For Donald Trump, faith has become the perfect alibi for greed
The Guardian, by Giles Fraser
You may have paused over it at the airport and wondered if it might be worth a guilty read on a long flight. After all, it has sold over 5m copies and spent 186 weeks in the New York Times bestseller list. Maybe you then thought better of it, suspecting there is something a little bit overly needy about people who go in for self-help books. Wise choice; it’s a terrible book. Nonetheless, if you want to understand the psychology of Donald Trump, it might be worth steeling yourself for an hour. For Normal Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking was one of the formative influences on the young Trump. And Peale’s philosophy of positive thinking explains much about the internal workings of Trump’s maddening self-belief.
Norman Vincent Peale was for over half a century the minister of Marble Collegiate church on New York’s Fifth Avenue, and he made it one of the most influential pulpits in the country, railing against communism and un-American activities. It was to there in the 1960s that Fred C Trump took his family, moving over from the First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, where they lived, drawn by Peale’s theology of how to be winner. Donald Trump says he attended Marble church for decades and that he was much influenced by Peale’s sermons. Norman Peale married Donald to his first wife, Ivana, at Marble in 1977.
For Peale, commercial acumen was close to Godliness. God wants to bless you with success and positive thinking is the way to achieve it. “Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade,” as Peale famously put it. And through the continual repetition of this idea, and the repression of too much self-examination or self-criticism, you will almost hypnotise yourself into “successful” thinking. It’s important to notice that this is not faith in God but faith in faith itself. What is crucial is the power of the belief (or “positive thinking”) rather than its content.
Which perfectly explains Trump’s embarrassingly vapid forays into religion on the campaign trail. My favourite example was when Trump was asked what God is to him and he came up with this: “Well, I say God is the ultimate. You know you look at this … here we are on the Pacific Ocean. How did I ever own this? I bought it 15 years ago. I made one of the great deals they say ever. I have no more mortgage on it as I will certify and represent to you. And I was able to buy this and make a great deal. That’s what I want to do for the country. Make great deals.” Trump was rightly ridiculed for this answer. But you can’t entirely blame him for theological ineptitude when he had been hearing precisely this sort of nonsense from the pulpit year after year.
For his inauguration, Trump has chosen two proponents of what is called the prosperity gospel to say the prayers. Paula White – once investigated by the Senate finance committee for her business dealings – is a TV evangelist, noted for her belief that faith makes you rich. And Detroit bishop Wayne T Jackson, who holds that “Donald Trump is an example of someone who has been blessed by God. Look at his homes, businesses, his wife and his jet. You don’t get those things unless you have the favour of God.” Being “blessed” has become a moral alibi for America’s greed. It is a nauseating smile of faux-gratitude that says: God gave this to me so it’s not about me having too much.
Even traditional evangelicals are angry about Trump’s prayer picks. But American popular religion has been sailing in these dangerous waters ever since it borrowed from the late 19th century New Thought philosophy, developing ideas about the power of the mind and its importance to success. Bringing together Christianity, capitalism and cod psychology, and transforming preachers into motivational speakers delivering their sales pitches, evangelicals such as Peale re-imagined the life of an itinerant Jew who thought you couldn’t serve God and money, to be that of a poster boy for the super-rich. And at Trump’s inauguration it is this false Jesus, this king of Mammon, that is to be worshiped and showered with gold.