Donald Trump was ashamed — contrite even — as he spoke to Paula White hours after the video of him bragging about groping women was released.
“I heard it in his voice,” said White, a Florida pastor who, outside of Trump’s family, is his closest spiritual confidant. “He was embarrassed.”
In the video from 2005, Trump admits to hitting on a married woman and boasts that he can wantonly kiss women and grope their genitals because he is a “star.”
During his phone call with White, the GOP nominee said he regretted his remarks and was grateful for the evangelicals still supporting him. Later that evening, he publicly apologized in a video that was remarkably free from the usual rituals enacted by disgraced politicians.
Trump didn’t stand beside his wife, Melania. He didn’t ask for forgiveness. He didn’t lament that he had fallen under sin’s sway but that by God’s grace and with his family’s support he hoped to earn a second chance. In fact, Trump didn’t mention faith, family or reconciliation at all.
“If he suddenly came out all religious, that would seem staged to me,” said White, who has known Trump for 14 years. “Donald has never been public about his faith, and when he has tried, it has been futile. It’s not his language, but that doesn’t mean it’s not his heart.”
For much of the 2016 presidential campaign, religion has receded into the background, mainly because the two major party nominees — Trump and Hillary Clinton — rarely talk about their faith. Trump is a professed Presbyterian; Clinton a Methodist.
But two-thirds of Americans have said it’s important for the president of the United States to have strong religious convictions, according to the Pew Research Center. And nearly 40% say discussion of religion has been lacking in this election cycle. Beyond the policy discussions and ad hominem attacks, it seems, Americans want to know where candidates’ moral compasses point.
Trump’s attempts at public religion have been awkward, at best.
He said he does not ask for forgiveness and “does not bring God into that picture” when he makes mistakes. He has tried to put money in the Communion plate and referred to the sacrament as “my little wine” and “my little cracker.” He mispronounced a book of the Bible, and when asked about his favorite verse, has either deferred or, in one case, cited “an eye for an eye,” an Old Testament revenge scheme specifically condemned by Christ. (Turn the other cheek, Jesus said.)
Trump tussled with the Pope and was shushed by a minister in Detroit. He often looks uneasywhen pastors lay their hands on him and pray. He says he is proud of his evangelical support but not sure he deserves it.
When asked theological questions, Trump often speaks in terms so vague they approach opacity.
Asked “Who is God to you?” by the Christian Broadcasting Network, Trump answered “God is the ultimate,” then began a brief spiel about how he got a great deal on a golf course before circling back to his original definition. “So nobody, no thing, no there’s nothing like God.”
Trump’s broad language often serves a purpose, says Michael D’Antonio, author of “The Truth About Trump,” a biography. “Donald keeps his options open. He make things mysterious and unclear so that he can say anything else at another time.”
Trump’s supporters have a different explanation. Trump is a businessman, not a pastor. He doesn’t have practiced answers about religious questions, nor should he be expected to, they say. But that doesn’t mean he’s irreligious. (Trump’s campaign did not respond to several interview requests.)
“I think people are shocked when they find out that I am Christian, that I am a religious person,” Trump writes in “Great Again,” a book published during the presidential campaign. “They see me with all the surroundings of wealth, so they sometimes don’t associate that with being religious. That’s not accurate.”
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