The president says that faith helped him through the ordeal of the Mueller investigation.
Whether Trump’s God talk is sincere is not for me to say, though it’s hard to imagine it is. Trump has demonstrated his lack of interest in personal devotion many times: He appears never to have regularly attended a church in his adult life—the Presbyterian congregation he named as his home church during the 2016 campaign said he was not an active member—and he has rarely attended services, other than on Christmas and Easter, since becoming president. He infamously referred to “2 Corinthians” at Liberty University in January 2016. He said he’s never sought forgiveness from God. If Trump had experienced some sort of religious epiphany since then, it’s doubtful he would have kept it quiet, given the political advantage he’d reap and given how poorly he keeps anything quiet.
But for political purposes, Trump’s sincerity is beside the point. It’s enough that he is speaking about religion so much. One way God appears to be helping Trump through the ordeal of the Mueller investigation is that, by invoking the Almighty’s name with greater frequency, Trump is managing to retain the support of many voters who might otherwise be disturbed by the special counsel’s findings.
The same week as this flurry of religious talk, Trump and Pence also appeared at the NRA’s annual convention. Guns, religion—it evokes a notorious gaffe by Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign. Referring to “small towns in Pennsylvania” during a fundraiser in San Francisco, Obama said:
They fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
This was a classic Kinsley gaffe—when a politician accidentally tells the truth. Obama’s comments were damaging to his own prospects with these voters, but from today’s vantage point, they uncannily predict the Trump campaign, which was focused on immigration, xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, religion, protectionism, and the Second Amendment.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Trump is talking about God and speaking to the NRA just as his allies signal nervousness about his prospects of winning the state of Pennsylvania again in 2020—in other words, the same electorate to which Obama referred in 2008. Voters can cling to guns and religion, but politicians can, too.
We know that slaveholders in the American South used Scripture to justify keeping their fellow humans in bondage. They could find no words from Christ on this, for there are no words from him. Just a line in the New Testament from mere mortals presuming to speak for him.
But perhaps it made those who tore apart families, who whipped insubordinates until they passed out, who sold children and cotton bales as similar commodities feel better to know that the monstrous crime of their daily enterprise could be a blessed act.
These days, no less an authority than Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said recently that God “wanted Donald Trump to become president.”
She offered no sourcing for this assertion, as is the case for vaporous claims that rise from the rot of the Trump presidency on a daily basis. But in blaming God for Trump, Sanders echoed a widespread Republican belief that the most outwardly amoral man ever to occupy the White House is an instrument of divine power. He’s part of the master plan.
Mocking Sanders and the many Ned Flanders of the G.O.P. team is unlikely to make much of a dent. Nearly half of all Republicans believe God wanted Trump to win the election. To them, secular snark is a merit badge on the MAGA hat.
But there is a better way to sway the electorate of faith, as the rising Democratic stars Pete Buttigieg and Stacey Abrams have shown us. They apply something like a “What Would Jesus Do?” test to rouse religious conscience on the political battlefield.
Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., is a Navy veteran who served in Afghanistan, a Rhodes scholar, married to a junior high school teacher. He’s gay and, more surprising for a modern Democrat, he is an out Christian, as quick to quote St. Augustine as Abraham Lincoln. On Sunday, he is expected to formally announce his run for president.