But in private, many of Trump’s comments about religion are marked by cynicism and contempt, according to people who have worked for him. Former aides told me they’ve heard Trump ridicule conservative religious leaders, dismiss various faith groups with cartoonish stereotypes, and deride certain rites and doctrines held sacred by many of the Americans who constitute his base.
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Reached for comment, a White House spokesman said that “people of faith know that President Trump is a champion for religious liberty and the sanctity of life, and he has taken strong actions to support them and protect their freedom to worship. The president is also well known for joking and his terrific sense of humor, which he shares with people of all faiths.”
From the outset of his brief political career, Trump has viewed right-wing evangelical leaders as a kind of special-interest group to be schmoozed, conned, or bought off, former aides told me. Though he faced Republican primary opponents in 2016 with deeper religious roots—Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee—Trump was confident that his wealth and celebrity would attract high-profile Christian surrogates to vouch for him.
“His view was ‘I’ve been talking to these people for years; I’ve let them stay at my hotels—they’re gonna endorse me. I played the game,’” said a former campaign adviser to Trump, who, like others quoted in this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
It helped that Trump seemed to feel a kinship with prosperity preachers—often evincing a game-recognizes-game appreciation for their hustle. The former campaign adviser recalled showing his boss a YouTube video of the Israeli televangelist Benny Hinn performing “faith healings,” while Trump laughed at the spectacle and muttered, “Man, that’s some racket.” On another occasion, the adviser told me, Trump expressed awe at Joel Osteen’s media empire—particularly the viewership of his televised sermons.
In Cohen’s recent memoir, Disloyal, he recounts Trump returning from his 2011 meeting with the pastors who laid hands on him and sneering, “Can you believe that bullshit?” But if Trump found their rituals ridiculous, he followed their moneymaking ventures closely. “He was completely familiar with the business dealings of the leadership in many prosperity-gospel churches,” the adviser told me.
The conservative Christian elites Trump surrounds himself with have always been more clear-eyed about his lack of religiosity than they’ve publicly let on. In a September 2016 meeting with about a dozen influential figures on the religious right—including the talk-radio host Eric Metaxas, the Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, and the theologian Wayne Grudem—the then-candidate was blunt about his relationship to Christianity. In a recording of the meeting obtained by The Atlantic, the candidate can be heard shrugging off his scriptural ignorance (“I don’t know the Bible as well as some of the other people”) and joking about his inexperience with prayer (“The first time I met [Mike Pence], he said, ‘Will you bow your head and pray?’ and I said, ‘Excuse me?’ I’m not used to it.”) At one point in the meeting, Trump interrupted a discussion about religious freedom to complain about Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska and brag about the taunting nickname he’d devised for him. “I call him Little Ben Sasse,” Trump said. “I have to do it, I’m sorry. That’s when my religion always deserts me.”