The Donald Trump Enigma

The Donald Trump Enigma

Article to be found in globalwatchweekly


Weeks after making a statement that Muslims should be temporarily barred from entering the United States to prevent terrorist attacks, Donald Trump towards the end of last year publicized that he was planning to go to the restive al-Aqsa Mosque compound during a visit to Israel at the end of December.

The Jerusalem Post in December 2015 had reported that the 69-year-old had asked his staff to study the feasibility of visiting the site, known as al-Aqsa to Muslims and Temple Mount to Jews, when the billionaire property mogul comes to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 28 December.

The mosque compound – which is the holiest site in Judaism and the third most sacred in Islam – had been a flashpoint of violence throughout 2015 as Palestinians protested against what they claim is an increase in visits by right-wing Israelis. Jews are allowed to visit Temple Mount at certain times but are not permitted to pray.

A visit by Trump in the wake of his comments about Muslims would not only be controversial but likely dangerous and highly inflammatory. It was a visit to al-Aqsa by the late Ariel Sharon in 2000 that sparked the bloody four-year Second Intifada and amid a spate of stabbing attacks, riots and killings in the West Bank and Israel towards the end of 2015.

But for Trump US presidential hopeful, the trip to Israel was postponed yet there is a feeling that there was a significant marketing ploy here for news of a potential trip to resonate with right-wing evangelical Christians, who hold massive leverage within the Republican Party and who due to their biblical position hold significant regard for Jerusalem and Israel.

On the fringes, their political ideology is defined by apocalyptic religious beliefs that focus on the prophetic Revelation chapters 14, 16, 17 and 19 in the New Testament, which emphasise control and conflict over Temple Mount in the final conflict between good and evil –something that many hope is imminent.

Israel captured the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in 1967 after the Six Day War but although it has military control, the site is administered by an Arab force known as the Waqf. In recent years, increasing numbers of radical right-wing Jews have attempted to access the site, leading to violence in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the country.

Jews believe al-Aqsa was built on the site of the First and Second Jewish Temple, destroyed by the Romans in AD70, while Muslims believe that the mosque marks the spot where Mohammed ascended to heaven. It is the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina and early Muslims used to pray towards Jerusalem until 622AD.


Donald Trump is immodest, arrogant, foul-mouthed, money-obsessed, thrice-married, and until recently, pro-choice. By conventional standards, evangelical Christians should despise him. Yet somehow, the Manhattan billionaire has attracted their support.

It seems to be the repeat of the same paradox that plagued republicans during the last election campaign. Evangelical Christianity define Mormonism as a cult and an organization that teaches heresy yet many Christian republicans were ready to support Mitt Romney in his election battle against Obama stating that there was more in common with the Mormon belief in the family structure, opposition to same sex marriages and belief in Creation rather than evolution etc.

According to the most recent polls, Trump is one of the top picks for president among evangelical Christians. One Washington Post poll even had him as the group’s favorite by a margin of six points. His first major rally in the Bible-Belt fortress town of Mobile, Alabama, drew an estimated 18,000 attendees. And on September 28, 2015, prominent televangelist Paula White reportedly lead a delegation of evangelical leaders to meet with the mogul in Trump Tower.

“Why do they love me?” Trump replied when asked about the trend. “You’ll have to ask them. But they do. They do love me.”

It’s rare that the real estate mogul struggles to find an explanation, but in this instance, his puzzlement is understandable. There is little about The Donald that would seem to align with evangelicals’ values and beliefs. But when it comes to the famously coifed candidate, the faithful seem to be valuing style over substance or spirituality.

Since at least the Reagan era, evangelicals have mostly supported presidential candidates who are socially conservative. Sixty-four percent of evangelicals, for example, claim that a candidates’ position on abortion will have “a lot” of impact on who they vote for in 2016. But Mr. Trump was, in his words, “very pro-choice” until recently. One can’t help but think about how evangelicals attacked then-Senator John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election for “flip-flopping” on key political positions. Somehow Trump has evaded such treatment from the faithful.

Trump claims to oppose same-sex marriage, which will please most evangelicals, but now that the Supreme Court has put that issue to bed for good, a candidate’s views on the matter are largely inconsequential. When it comes to LGBT rights, however, Trump’s record is more complicated. He has stated in the past that he supports amending the 1964 Civil Rights Act to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, something nearly half of evangelicals oppose. Trump’s broader positions on same-sex issues are such that MSNBC posited he may be “2016’s most LGBT-friendly Republican.”

On other political issues, it is difficult to say how Trump aligns with most evangelicals. This is due, in part, to the fact that the candidate hasn’t outlined his policy proposals in much detail. Even his rigid position on immigration, which includes mass deportations and the construction of a separation wall along the Southern border, doesn’t entirely square with their professed views. Some evangelicals are clearly sympathetic to that stance, but, conversely, 62 percent of evangelicals support finding a way to allow unauthorized immigrants to stay in the United States. Trump also favors legalizing all drugs, something most evangelicals oppose.

So if Trump’s policies aren’t drawing conservative Christians’ support, why are the faithful so fond of him? Historically, evangelical voters have valued candidates who share their beliefs. According to a 2015 poll by Barna Group, 45 percent of evangelicals say that faith is an important factor in choosing a candidate—five times greater than the general population.

Trump knows this and has ramped up his religious rhetoric on the campaign trail. But he has had a difficult time convincing anyone that he is within gunshot of orthodoxy. On the matter of asking forgiveness for sins—hardly an obscure Christian doctrine—Trump says he’s never done it. “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right,” he said recently. “I don’t bring God into that picture.” Trump declared that his favorite book was the Bible, but when asked to name his favorite Bible verse, The Donald declined. And he spoke flippantly of the cornerstone Christian sacrament of communion, saying he “feels cleansed” when “I drink my little wine … and have my little cracker.»

And what of Trump’s religious practices? He says that he is a faithful Presbyterian and member of Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, but after this announcement, the congregation released a statement saying he is not an active member. And, of course, Trump’s three marriages are painfully out of step with Christian restrictions against divorce.

As USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers notes, Donald Trump is no dummy. She argues that he is scamming Christians in an effort to win over the critical Republican voting bloc. This seems plausible. But if Trump’s political views and religious commitments are so far from most evangelicals’, why are these Christians going along with it?

The answer seems to be the growing anti-establishment sentiments held by many evangelical Christians. (After all, the Tea Party movement draws “disproportionate support” from their ranks.) Not only are conservative Christians solidly Republican, they are also fierce traditionalists who feel that their values are increasingly under assault by modern society.

They like a candidate who will stand up to “the media”—whether Jorge Ramos or Megyn Kelly—because they feel reporters don’t give them a fair shake either. They are drawn to a candidate who hails from outside the Beltway—even if his hometown is the elitist island of Manhattan—because they think the Washington establishment has abandoned them. And they appreciate someone who makes no apology for using politically incorrect rhetoric—even if this includes a bit of profanity or misogyny—because they believe society is increasingly intolerant of many of their sentiments, too.


After Liberty University’s president Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed Donald Trump a few weeks ago, some media outlets reported that Trump’s “outreach to Christians is bearing fruit,” that his campaign got “an evangelical boost,” and “is winning evangelical support.” Other media outlets reported “many evangelicals are upset that Falwell chose Trump” and that some believers “expressed surprise, dismay, and even embarrassment” over the endorsement.

Which narrative is true? Both, actually.

Articles claiming evangelical support for Trump mostly rely on public-opinion polls, while articles showing evangelical opposition to Trump draw from interviews with prominent leaders. Many in the media have flat-out missed it, but there is a growing divide between ordinary evangelicals and evangelical leaders. This fissure is shaping public policy at the highest levels and may play a role in selecting the next commander-in-chief.

This division was first popularized in Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, by Michael Lindsay, who was a sociologist at Rice University at the time. After conducting hundreds of in-depth interviews with American evangelicals, Lindsay concluded that the movement could be divided into two classes. He now says that this rift is as relevant as it was when he first explored it.

What he termed “populist evangelicals” are the faithful masses you might see profiled on cable television. They are more likely to reside in rural or suburban areas, probably watch a fair amount of Fox News or listen to conservative talk radio. They probably don’t hold seminary degrees or know anyone who does—besides their pastor, of course. They are working-class Americans who are pragmatic in their politics.

“Evangelical populists look like most populists in that they respond well to mass movements, bumper-sticker theology, and sound bites,” Lindsay says. “They were the evangelicals that rallied behind Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the Moral Majority in the 1980s. But they certainly don’t represent the evangelical ‘movers and shakers’ today.”

Somewhere around the end of the last century, a new class of believers coalesced within the evangelical movement. These “cosmopolitan evangelicals” are cultural elites. They hold prominent positions in business, media, academia, and politics. Their influence shows up from Harvard to Hollywood, from Washington, D.C., to Wall Street. Many of them sit atop America’s most influential Christian organizations or serve on their boards. They are well educated, well read, and more likely to live in urban centers. Their views are more nuanced, and their rhetoric is less bombastic than evangelical populists. Rather than show up in B-roll snippets on cable news, they may spread their opinions in a column for The Wall Street Journal or an interview with a prominent news outlet.

Lindsay says the evangelical cosmopolitan-populist divide is absolutely behind the dual narratives of support for and anger over Donald Trump’s candidacy, and the data seems to bolster his assertion.

Among ordinary evangelicals, as many as 37 percent say they support Trump—more than any other candidate. But when you just survey evangelical leaders, the numbers differ dramatically. According to an informal survey by World magazine, high-ranking evangelical leaders favor Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and are concerned about a Trump presidency. A gathering of religious-right leaders endorsed Cruz after a near tie with Rubio with no notable momentum behind Trump.

It makes sense then that when Falwell jumped on the Trump train, the dissenting voices were mostly high-level religious leaders and not masses of ordinary voters.

One article detailed the dismay of prominent Liberty alums, including Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America and a former Pennsylvania state representative. The editor in chief of Christianity Today, a highbrow religious publication that tends to stay out of partisan debates, even penned an editorial arguing that Trump threatens to capsize the Christian gospel.

“Cosmopolitan evangelicals are more in support of Marco Rubio—unlike Falwell’s endorsement of Trump, which pleased the populists,” Lindsay says. “The only candidate that embodies many of the characteristics of cosmopolitan evangelicals but is able to appeal to populists may be Ted Cruz.”

The 2016 election is not the first time this divide has shown up in American political debates. In 2013, a broad coalition of prominent evangelicals called for “a bipartisan solution on immigration” that included “a path toward legal status and/or citizenship.” Supporters of the so-called Evangelical Immigration Table included the National Association of Evangelicals, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. With near unanimity among top-level leaders, news outlets such as The Wall Street Journal reported, “Evangelicals push immigration path.”

The problem with evangelical leaders’ open-armed, grasstops effort was that ordinary evangelicals were not nearly as supportive. Depending on how poll questions were phrased, evangelical support varied. The same year that the Evangelical Immigration Table was formed, a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute reported that 63 percent of evangelicals said they believed America “should make a serious effort to deport all illegal immigrants back to their home countries.” Nearly 70 percent of evangelicals said “the American way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence.” While cosmopolitan evangelical leaders offered a clear call for immigration reform, the faithful masses seemed to exhibit more resistance and nuance.

Perhaps there was a time when the masses of ordinary evangelicals marched in lockstep with their respective leaders, but if so, that time has passed. American religious communities have grown more skeptical of their leadership. This is probably true for a host of reasons ranging from televangelists’ disgraces to prominent pastors’ moral failings to Roman Catholic sex-abuse scandals to the general distrust of institutions common to this post-modern era. As a result, one can no longer assume that the opinions of high-ranking evangelicals fully reflect those they claim to represent.

“The media makes a mistake when they take the opinion of an evangelical leader or leaders and assume this implies broad evangelical support,” Lindsay says. “Evangelical political support is splintering and has spread across the political spectrum.”

American evangelicalism is not now, nor has it ever been, monolithic. There are often divisions along conservative-political lines and across generational lines. And there is now also a growing rift between everyday evangelicals and their leaders.


Within the last week Donald Trump’s apparent edge in the polls failed to translate to victory in Iowa, as Sen. Ted Cruz won the first-in-the-nation caucus, largely thanks to the support of the state’s numerous and well-organized evangelical Christian voters. Marco Rubio scored a better-than-expected third-place finish, nipping at Trump’s heels.

As Quartz’s Tim Fernholz reported in December, winning Iowa was always going to be difficult for Trump, given that deeply religious protestant Christans make up 56% of the state’s voters, and a much higher percentage of Republican caucus-goers:

Trump, for all the right-wing scorn he directs at Muslims, is ultimately a libertine New Yorker who can’t talk about being born again, who used to support abortion, and hasn’t won the affection of key leaders in the evangelical movement.

Trump made several high-profile religious gaffes in the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses that betrayed an unfamiliarity with evangelical Christianity, including a reference to “Two Corinthians” (rather than the New Testament’s “Second Corinthians”) in a speech to students at ultra-christian Liberty University, and mistakenly putting money into a Communion plate during a church service.

And, though he won the endorsement of Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., his erratic approach was personified in personal attacks against Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats in the days ahead of the voting.

Cruz, on the other hand, is a pastor’s son who is very comfortable speaking in the language of personal redemption that is the lingua franca among evangelicals. In January, his campaign started a “national prayer team” to “establish a direct line of communication between our campaign and the thousands of Americans who are lifting us up before the Lord.”

In closing, the clever use of imagery and concepts associated with the evangelical right such as the tirade against Muslims or seeking to visit the temple mount is a method used by Trump which sends a significant reminder of how Barack Obama used Christianity to aid support for his own election.

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