The closest I have ever come to meeting Donald John Trump was during a visit to Manhattan when I took the elevator to the top of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, a 68-story building with an 80-foot waterfall. As I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican, I offer no comments on the political earthquake occasioned by Mr. Trump’s presidential candidacy, made more controversial by his disparaging, off-the-cuff remark about Senator John McCain. (“He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured, I hate to tell you.”) Is Trump's presidential bid “a cancer on conservatism,” “a stain on the Republican party,” “a barking carnival act,” as it has been called, or the effort of a resilient public figure with staying power? Time will tell.
What I find of greater interest is Trump’s depiction of his personal religious views. Although the United States Constitution disallows a religious test for holding public office, Americans have been interested in the religious beliefs and practices of their national leaders ever since Thomas Jefferson and James Madison attended services of worship in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol. More recently, John F. Kennedy won the 1960 presidential race in part by defending his Roman Catholic identity against the insinuation of disloyalty. (Among announced candidates for the 2016 race, seven are Catholics, while four are Southern Baptists.) Who can forget born-again, Sunday School-teaching Jimmy Carter, a Baptist from Georgia, who openly shared his Christian faith with other world leaders while living in the White House?
Trump’s religious commitments have surfaced in several recent interviews he has given. In an April interview with CBN’s David Brody, Mr. Trump made it clear that he is a Protestant, a Presbyterian, and proud of it. At the interview, he had even brought, for the television audience to see, a picture of his confirmation class at First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica Queens, the congregation of his youth. This congregation, which traces its origins to 1662, claims to be the oldest continuously serving Presbyterian church in the United States. Later, the Trump family affiliated with the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, where as a young adult Donald Trump came under the influence of the famous Norman Vincent Peale. Peale’s “power of positive thinking” resonated with Trump. In 1988, Peale predicted that Donald Trump would become “the greatest builder of our time—he’s a very ingenious man.” Peale also saw in Trump not only kindness and courtesy but also a trait some others have missed—“a profound streak of honest humility.”
Mr. Trump revealed a little more about his inner spirituality during a Q&A session with pollster Frank Luntz at the recent Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa. Luntz asked Trump whether he had ever asked God for forgiveness for his actions. Mr. Trump seemed unprepared for the question and responded, somewhat haltingly, “I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so.” Then he added, “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.” Trump went on to admit that he did participate in Holy Communion: “When I drink my little wine—which is about the only wine I drink—and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed.”
Something seems to be missing from this dialogue. To be sure, Mr. Trump is a graduate of the Wharton School of Business where, presumably, the curriculum is stronger on entrepreneurship than spirituality. He makes no pretentions of being a theologian. Fair enough. And yet, the call to confession and the need for forgiveness are so central to the entire Christian tradition, and particularly to the Reformed and Presbyterian versions of it, that it is hard to see how it could have made so little impression. In the Presbyterian (USA) Book of Common Worship we find this prayer in “A Service for Repentance and Forgiveness”:
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you
with our whole heart and mind and strength;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
In your mercy forgive what we have been,
help us amend what we are,
and direct what we shall be,
do that we may delight in your will
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your holy name.
Frank Luntz might well have sharpened his question by asking it in a slightly different way. Rather than, “Have you ever sought forgiveness from God?” he might have asked instead: “Have you ever repented of your sins?” The Protestant Reformation was born in a dispute over the word repentance. Martin Luther learned from Erasmus that the Greek word metanoia was not well translated by the Vulgate rendering poenitentium agite, “Do penance.” It meant instead “to have a change of heart and mind,” “to change directions,” “to be converted”: in other words, to become penitent. And true penitence, the reformers taught, was to be the habit of a lifetime, not a series of one-off responses or prescribed acts. In the first of his Ninety-five Theses, Luther declared, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, forgiveness without repentance, like communion without confession, is not the real thing. Rather, it is a form of “cheap grace” (billige Gnade), bargain-basement Christianity. On November 17, 1935, Bonhoeffer preached a sermon, “On Forgiveness,” to the underground seminary he was leading for the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde. His text was Matthew 18:21-35, the parable of the unmerciful servant. This story deals with issues Mr. Trump knows a lot about: making loans, collecting debts, keeping accounts, payment schedules, limited liability, bankruptcy. It is a parable about forgiveness and repentance and the overcoming grace of God. Bonhoeffer asked his students:
Does each of us recall a moment in our life when God called us to judgment, when we were lost persons, when our life was at stake, when God demanded an accounting from us, and we had nothing but debts, immeasurably vast debts? Our life was stained and unclean and guilty before him, and we had nothing, nothing at all to show but debts and more debts. Do we recall how we felt then, how we had nothing to hope for, how lost and senseless everything seemed? We couldn’t help ourselves anymore, we were utterly alone, and before us there remained only punishment, well-deserved punishment. Before him, we could not stand erect. Before him, in front of God the Lord, we sank to our knees in despair and prayed to him: “Lord, have patience with me”; and all kinds of foolish talk passes our lips, as here in the story of the wicked servant: “I will pay you and make amends for everything.” So we said, and yet we knew for certain that we would never be able to pay it. And then, at once, everything changed: God’s face was characterized no longer by wrath, but by great sorrow and pain toward us, and he released us from all debt, and we were forgiven. We were free, and the fear had been taken away from us; we were joyful again and could look God in the face and thank him.
Donald Trump recently commended President Obama for his singing of “Amazing Grace” at the eulogy he offered for the slain Charleston pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney. The man who wrote “Amazing Grace” was John Newton, a slave trader who became an Anglican pastor. Near the end of his life, Newton said to one of his friends: “I am a very old man and my memory has gone. But I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Jesus is a great Savior.”
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and the general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.