Rules Are for Schmucks: Trump, Church, and State

The American Humanist Association does not endorse or oppose political candidates, and I’m not going to do that here. However, the candidates’ positions on issues related to church and state and to tolerance are things I can talk about and are certainly of interest to many AHA members. With the election less than two weeks away, here are some relevant facts about the Republican candidate’s positions. (For information about the Democratic candidate, see my earlier pieces “The Parties and Their Platforms” and “The Democratic National Committee’s Insult to Atheists.”)

Trump’s personal religion

Analysis of Donald Trump’s personal religion usually focuses on his devotion to the late Rev. Norman Vincent Peale. Peale’s book The Power of Positive Thinking is a forerunner of today’s “prosperity gospel” movement, and leading lights of that sector like Paula White have been enthusiastic Trump-backers. At a church in Iowa, when the communion plate was passed, Trump put money in it.

What’s less remembered about Peale is his role in politics. He bitterly opposed Adlai Stevenson’s campaigns, because Stevenson had been divorced. Trump is now married to his third wife. And according to the New York Post, he met his second wife in Peale’s church, while still married to the first. Peale also helped organize the vigorous Protestant opposition to the campaign of Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy, noting that “faced with the election of a Catholic, our culture is at stake.”

Trump and Catholics

Whether Catholics have political memories that long is questionable, but for some reason Trump is not polling nearly as well among Catholics as he is among evangelical Christians, two groups that have aligned closely in recent decades. One explanation is Trump’s spat with the pope, who called him “not a Christian” for wanting to build a wall against illegal immigrants from Mexico. Trump replied, correctly, that “He’s got an awfully big wall at the Vatican.”

Trump’s internal polling may be showing the same problem, for a couple of weeks ago he penned “a message for Catholics: I will be there for you. I will stand with you. I will fight for you.” Aside from praising the late Justice Antonin Scalia and criticizing Tim Kaine for his record supporting freedom on abortion and same-sex marriage, the letter also completely mischaracterizes the Little Sisters of the Poor legal case by asserting that the government wants to force them to pay for contraceptives in their healthcare plan. It does not, and never has.

Trump and Muslims

Trump’s positions on immigration have changed repeatedly, and I would not speculate what they might be today. Generally, though, he has championed the idea of having the law treat people differently based on their religion, especially if that religion is Islam. He has advocated creating a national database to track all Muslims in the United States: “I would certainly implement that. Absolutely.” He has also advocated “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He’s promised to explore closing mosques, adding that “It depends, if the mosque is, you know, loaded for bear, I don’t know. You’re going to have to certainly look at it.”

Muslims are not the only religious minority Trump disdains. While campaigning against Seventh-day Adventist Ben Carson, Trump exclaimed “I’m Presbyterian; boy, that’s down the middle of the road folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know.” Another day, he complained that “You look at his [Carson’s] faith and I think you’re not going to find so much.”

Trump and Israel

Early in the campaign, Trump was saying some sensible things about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said he wanted to remain “neutral,” because the negotiation the next president would have to oversee would be “probably the toughest negotiation of any kind anywhere in the world,” and “I think it serves no purposes generally to say there’s a good guy and a bad guy.” Might a businessman with a reputation as a dealmaker be able to negotiate the deal that has eluded politicians for over half a century?

Trump pulled off a deal, all right, but not that one. According to reporter Eli Clifton, his deal instead was with Israel super-donor Sheldon Adelson, who had supported Rubio in the primary, but who recently announced he’d be funding Trump with a massive $25 million. Two days later Trump grandly announced that he would “recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the State of Israel,” if elected president, a position more extreme than any president of either party has ever taken. As of this writing, Adelson’s Las Vegas Review-Journal is the only major newspaper to endorse Trump. And despite the staggering sums (well over $100 billion) American taxpayers have given away, for free, to prop up the government of Israel—far more money under Obama than under any other president—Trump boasts that “When I become president, the days of treating Israel like a second-class citizen will end on day one.”

Trump and abortion

In 1999, Trump told Fox News that he was “totally pro-choice,” and that abortion was a “personal decision that should be left to the women and their doctors.” Now he has reversed himself, promising to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. He also has said that women who get abortions should face legal punishment for doing so, though he may have reversed himself on that. Then again, undoing Roe v. Wade would allow states to impose exactly that abortion punishment. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the strongly anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List, complained last spring that “Each pronouncement Mr. Trump makes on the issue of life seemingly must be corrected by someone fifteen minutes later.” That problem has now been solved by Trump’s appointment of Dannenfelser herself as head of his pro-life coalition.

Trump and Christian power

Last month, Trump began saying “Imagine what our country could accomplish if we started working together as one people, under one God, saluting one flag.” Sometimes he adds, “It will be our faith in God, in His teachings, in each other that will lead us back to unity.” Is this related to the survey last year in which 57 percent of his fellow Republicans supported establishing Christianity as the national religion? Or is it because, as Trump puts it, “Christianity is being chipped away”?

Earlier this year he argued that “Christians don’t use their power. We have to strengthen. Because we are getting—if you look, it’s death by a million cuts—we are getting less and less and less powerful in terms of a religion, and in terms of a force. …I’ll tell you one thing: I get elected president, we’re going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again. Just remember that. And by the way, Christianity will have power…Because if I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power. You don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.”

As with abortion, Trump has not been clear on exactly what punishments will be levied against those who do not say “Merry Christmas.” He did say “I will assault that. I will go so strongly against so many of the things, when they take away the word Christmas.” In another context, he used the same word—“strong”—to describe his support for waterboarding. Trump admits that his favorite Bible verse is “an eye for an eye.”

Campaign surrogate Rudy Giuliani has compared Trump with St. Augustine of Hippo. It may be useful to know that Augustine’s main claim to fame was his (successful) advocacy of the use of force—including torture—to establish the absolute secular primacy of the Christian church.

Trump and pulpit endorsements

The religious power issue Trump cites most often, when he’s not complaining that the IRS audits him because he’s a strong Christian, is repeal of the rule that tax-exempt churches may not directly endorse candidates. Trump told a crowd of pastors this rule means that “Like a child has been silenced, you’ve been silenced.…Your power has been totally taken away.” This is despite the fact that 79 percent of Americans think it is inappropriate for pastors to endorse political candidates during church services. An even larger proportion of Protestant pastors agree.

More importantly, repeal of this rule would allow wealthy donors like Adelson to get unlimited tax deductions for their political contributions, simply by funneling them first through a church. Churches could become the new, tax-deductible Super PACs. Is this why televangelist Frank Amedia claims that God raised up Trump to help pave the way for the Second Coming?

Trump and religious education

Trump has called “school choice”—the God lobby’s euphemism for funneling taxpayer money to religious indoctrination—“the civil rights issue of our time.” He wants to redirect $20 billion in federal education dollars to block grants for “school choice,” including private religious schools. It’s not clear whether these funds would also be available for Sunday schools, but Trump has said in reference to Sunday school:  “[Y]ou have to do that. It’s not like, oh gee. It’s like automatic. Today, I don’t think it’s so automatic. And maybe we can get back into a position where it’s automatic.”

He also complained that the suspension of a Washington state public high school football coach who disobeyed school rules about leading student prayers on the field was “very, very sad and outrageous.”

Trump’s vice presidential choice

The one thing we know for sure about Trump is that if he is elected, his vice president will be Michael Pence.

Pence is an apostate Catholic, having abandoned that faith for the more numerous evangelicals in the 1990s, shortly before he began running for office (Indiana is only 12 percent Catholic). He apparently does not believe in evolution, and in 2002 he took to the House floor to call for science textbooks to “be changed” to reflect that evolution is just a “theory,” and that “other theories of the origin of species,” notably intelligent design, should also be included alongside evolution. He supported a constitutional amendment to define marriage as being only between a man and a woman. He railed against the Disney film Mulan as “mischievous liberal” propaganda that “will cause a quiet change in the next generation’s attitude about women in combat,” concluding: “Women in military, bad idea.” His principal claim to national attention is his championing of RFRA in Indiana, to establish the right of religious people to ignore laws the nonreligious have to follow.