Trump the Religious Trend

by Ken Briggs

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                Six handpicked religious figures, most from the religious right, will beseech the heavens on behalf of Donald Trump’s presidency on Inauguration day. The covey of six represents a narrow spectrum of the nation’s diversity: it includes New York’s Cardinal, Billy Graham’s Muslim averse son, a noted rabbi, Florida televangelist, Hispanic Christian leader and an African American bishop. Trump himself doesn’t belong to any of those traditions though most share his politics.

                Donald Trump is religiously detached. In current parlance, he will enter the White House as a “none,” placing him in a rapidly growing number of Americans who don’t belong to a house of worship or subscribe to a particular creed.

He’d be in trendy company. The ranks of the “unchurched,” or “nones” as they’re known among social scientists, are swelling. Younger Americans in refraining from claiming any religious identity at an accelerating clip, now nearly 4 in 10., according to the Public Religion Research Institute. They include atheists, agnostics and those who keep religious beliefs private. Their total number of adult nones have soared in the past 12 years, from 14 percent in 2004 to 25 percent this year. In the last five years alone, the proportion of nones has jumped from 1 in 5 Americans to 1 in 4. The surge shows no sign of diminishing as 39 percent of young people check the none option in the latest PRRI poll.

Trump’s inclusion therefore places him in the nation’s fastest growing “religious” category which is viewed nervously by religious leaders who see losses in membership.  Organized religion is being bypassed as never since the end of World War II when more than 90 percent of Americans said they were church members (the rate is now below 70), especially by young people.  High rates of religious belonging have long been cited as proof that America is an exceptionally religious nation. That evidence appears to be eroding fast. Trump’s resemblance to nones may increase that momentum.

                Trump belongs to no church now, though he did grow up as a Presbyterian. He articulates no cogent theology beyond belief in the faith of personal prosperity instilled in him by Norman Vincent Peale at Marble Collegiate Church in New York. While professing love for the Bible, he has shown little knowledge of its contents. He successfully courted support of some noted evangelicals but hasn’t become one of them.

Trump has no chapel in his Tower nor does he have a church home, nor does he ally himself with a particular denomination. Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan says it has no record of his membership. Nor does any other church. He has often consulted the freelance evangelist Paula White,  who was among the half dozen asked to participate in the Inauguration. White preaches a faith-pays-dividends message like Peale’s in a megachurch and on television, but he hasn’t publicly joined her assembly or joined her cause.

Trump’s allusions to spiritual beliefs resemble those of many nones, scattered and unrelated to any organized religion. His clearest convictions relate to fostering business potential as a fulfillment of godly purpose. It doesn’t involve testing such convictions in any single community of believers. It follows the none pattern of following one’s inner promptings alone and without a felt need to locate them within a faith group or to be accountable to a church’s traditional theological or moral norms.

Those traits would place Trump in mainstream religious individualism which has been gaining momentum from colonial times when Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams were banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for alleged heresy. In recent times, the growing depth of individualism within all sectors of society was documented in religion by the celebrated scholar, Robert Bellah, in his ground breaking book. “Habits of the Heart.” It was a signal that the nones were well on their way to gaining significance.

Trump’s status as a non-joiner and his ambiguous references to faith place him among a handful of past Presidents who stayed away from religious affiliation either entirely or in part. They include what we might call “somes,” those who stuck a toe in church life, and set them apart from the majority who, like Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, had “tons” of established ties

Accordingly, George Washington was a “some.” He attended Christ Episcopal church in Philadelphia but wasn’t a full member because he declined to take communion. Thomas Jefferson went further as a religious free thinkers who stamped himself as a none. “I am a sect by myself, so far as I know,” he said. Abraham Lincoln darkened church doors on occasion but never joined one and was, like his early predecessors, inclined toward skepticism. Richard Nixon had Sunday worship services in the White House as an alternative.

It was arguably tougher in the past for a politician to be a none. Outsiders on the order of the village atheists were often subject to suspicion and abuse. Trump enters the White House at a time when nones are in the ascendency, treated with widespread general respect. Not having truck with religion now bears relatively little stigma.

A none as President could be seen as an advantage if it prevented sectarian favoritism. Such a President wouldn’t presumably be beholden to any religious tradition or institution. In face of fears that John F. Kennedy Jr. would bend to the Pope’s wishes, for example, he felt compelled to promise he wouldn’t. Ronald Reagan was closely monitored for evidence of evangelical influence. Trump theoretically carries no such baggage.

 By the same token, Trump isn’t bound by moral prescriptions of a specific tradition. He has the tendency to go his own way in true none fashion. Though religious conservatives helped elect him on the promise he’d outlaw abortion and reverse gay rights, for example, his record shows flexibility in his personal views and more pragmatic ones politically. Only days after his election, he declared gay marriage acceptable as settled law. On abortion, he has taken a relatively passive stance, willing to appoint a Supreme Court judge who could topples Roe v Wade, he referred to the end of legal abortion not as an explicit target but as something he’s approve “if it happened” and seemed to favor state decisions which, of course, could run counter to conservatives.

The swarm of nones magnify America’s passion for individualism and stout resistance to restrictions on that freedom. Trump was nurtured in the creed of free-enterprise individualism that can sound a lot like libertarianism, unrestrained by the collective thought or wisdom of a traditions.

                Trump may have decided he’s not a religious joiner and cannot receive anything useful by belonging to a religious congregation or subscribing to a tradition. He belongs to be in what appears to be the wave of the future, as freelance believers choose to figure meaning and purpose out for themselves.

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