Donald Trump is finding religion. Or at least, religion is finding its way into his remarks and his campaign’s rhetoric to an unprecedented extent.
On Thursday, the president celebrated the National Day of Prayer at the White House, and he said the Almighty had helped him persevere through the ordeal of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
“People say, ‘How do you get through that whole stuff? How do you get through those witch hunts and everything else?’” Trump said, turning to Vice President Pence. “And you know what we do, Mike? We just do it, right? And we think about God.”
In a variation on his claims about a “war on Christmas,” Trump also claimed that Americans are referring to the Divine more frequently.
“One of the things that Mike and I were discussing just a little while ago—people are so proud to be using that beautiful word, God, and they’re using the word God again, and they’re not hiding from it,” he said. “They’re not being told to take it down, and they’re not saying we can’t honor God. In God we trust. So important.”
The Day of Prayer is an annual venue to talk about faith, but it’s not the only time religion has come up lately. Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, tweeted this after a rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Saturday:
Loved watching the crowd fill up for the 547th Rally in Green Bay. There has never been and probably never will be a movement like this again. Only God could deliver such a savior to our nation and only God could allow me to help. God bless America! pic.twitter.com/PBata3mB14— Brad Parscale (@parscale) April 30, 2019
That’s the sort of invocation of God that tends to send liberals into fainting fits, but which strikes many evangelicals as a fairly unremarkable expression of faith.
Finally, Trump has been speaking repeatedly (and dishonestly) about late-term abortion during campaign appearances.
By this point it’s banal to note the mismatch between Trump—the coarse, libertine sexual harasser—and the American evangelical movement. It’s a marriage of convenience: Trump gets support he needs, and evangelicals get a champion of their causes, even if that champion is not especially Christlike in his bearing.
But Trump’s statement that he leaned on God during the Mueller probe is notable because it’s practically unheard of for Trump to speak of God in a personal way like that. (Compare that with his remarks at least year’s event, which feature nothing similar.)
Whether Trump’s God talk is sincere is not for me to say, though it’s hard to imagine it is. Trump has demonstrated his lack of interest in personal devotion many times: He appears never to have regularly attended a church in his adult life—the Presbyterian congregation he named as his home church during the 2016 campaign said he was not an active member—and he has rarely attended services, other than on Christmas and Easter, since becoming president. He infamously referred to “2 Corinthians” at Liberty University in January 2016. He said he’s never sought forgiveness from God. If Trump had experienced some sort of religious epiphany since then, it’s doubtful he would have kept it quiet, given the political advantage he’d reap and given how poorly he keeps anything quiet.
But for political purposes, Trump’s sincerity is beside the point. It’s enough that he is speaking about religion so much. One way God appears to be helping Trump through the ordeal of the Mueller investigation is that, by invoking the Almighty’s name with greater frequency, Trump is managing to retain the support of many voters who might otherwise be disturbed by the special counsel’s findings.
Ironically, even as Trump talks about God more—and claims that more Americans are proudly using God’s name—the general trend is the reverse. The number of Americans who say they have no religious affiliation continues to rise. Ramping up religious appeals, however, meshes with Trump’s demonstrated political strategy of appealing to a base that represents a minority of the electorate and hoping that it can push him across the finish line, just as it did in 2016.
The same week as this flurry of religious talk, Trump and Pence also appeared at the NRA’s annual convention. Guns, religion—it evokes a notorious gaffe by Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign. Referring to “small towns in Pennsylvania” during a fundraiser in San Francisco, Obama said:
They fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
This was a classic Kinsley gaffe—when a politician accidentally tells the truth. Obama’s comments were damaging to his own prospects with these voters, but from today’s vantage point, they uncannily predict the Trump campaign, which was focused on immigration, xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, religion, protectionism, and the Second Amendment.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Trump is talking about God and speaking to the NRA just as his allies signal nervousness about his prospects of winning the state of Pennsylvania again in 2020—in other words, the same electorate to which Obama referred in 2008. Voters can cling to guns and religion, but politicians can, too.