well this isn’t Christian statesmanship, this is not what should have happened. This is an area where Donald Trump’s life does not align with the best of the Christianity that he claims. We have to be bold to distinguish ourselves from the negative examples that are on the public stage, whether it’s about sexual abuse, whether it’s about racism, whatever it is. Because we live in a highly media world, a lot of our witness has to be distinguishing ourselves from the prevailing view of what a Christian is out there. And that is an exciting challenge, but it means we’ve got to be informed, and we’ve got to be clear, and we’ve got to have the courage to distinguish ourselves from the maddening crowd, as they say.
CS: Right, as I share the gospel I have, uh, a young man that I’m sharing the gospel with regularly with, we meet every week. I find that I’m often trying to undo the things that he’s heard about in the news about what Christians are doing. Racial slurs, anything with Donald Trump. And it’s definitely slowed down my ability to share the gospel with my friend.
SM: Yeah, no question, I mean, it… I have people I meet with regularly and I also work a lot in the Muslim world. And many of my Muslim friends with say, Stephen why do you Christians do so-and-so, why did you invade here, why did you do that? And I’ll say, “whoa whoa whoa. What makes you think I’m part of those people? Or that that’s Christianity?” and they’ll say, “well, Donald Trump. He’s a Christian”. In other words, they’re painting us with a broad brush. Or I’ll meet like you do with somebody regularly who is approaching Christianity and they’ll say, “well, why do you Christians do so and so?” I’ll say, “hang on. The last time you and I met over a hamburger you didn’t think that. Where did that come from?” “Well, I was watching something on… you know I was listening to something on NPR, or I saw something on the news. So you’re constantly having to interact with what’s going on in our society. Well, this is both an opportunity and a challenge. It means we’ve gotta be informed, we’ve gotta distinguish ourselves, it means we’ve gotta be articulate, we gotta be ready to give a reason for the hope that lies within us. But it’s not like you’ve just parachuted into some untouched land, untouched by media or previous religions and you can define yourself positively by saying what you believe. No. You’ll end up having to define yourself a lot by distinguishing yourself from what’s already out there. People ask me all the time, would you be part of Black Lives Matter? Would you, you know, would you have covered up sexual abuse in the pastorate? Would you… They’re always bringing the news to me and asking me to define myself as a Christian in light of that. And that’s just the way it’s going to be from now on. And so we’re going to have to be sharp and up to our game.
CS: Right. I’ve been trying to focus mostly on the gospels, so I’m taking these people I’m mentoring back to, this is what Jesus actually said. He didn’t tell us to, you know, conquer nations and drill for oil wherever we can. He told us to love people.
CS: In some ways, the contrast is good because it makes it a sharper contrast between what the world wants and what Jesus tells us to do.
SM: It also… you’re exactly right. It also means we have to know our Bibles. For example, when I’m asked about racial things I say, “look. I serve a God who can put his throne anywhere he wants to. But the Bible tells us He puts His throne in the middle of the worship of people from every tribe and tongue and language and people group. In other words, He loves the nations, the created the nations, He loves ethnicity, He loves skin colors, He loves diversity of that kind. And surrounding His throne are those voices of praise and worship. So I start there and if we got a president who is a racist, or we got somebody engaging in racially bigoted policies in Washington DC that that person is contrary to the gospel. But you gotta know your Bible so that you can make that case. I think what we’re doing is we’re having to come home to the radical nature of the gospel and separating ourselves from where people have done immorality and then claim God’s blessing upon it.
You know, I love my country but I’m not deceived that this is a Christian country. It’s a pagan country with a lot of Christian people in it and therefore we’ve got to constantly distinguish, we’ve gotta constantly separate between righteousness and wickedness.
CS: That was my talk with Stephen Mansfield. For more information about him…
SM: People can keep up with me at StephenMansfield.tv and on Twitter at @mansfieldwrites.
CS: Truce is a listener-supported podcast. Find out how to help us, and get more information about my novel, Cradle Robber, and film Bringing up Bobby at trucepodcast.com. Tell us what you think about the show on Twitter and Facebook.
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