Three minutes into his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, Donald Trump ridiculed Arnold Schwarzenegger, his successor on The Celebrity Apprentice.* “It’s been a total disaster,” Trump said. The show’s producer, Mark Burnett, who introduced Trump at the breakfast, “will never, ever bet against Trump again,” he continued. “And I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings.”
On one level, Trump was joking. On another, he was dishing out his usual spite. Trump talks this way to all audiences, including religious ones. He has no sense of reverence or transcendent values. He fills his emptiness with the creed of Trump: narcissism, profit, and demagoguery.
To Trump, Christians are a curious sect (“such nice religious people,” they “have that great religious feel”), and the Bible is a foreign text (“2 Corinthians”). At a closed-door meeting of conservative evangelicals last summer, Trump said he wanted to get America back to the days when going to Sunday school was “automatic.” He understands rote observance, not belief.
Lacking a sense of God, Trump focuses on his usual object of worship: himself. A year ago, Trump opened his remarks at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University by bragging about the attendance: “The first thing I said to Jerry and Becky when I got here [was], ‘Did we break the record?’ ” He talked about his polls, his book sales (“I wrote many best-sellers”), his education (“I went to a great school, Ivy League school”), and his uncle (a professor at MIT, “if you believe in genes”). He described the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people, as the incident that had launched him to the front of the Republican pack. Months later, in a speech to the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Trump lauded his children: “Through God, they were born intelligent. They went to top colleges.”
Real Christians measure themselves by their fidelity and service to God. Trump measures them by their fidelity and service to Trump. “We’ve done very well with the evangelicals and with the religion generally speaking,” he told the Faith and Freedom Coalition. He bragged about his “landslide” victories in places “where you had the heavy Christian groups.” With his telltale prefix, the, Trump signals that he sees Christians, like “the blacks” and “the Hispanics,” as an alien constituency. His bond with them isn’t about love of God. It’s about love of Trump. “The evangelicals were so incredible,” he effused in the closed-door meeting. “They really get me.”
But Trump is more than a narcissist. He’s also a businessman. In lieu of common faith, he offered conservative Christians a transaction: a list of judicial nominees, from which he has now selected his Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch. At the closed-door meeting last summer, a Christian legal advocate asked Trump for his views on commercial participation in same-sex marriage: “Have you thought through yet, or do you know yet, where you’re going to stand?” Trump seemed baffled by the idea of study or moral reflection. Instead, he cited an endorsement of his judicial nominees, as though it were a restaurant review. “The Federalist Society is the gold standard on judges,” he told the questioner. “Are you happy with that?”
It would be unfair to dismiss Trump as merely vain or transactional. He also delights in exploiting prejudice. He has warped Christianity, a faith that was founded to be universal, into sheer tribalism. Trump gives Christian audiences the same message he gives everyone else: not God above all, but “America First.” He rails against Mexico, China, “the Persians,” and “all these countries that are ripping us off.” He situates Christianity in this heresy of nationalism. At the meeting with evangelicals, he brought up his proposal for a “temporary ban on Muslims.” At the Faith and Freedom Coalition, he vowed, “We will respect and defend Christian Americans. Christian Americans.” At Liberty University, he declared:
We are going to protect Christianity. … Christianity, it’s under siege. I’m a Protestant. I’m very proud of it. Presbyterian to be exact, but I’m proud of it—very, very proud. … Other religions, frankly, they’re banding together. And if you look at this country, it’s got to be 70 percent, 75 percent. Some people say even more. The power we have—somehow, we have to unify. We have to band together. … The country has to do that around Christianity.
By reducing Christianity to a message of tribal warfare and transactional advantage, as others on the right have done, Trump has rallied many American Christians behind three immoral ideas. The first is that America should reject refugees and immigrants. Trump warned the Faith and Freedom Coalition that Hillary Clinton would “undermine the wages of working people with uncontrolled immigration.” That was an argument not just against border jumpers but also against immigration per se. He also said Syrian refugees should be kept out because “we have enough problems.” The audience loudly applauded.
The second idea is that we should extort and plunder other countries. The Ten Commandments say you shouldn’t steal, but Trump says you should. At Liberty University and in the session with evangelical leaders, Trump argued that we should have taken Iraq’s oil because “to the victor belong the spoils.” In the video of the speech at Liberty, and in the transcript of the private meeting, there’s no sign of anyone objecting to this statement. Trump also told the university audience that we should demand more payment for protecting South Korea, Japan, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. “We’ve got to run it like a business,” he said.
The third idea is that we should cut moral corners to defeat terrorism. That includes torture, targeting the family members of terrorists, loosening our rules about avoiding civilian casualties. At Liberty, Trump vowed to “knock the hell out of” our enemies. At the prayer breakfast, he brushed aside compunction, saying, “We have to be tough.” Trump boasted that his defense secretary had the nickname “Mad Dog” and had “never lost a battle.” He warned the audience to prepare for an anti-terrorism campaign that “may not be pretty.”
It’s ugly already. On Sunday, a Trump-authorized raid in Yemen led to the deaths of several children. Meanwhile, Trump has suspended the admission of refugees. At airports, law enforcement agents acting on the president’s orders have detained or barred travelers from seven Muslim countries. “Don’t worry about it,” Trump assured everyone at the prayer breakfast this week. In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, he pledged to protect Christians.
Principled Christian leaders, including the National Association of Evangelicals and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have rejected these perversions, in particular Trump’s refusal to help refugees. But last spring, a Morning Consult poll found that most Christian voters supported “a temporary ban on all Muslims traveling to the United States,” as well as “additional law enforcement patrols of Muslim neighborhoods.” Trump’s advocacy of theft, violence, and suspension of refugee admissions has drawn occasional applause and no detectable outrage from his ostensibly devout audiences. And most Christians, including 80 percent of white evangelicals, voted for him. There is a sickness in American Christianity, and Trump is feeding on it. Pray on that.
*Correction, Feb. 5, 2017: This article originally misidentified the name of the show Arnold Schwarzenegger is hosting. It is The Celebrity Apprentice. (Return.)