A recent piece by noted-skeptic Michael Shermer in Politico, “Who Cares if Trump is Religious?,” underscores how all is not lost in the age of Trump. As Shermer writes:
I’m not saying Trump is a closeted atheist, but he’s no evangelical. As a self-proclaimed Protestant, or Presbyterian, or something he describes as “a wonderful religion,” Trump nominally attends the nondenominational Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. Marble Collegiate was the one-time pulpit for the self-help evangelist Norman Vincent Peale, author of the mega best-seller The Power of Positive Thinking, an amalgam of pop psychology and cherry-picked scripture (without the guilt and sin), who presided over Trump’s wedding to Ivana. In other words, at most this is Christianity Lite, or Cafeteria Christianity, where one orders only the most appealing items on the menu.
Shermer argues that Trump was easily the most secular candidate on the Republican side during the 2016 election and that the U.S.’s demographics are moving toward a more overall secular polity. “It looks like the U.S. religious reawakening from the 1950s through the 2000s, then, might have been an anomaly. The long-term trend is certainly toward secularization,” Shermer noted.
While it is safe to say that Trump is not the most godly man to enter the Oval Office (remember the “Two Corinthians” thing), evangelicals still voted for him by 81%. That’s higher than for Romney (76%), McCain (74%), or even George W. Bush during the values-voters-drenched election of 2004 (78%). If he’s so secular, why did the evangelicals support him more than they did George W. Bush?
The answer is fairly simple, which makes Shermer’s piece a bit disappointing; he can’t see the trees for the forest. While the trend towards secularization is steadily growing in the U.S., our current problems are continually plagued with the usual evangelical patina. As such, Trump gave the religious right what they wanted in exchange for their votes. He didn’t play to their piety; he played to their pocketbooks.
Candidate Trump routinely said that, as President, he would undo the Johnson Amendment, a 1950s era tax code regulation mandating that preachers can’t politic from the pulpit. According to the Washington Post, Trump met with faith leaders in February and recommitted himself to this promise. Repealing the Johnson Amendment would allow churches and religious non-profits to function as dark money political operations, all the while continuing to receive donations and income tax-free. This would completely eliminate the line between charity and electioneering, at least in regards to taxes. So much for freer and fairer elections.
Trump also chose noted climate “skeptics” for his cabinet, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and EPA Administrator Tom Price. Trump has also indicated his interest in having the US pull out of the historic Paris Climate Agreement, despite a split cabinet, potentially unraveling the first realistic global effort against climate change. He’s even signed executive orders curtailing Obama-era regulations on “greenhouse pollution from coal-fired power plants.” As for his education secretary, Betsy DeVos is nothing more than a well-connected Republican Party hack who advocates for school choice as a way to “advance god’s kingdom.”
This isn’t the kind of leadership we’d expect from a secular leader who studies the issues and makes reasonable conclusions. These are the kinds of decisions that an evangelical, corporatist Christian would make, with an attitude of “Who cares if the Earth goes up in a ball of flames? We’ll be taken up in the rapture anyway.”
Finally, and I think this is linchpin for why evangelicals supported Trump, he promised them a conservative on the Supreme Court. As early as the fall of 2016, the Trump campaign released a list of prospective candidates for the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia. The choices underscored his commitment to giving evangelicals what they wanted: a conservative, Scalia-esque justice that would side with them on issues of reproductive rights, religious freedom, and the role of government. This led to the nomination and confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, one of the candidates on Trump’s list who will do the evangelical’s bidding, especially in a pivotal church-state case this month.
As writer Trav Mamone noted earlier this week, “Trump’s lack of religiosity doesn’t mean a damn thing to me because his secular values are not humanist values.” Mamone rightly pointed out that Trump’s travel ban (known colloquially as the “Muslim Ban), policy reversals on transgender rights in public schools, and the choice of uber-Christian dominionist Mike Pence as his Vice President don’t resonate as being very secular. In fact, they strike me as being exactly what we’d expect from the presidency of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or even Ben Carson (come on, weirder things have happened).
Like Shermer, I acknowledge that our world is getting better every day, in so many demonstrable ways. Extreme poverty and disease are being eliminated; innovations are making our lives easier and cheaper, and the average American consumes cheaper, nutritious food more than at any time in our history. There’s so much to be proud of, but we still face enormous challenges in energy, climate change, education, health care, and tax reform. Even though our nation is getting more secular, especially within the last ten years, our leadership doesn’t reflect that. Trump may not be much of an evangelical Christian, but he sure as hell governs like one. That I do care about.