HOWEVER hard the Religious Right in the United States tries, it is difficult to make Donald Trump — the man who has been known to refer to taking communion as “having my little cracker” — bear even the appearance of a man of faith.
Nevertheless, First Things, self-described as the most influential journal of religion and public life in America, has gallantly had a go at explicating The Donald’s theology this week, just in time for his campaign’s slow-motion implosion.
It was an uphill task for the magazine’s literary editor, Matthew Schmitz, who made it sound like an inverted version of “What have the Romans ever done for us?”
“It’s true he has demeaned women, mocked the disabled and praised abortionists. . . that his early exploits include repeated adulterous affairs about which he boasts and a failed attempt to evict a widow from her home, (and) he has never asked God for forgiveness. Trump is nevertheless a man of strong and very American faith,” he concluded.
That faith turns out to be based on the gospel according to Norman Vincent Peale, the once-famous New York Methodist minister and preacher, best known nowadays as the author of The Power of Positive Thinking, whose doxology included the aphorism “Attitudes are more important than facts.” I think we can all agree that Trump follows this to the letter.
Peale, who died in 1993, apparently thought, when Trump was his pupil, that he had a profound streak of honest humility, which just goes to show how wrong you can be. Trump humbly admits that Peale “thought I was his greatest student of all time”. Schmitz points out that the self-sufficient philosophy of positive thinking means that there is no place for human weakness, and therefore no need for the forgiveness of others. Hence the candidate’s jeering at “losers”. It is the antithesis of the Christian message — but do Trump’s supporters realise that?
CLOSER to home, The Observer on Sunday had a long and interesting analysis by Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent, of the state of the Church of England, and particularly the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Renewal and Reform strategy, its pros and cons. Normally, such pieces tend to make it into the papers only at significant milestones in the Christian calendar; and, unless I am much mistaken, Monday’s feast of the Assumption is not generally regarded as one such in Anglican circles, so congratulations are due.
My all-time favourite Guardian reader’s letter followed one of Polly Toynbee’s biannual sermons on the wickedness of religion, traditionally published just before Christmas or Easter: “I see Polly’s on her high horse again. Must be a major Christian festival coming up. . .”
The Observer piece dispassionately investigated church planting, and looked at whether it really was promoting growth. “We have a golden window to change the Church,” one Evangelical bishop told Sherwood. “If we can’t turn it round in that time, it’s over.”
On the other hand, critics pointed out that Evangelical fervour was just as likely to put people off: “The more apt comparison is with Corbyn and Momentum. The diehards become more and more frenzied, while everyone else looks on in total incomprehension and in many cases are repulsed,” a sceptic said. It was also asserted that the much proclaimed successful outreach tends to be “sheep stealing”, a new phrase to me: i.e. poaching from existing congregations; and that the profile of inner-city attendance growth, allegedly white and middle-class, does not necessarily reflect local populations. Time will tell.
OUTLETS other than the Church Times, as far as I could see, besides the US Episcopal Café website and its UK counterpart Thinking Anglicans, ignored a call from WATCH for cathedrals to ban the Revd Stephen Holland, who turns up at the consecration of women bishops up and down the country simply in order to object, noisily. Deans have been apparently allowing him to have his say before proceeding with the ceremony.
It turns out that Holland is not even a member of the Church of England, but a minister of the Westhoughton Reformed Baptist Evangelical Church in Bolton. So what’s it to do with him? He also protests at Walsingham, and was outside Parliament during the gay-marriage legislation. His church’s website amusingly states: “We believe the unity of the local church to far outweigh the minor differences found amongst the Lord’s people . . . but do separate from charismatic and evangelical movements.” Good job the C of E is generally rather more tolerant than he is.
FINALLY, the quote of the week comes from Catriona O’Driscoll, the head of the village school in Lisheen, west Cork, where Gary and Paul O’Donovan, Ireland’s sparky Olympic silver-medal-winning rowers, come from. “I said a lot of prayers,” she told The Guardian. “I think everybody in Lisheen was either throwing holy water at the television or lighting a candle.”
You see? It works.
Stephen Bates is former religious-affairs correspondent of The Guardian.