President Donald Trump has increasingly infused references to God into his prepared remarks — calling on God to bless all the world after launching strikes in Syria, asking God to bless the newest Supreme Court Justice, invoking the Lord to argue in favor of a war on opioids.
He’s also taken other steps to further cultivate a Christian right that helped elect him, granting new levels of access to Christian media and pushing socially conservative positions that don’t appear to come naturally to him.
One of the first interviews Trump sat for as president was with the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody.
“I’ve always felt the need to pray,” Trump said in that late-January interview. “The office is so powerful that you need God even more because your decisions are no longer, ‘Gee I’m going to build a building in New York.’ … These are questions of massive, life-and-death.”
“There’s almost not a decision that you make when you’re sitting in this position that isn’t a really life-altering position,” Trump added. “So God comes into it even more so.”
Language like that has the Christian conservatives who helped lift Trump to the White House nodding their heads in approval.
“I believe the weight of the office that he now holds and the burden of responsibility that it carries is humbling him somewhat and causing him to acknowledge and admit his reliance on God,” said Darrell Scott, an Ohio pastor who has known Trump for six years and supported Trump’s campaign and served on his transition team. Scott was last at the White House in February for a meeting Trump held to honor Black History Month.
But others who have long followed Trump — a businessman who was known more as a playboy than a practitioner of faith — are skeptical that the president has found religion in the Oval Office.
“Donald has never been a spiritually or religiously serious person,” said Timothy O’Brien, the author of the Trump biography “TrumpNation: The Art of Being Donald.”
“He’s a transactional guy with humans and it’s no different with God — it’s all about whatever is to his advantage with regard to his supporters, and referencing God is exactly and only that,” said Gwenda Blair, author of “The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders and a President.”
There’s also the question of Trump’s church attendance as president. On the morning of his inauguration, Trump and his family attended a service at St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House and then participated in an interfaith prayer service that Saturday at the National Cathedral. He also appeared at the National Prayer Breakfast in early February.
But there’s no public knowledge of any other church services that Trump has attended, and it’s unclear if he’ll go to church on Easter Sunday while he’s at Mar-a-Lago.
The White House did not respond to questions about whether Trump has been attending church as president, and if he has, it has been without the knowledge of White House pool reporters.
Still, Trump’s frequent invocations of God in his remarks as of late are a change from both his past life as a businessman and his time on the campaign trail. Generally, candidate Trump did not reference God during his rallies and mostly talked about religion only when asked during interviews and during a handful of speeches at faith-based events.
And some of those comments didn’t go over so well.
Trump was ridiculed during the campaign for referencing “two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians” during a speech, and for explaining to conservative Christian leader Cal Thomas his enjoyment of Holy Communion by saying, “When I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed.”
Both O’Brien and Blair also noted that the churches to which Trump has the deepest ties are known more for their individual empowerment messages.
They pointed to Norman Vincent Peale’s influence on Trump. Trump attended Peale’s Manhattan Marble Collegiate Church with his family growing up, was married there along with both his sisters and attended the funerals of his mother and father there. Peale, the author of best-selling “The Power of Positive Thinking,” helped lay the foundation for what would emerge as the “Prosperity Gospel” — a controversial doctrine among mainstream Christians that focuses on personal wealth and happiness.
“He hasn’t budged from the first of ten rules in Norman Vincent Peale’s manual, The Power of Positive Thinking, which was something of a surrogate Bible in the Trump family: ‘Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold to this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade,’” Blair told POLITICO in an email.
“It was a big part of his life,” O’Brien said of Peale’s church and teachings. “But that wasn’t traditional religion. It was the gospel of getting ahead. … It was about how to win.”
Trump on the campaign trail praised Peale, who died in 1993, as “the greatest guy” and “one of the greatest speakers” he’d seen.
More recently, Trump has shown a fondness for Paula White, who served on Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board during the campaign and delivered a prayer at his inauguration. She’s also credited with helping Trump find Jesus Christ.
White, who came to fame as a televangelist touting the prosperity gospel, is now the senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Orland. Her website describes her as “a humanitarian leader” and “a much-in-demand speaker.” White is a controversial figure among mainstream Christians, and was the subject of a 2007 congressional investigation into the lavish use of church funds by some televangelists.
White’s office did not respond to POLITICO’s multiple requests for comment.
But for the Christian conservatives who helped lift Trump to the presidency, Trump’s recent public displays of faith has rung sincere. When Trump called on God to bless all the world in the wake of his strikes in Syria, Christian leaders noticed.
“I was encouraged,” said Curt Smith, a longtime spiritual adviser to Mike Pence who attended a pastors meeting in New York City with Trump during the campaign. “I think the president is learning that the weight of this office requires divine assistance.”
Smith points to that New York meeting as a sign of Trump’s genuine comfort with the faith community.
“He was very comfortable with faith leaders,” Smith said. “He was really comfortable with our issues and ideas.”
Scott, the Ohio pastor, also pointed to Trump’s ease among religious leaders.
“He has always had a tremendous amount of respect for men and women of faith, and that’s the one thing I found remarkable about him from the moment I met him,” Scott said. “His reverence and his respect for clergy would put a lot of my members to shame, and put a lot of practicing and so-called devout Christians to shame…That must mean he respects God himself.”
He pointed to a passage in 1 Corinthians, in which the apostle Paul writes: “I have become all things to all people.”
“I believe that he has mastered that,” Scott quipped.
And just as establishment Republicans hope that Pence will be a voice for traditional conservative policies in the White House, there is the possibility, too, that Pence’s devout Christianity could have an influence on Trump.
Pence is “surely one of the most authentically religious people Trump has worked with on a daily basis,” said O’Brien, the biographer. But he was quick to add: “I doubt that Pence has converted Donald Trump religiously.”
“I’m sure his faith is evidenced every day and in every way,” Smith said of Pence. “It’s who he is. It defines who he is as a human.”
“To be around a guy like Mike Pence…you can’t help but to be affected by his demeanor, by his spirituality,” Scott said. “You’re going to be affected by it by osmosis. He exudes a spirituality that is contagious.”
Regardless of the scrutiny around Trump’s expressions of faith, his moves as president have won praise from conservative Christians. His Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch was hailed by conservative groups, and Trump has also moved to limit the federal government’s defense of transgender rights and to tighten restrictions on abortion.
But there are apolitical aspects of Trump’s faith, too.
O’Brien recalled when he was writing his book on Trump in the mid-2000s, asking him one day if he believed in God.
“Yes. There has to be a reason we are here. What are we doing? You know there is an expression: ‘Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die,’” Trump responded, according to O’Brien’s book. “There has to be a reason that we’re going through this. There has to be a reason for everything. I do believe in God. I think there just has to be something that’s far greater than us.”