Donald Trump, one of the least religious and least religiously articulate men ever to run for the presidency, won the White House with what author Stephen Mansfield calls the surprising help of a vast majority of the nation’s religious conservatives.

In his new book, “Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger Hope and Why Christian Conservatives Supported him,” Mansfield both explains and critiques that support.

Like many voters, Mansfield writes, Christian conservatives were looking for a change. They were willing to overlook Trump’s behavior and believe in him “largely because he spoke of faith like a crusader, like one who understood religion as a perpetual call to arms.”

Mansfield talked with USA TODAY about that appeal, and why he thinks Christian conservatives could end up paying a steep price.

Q. You wrote books on the faith of George Bush and Barack Obama. This time, you focused instead on why Christian conservatives supported Donald Trump. Why the different approach?

With Donald Trump, I think the Christian commitment that he has, that at least he talks about today, is relatively newfound. Yes, he was raised in church. Yes he was influenced by Norman Vincent Peale. But I don’t think that we see any evidence of what I would call a defining Christian faith, of a Christian faith where he’s attempting to embrace the core truths of traditional Christianity, and has people around him who are perhaps confronting him on his conduct to some extent. So I didn’t want to write a book where the title suggested that there was a long-term defining Christian commitment because I’m not sure that’s there. 

Q. You do write that Trump has a keen spiritual hunger. What’s the evidence for that?

His whole relationship with (televangelist) Paula White, for example, began because he was watching television preachers late at night. He asked her to create these listening sessions that he did around the country with clergy. I talked to many, many people who were there and they said, `Look, whatever else you can say about him, at least he was interested. He was eager. He wanted to learn.’

He’s been known to call some of his spiritual advisers relatively recently and ask about matters of forgiveness. `Do I really have to forgive them 77 times?’  This is a man who had stood at Christian universities and touted the virtues of vengeance and revenge. I think there is a hunger. Obviously, this is a man who is constantly battling his own demons, as we know.  So I’m not saying that that hunger overrides or defines. I am saying it’s there.

Q. Describe the faith Trump learned from Norman Vincent Peale, the main minister in his life until Peale’s death.

What’s important about Peale is that Peale personally believed in the born again brand of Christianity — a relationship with Jesus, believing in his resurrection, and so on. But, publicly, he was what we would now call a motivational speaker. He wrote “The Power of Positive Thinking.” So it was almost a secular sort of motivational gospel that he preached publicly around the world and in his books.

I think Trump drank more from that motivational stream than he did from the less readily available traditional Christian part of Norman Vincent Peale.

Actually in the “Power of Positive Thinking” is the statement, `Attitude is more important than facts.’ There’s an example of the imprint of Peale on Trump. I don’t think you can exaggerate it. In fact, Peale himself said that Donald Trump was his `greatest disciple.’…..To understand Donald Trump, you have to understand Norman Vincent Peale.

Q. Is that what you meant when you wrote that Trump has faith, but the problem for him and for the nation is that it’s a faith he learned from Peale?

If the primary minister in Trump’s life had been Billy Graham, let’s say, or D. James Kennedy. or Jerry Falwell, you would have had a far different man. Peale really has two voices. One is that traditional gospel in the pulpit. But the other is motivational speak, which we all know very well now. That’s what Trump absorbed.

I think what Peale did was give Trump additional weapons for winning. That was the family deity. That was the family goal…. I see it every day. Every Twitter war.

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SOURCE: Maureen Groppe
USA TODAY