The Trump Nobody Knows

When he discusses his faith, the Republican candidate sounds a great deal like the businessman-turned-politician who coined his campaign slogan.

Andrew Harnik / AP

The columnist Cal Thomas recently asked Trump, “Who do you say Jesus is?” Trump replied:

Jesus to me is somebody I can think about for security and confidence. Somebody I can revere in terms of bravery and in terms of courage and, because I consider the Christian religion so important, somebody I can totally rely on in my own mind.

Trump’s emphasis on Jesus’s bravery and courage may not resonate with every believing Christian, but it draws on a century-old tradition of Muscular Christianity. Its 19th-century advocates worried about the feminizing influences of urban civilization, and sought security and confidence in a religion that would be strong, vigorous, manly. A Christianity for winners.

One of its greatest champions was a Manhattan-based businessman, who rose to national prominence by virtue of his mastery of media and his knack for salesmanship: Bruce Barton. As a boy, Barton later recalled, he’d been unsettled by his Sunday school lessons, which offered brave, manly heroes like David and Daniel:

But Jesus! Jesus was the “lamb of God.” The little boy did not know what that meant, but it sounded like Mary’s little lamb. Something for girls—sissified. Jesus was also “meek and lowly,” a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” He went around for three years telling people not to do things. 

Years later, after Barton built a successful career as a pioneer of the advertising industry, selling Americans things they’d never known they needed—he’s the second B in BBDO—he thought again about that contrast:

He said to himself: “Only strong magnetic men inspire great enthusiasm and build great organizations. Yet Jesus built the greatest organization of all. It is extraordinary.” 

So he reopened the Gospels, and confessed himself startled by what he found. (Barton’s readers might be equally startled.)

A physical weakling! Where did they get that idea? Jesus pushed a plane and swung an adze; he was a successful carpenter. He slept outdoors and spent his days walking around his favorite lake. His muscles were so strong that when he drove the money-changers out, nobody dared to oppose him!

A kill-joy! He was the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem! The criticism which proper people made was that he spent too much time with publicans and sinners (very good fellows, on the whole, the man thought) and enjoyed society too much. They called him a “wine bibber and a gluttonous man.”

A failure! He picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world.

When the man had finished his reading he exclaimed, “This is a man nobody knows!”

“Some day,” said he, “someone will write a book about Jesus. Every businessman will read it and send it to his partners and his salesmen. For it will tell the story of the founder of modern business.”

Barton wrote that book. The Man Nobody Knows became an instant bestseller, moving a quarter-million copies by 1926. It was, like The Art of the Deal, an inspirational success manual. And it’s hard to miss the echoes in the language the two authors employed, or in the ideals they chose to exalt.

By 1937, Barton was a celebrity. He decided to run for office, throwing his hat into the ring as the Republican candidate for a Democratic seat in Manhattan, as an outrageous, straight-talking conservative who could restore American greatness, sweeping away political corruption. “My platform will be Down With Bunk,” he wrote. He promised to run government like a business, and pare back regulation. “Repeal a Law a Day,” became his slogan. The advertising mogul made the cost of living his central issue, and promised to speak for the silent majority, caught between rising taxes and rising prices.

Democrats howled. Where his supporters saw a straight-talking businessman, his rival saw a scarcely disguised fascist. They pointed to an essay Barton had written seven years before, praising Mussolini for fostering “love of country, respect for courts and law, and sense of national obligation” in Italy. “Must we abolish the Senate and have a dictatorship to do it?” Barton had mused. “I sometimes think it would be almost worth the cost.”

Barton shrugged it off. He won an outright majority against his two rivals November, and was re-elected. He began to be mentioned as a prospective presidential candidate.

In 1940, he ran for New York’s Senate seat as a leading supporter of Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, seconding his nomination at the convention. Barton attacked President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for edging toward war, saying that Willkie would “keep the American nation and the lives of American boys” safer. He warned darkly that a third FDR term would mean “the end of freedom.” He invoked the ghosts of Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson—offering Americans a choice between sliding into gloom, or returning to greatness.

On the eve of the election, he delivered an inspiring paean to American tolerance and unity in a radio address—and promised to purge Communists, fascists, and anyone else who didn’t share his commitment to tolerance from the ranks of government.

In the end, though, he fell short—going down to defeat alongside Willkie.

But although Barton retired from political life, his ideas didn’t vanish. In 1919, he’d praised Calvin Coolidge as the spokesman for “the great silent majority.” Today, there’s another bestselling author, celebrity businessman, and muscular Christian trying his hand at running for office. And the crowds that flock to hear him wave signs reading, “The silent majority stands with Trump.”