Donald Trump once told CNN that he can’t recall ever asking God for forgiveness. “I don’t bring God into that picture,” he explained. Nevertheless, he explained, “I have a great relationship with Evangelicals.”
Five years later, The Atlantic has the scoop on the impiety of Mr. Two Corinthians. Here it is: Privately, Trump makes fun of religious people.
Especially people such as megachurch televangelist and Prosperity Gospel preacher Creflo Dollar. When Trump saw Dollar was raising money for a Gulfstream G650 jet, Trump said, “They’re all hustlers” and “full of s***.” He also made derisive remarks about televangelist faith healer Benny Hinn. “Man, that’s some racket,” he is reputed to have said about Hinn’s faith healings.
Atlantic reporter McKay Coppins writes, “The president’s alliance with religious conservatives has long been premised on the contention that he takes them seriously, while Democrats hold them in disdain.” And he later refers to “The Faustian nature of the religious right’s bargain,” with Trump.
Two things are missing here: an understanding of the Evangelical world and an understanding of politics.
Know who else makes fun of people such as Creflo Dollar and Benny Hinn, and who thinks they are full-of-it hustlers and con men? Many conservative religious Trump voters. In fact, many of them would prefer Trump was chummier with an entirely different set of Evangelicals. It’s too early to know whether the religious right’s bargain with Trump is “Faustian.” What we do know is that it is a political bargain.
For a politician, taking an interest group “seriously” as an ally is not in conflict with personally holding them in disdain, or ridiculing them. Black voters didn’t hold it against the Democratic Party which passed the Civil Rights Act that Lyndon Baines Johnson was a racist and an enthusiastic connoisseur of regional variations on the “n-word.”
Disdain can matter in politics. When a political opponent reveals their disdain, it can make the policies they advocate seem like an intentional act of malice rather than the unintended consequence of an ideal. Those who felt accused by Barack Obama of “clinging to guns and religion” or of being a “deplorable” by Hillary Clinton may cease thinking that their political opponent is well-meaning but ignorant and conclude that cruelty is the point.
But wearing the disdain of your political allies can almost be a compliment. It confirms the strength and importance of your role in the coalition. You think Iowa’s corn growers don’t know how politicians talk about the ethanol subsidies in private? It’s true that white evangelicals are almost twice as likely to say that the president is “somewhat” religious. But it’s not clear what to take from this. There’s no stable category for a “somewhat” saved or “somewhat” damned individual. Only 12 percent of white evangelicals say Trump is very religious — less than the 14 percent who say he’s “not at all” religious. It’s possible they only mean to express that Trump is “somewhat” with them; that is, he’s with them politically.
In fact, transactional relationships are often easier in politics. George W. Bush could slow some of the criticism of his stem-cell bargain by claiming to be born-again. Biden can credibly tell the Little Sisters of the Poor, the hospice nuns who have been locked in federal court since the days of the Obama administration, “I share your faith.” What he can’t credibly tell them is that the people he’d appoint to write rules in the Department of Health and Human Services will take their interests to heart, nor will the judges he elevates to circuit courts.
Does anyone think Donald Trump probably wouldn’t say heinous things about nuns in private? Especially if he had been slavering over their work in public. I’ve never met a nun so naïve.
Democratic strategist Neera Tanden loves The Atlantic story and gave it a public “I told you so,” saying, “Behind closed doors he laughs at you as rubes who fall for his con.”
I’m sure many religious conservatives laugh at Trump, too, thinking that he is a rube and an ignoramus and that they’re getting the deal of their lives. Trump is going to take all the heat. And they will get an American judiciary that slows down the left’s legal assault on their colleges, seminaries, and hospitals. Trump’s private disdain of them is the least costly part of the bargain for religious conservatives. At least, unlike Mrs. Reagan, Melania doesn’t practice the occult in the White House.