Donald Trump Gets ChurchedJanuary 31, 2016
Stop me if you've heard this one before. Two Corinthians walk into a bar ... apparently looking for 3rd Isaiah. To impress evangelicals, Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump attends a ... mainline church.
Trump's awkward way of referring to Second Corinthians recently at Liberty University garnered numerous headlines and jokes, which isn't quite fair since someone who mainly attends church on Christmas and Easter has likely never heard a sermon from that biblical book! Last Sunday, Trump followed the political tradition of Republican presidential candidates and attended a church in Iowa. However, whoever on his advance team picked the stop should hear Trump’s trademark line: "you’re fired!"
Although Trump grew up Presbyterian, the goal in Iowa pandering usually is to attend an evangelical church. Perhaps that's why the Washington Post, New York Times, and CNN all got confused and reported Trump went to First Presbyterian Church in Muscatine to reach evangelicals. Only problem? The church he attended is part of the Presbyterian Church, USA, which is a mainline denomination (not an evangelical one).
While evangelical Protestants are the largest faith tradition in the U.S., mainline Protestants are third (behind Catholics). There are - as Trump would pronounce it - 'yuge' differences between evangelicals and mainliners, especially in understanding and talking about salvation experiences. As I demonstrated in my book on religious rhetoric in presidential campaigns, today's politics is more driven by a confessional evangelical style than the more soft-spoken mainline approach of generations past.
In the afterward of the paperback edition of the book, I noted how even Trump used the confessional political style as he flirted with running for president during the 2012 cycle (such as by bragging about his Presbyterian confirmation class). Sadly, that analysis turned out to be quite prophetic!
The media's mistake in reporting on Trump's church visit would be like claiming someone decided to impress the Pope by attending a Lutheran church. Or - in case the reporters and Trump don't get that religious analogy - it would be like trying to impress Peyton Manning by wearing a New England Patriots cap. Or like trying to impress Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton by wearing a "Make America Great Again" cap from Trump's campaign.
Although political reporters messed up, the Trump team's real error wasn't sending him to a Presbyterian church. That could be excused since Trump's marginally Presbyterian. The problem for the campaign came in not vetting a church more carefully. Perhaps Trump and his team don't realize churches aren't all the same - not even within a denomination. Thus, Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee have both been Southern Baptists in Arkansas.
As a result of poor political planning, Trump listened as Reverend Pamela Saturnia preached about humility and loving those who are "the most discriminated against" like "Syrian refugees" and "Mexican immigrants." Of all the Presbyterian churches in Iowa, Trump ended up sitting in a pew on that Sunday listening to that sermon based on the lectionary text chosen years ago. Perhaps God's got quite the sense of humor in predestining that one!
Trump's attempt to look holy and righteous instead offered more attention to a prophetic critique of his own bigoted, unChristian ideas. Whoever chose for him to attend that church - without learning more about the pastor - probably shouldn't be in charge of Trump's faith outreach. But one good thing about Trump running for office is that at least it's getting him to church to hear some prophetic preaching. As Sarah Palin said when endorsing Trump - though she wouldn't have said it for Saturnia's sermon - "can I get a hallelujah?"