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A president’s prayer: Faith still a factor in presidency

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With the recent decision by the Electoral College, Donald Trump has officially been elected the 45th president of the United States. 

Now, even more attention has been placed on what kind of president he will be and, more importantly, what factors will guide his decisions. Some political commentators have publicly wondered if religious considerations will ever be a factor for the new president.

Since the early days of the United States, spirituality has played a key role in the decisions of many of our presidents.

However, weeks before he takes office, the role of faith in Trump’s life remains unclear to some observers.

Among the few details about his faith that have been confirmed is that he grew up attending a New York Presbyterian church with his family and still considers himself a member of that denomination. 

“You know, I’m Protestant. I’m Presbyterian,” Trump stated in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. “Most people don’t know that. They have no idea, and I’m proud of it.”

Trump will become the first Presbyterian president since Ronald Reagan, who left office in 1989. 

During the presidential campaign, Trump said he attends services at Marble College Church in Manhattan, where he married his first wife Ivana, as well as a Presbyterian church near his Palm Beach estate in Florida.

He has been quoted as saying “religion is a wonderful thing,” and during an interview he gave God credit for creating a golf course his company owns in Europe. 

With characteristic vanity, Trump promoted his book The Art of the Deal during some campaign stops, calling it his “second favorite book, after the Bible.” He would quickly add, “The Bible is the best book of all time.”

Outside of these vague public statements about religion, however, Trump rarely discusses issues of faith.

 

A guiding light 

Religious affiliation has never been a requirement for the presidency under the United States Constitution. In other words, a president does not have to be a specific religion, or have a religion at all. They just have to be at least 35 years old, a “natural-born” citizen and a U.S. resident of at least 14 years. 

Traditionally, however, many citizens have used a president’s faith and moral behavior as a measurement of how he may perform in office.

“Frankly, I don’t think the American people would be happy with a president who didn’t belong to any church or even attend one,” Christian evangelist Billy Graham said, when he recalled what he once told President Dwight Eisenhower. At that time, Eisenhower was undergoing a revival of his faith.

A president’s religious beliefs continue to be important to many people today. According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Americans believe it is important for the president to have strong religious convictions.

In fact, 40 percent of survey participants said religion was not discussed enough during the 2016 presidential election by Trump or his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, a lifelong Methodist.

Some presidents have used faith to guide them during difficult times or when making decisions that changed the course of history.

Franklin Pierce, an Episcopalian who served from 1853 to 1857, and his wife Jane drew closer to God when their 12 year-old son was killed in a train accident shortly before they moved into the White House. They attended church regularly and observed the Sabbath so strictly they refused to even read mail on Sunday.

During his first term (1885-1889), Grover Cleveland, who was raised with a strict religious upbringing, stated, “I have always felt that my training as a minister’s son has been more valuable to me as a strengthening influence than any other incident in my life.”

Indiana’s Benjamin Harrison, who defeated Cleveland for re-election in 1888, was active at First Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, where he served as a deacon, elder and Sunday school teacher. 

Harry Truman, a Baptist, publicly asked reporters to pray for him when he suddenly became president after the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. He also instituted the first National Day of Prayer, and probably prayed over the decision to drop the atomic bomb over Japan during World War II.

Gerald Ford, an Episcopalian, prayed before making his controversial decision to pardon Richard Nixon after the Watergate scandal in 1974.

Jimmy Carter has called his Christian faith a “source of strength” and used it to guide some areas of his foreign policy as president, which emphasized human rights and secured a very difficult peace accord between the largely Jewish state of Israel and the largely Muslim state of Egypt. Carter has also written books on faith and has famously taught Sunday school at Baptist churches for most of his life.  

 

Where Trump stands 

During the presidential campaign, Trump did not avoid faith altogether, calling for the need to defend Christians in different parts of the world from Islamic extremists. Occasionally, he campaigned at churches, a common practice for major political candidates. Some footage can be found online of ministers laying hands on Trump and praying for him during a few of those visits.

However, Trump did not speak often about his personal views on faith and its role in his life, something that most recent candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have done in order to attract conservative evangelical voters, who have been a major GOP voting bloc over the past 40 years.

When asked about his two favorite Bible verses during an interview with Bloomberg, Trump replied that he “would rather not get into it,” adding, “to me, that’s very personal. When I talk about the Bible it is very personal. The Bible means a lot to me, but I don’t want to get into specifics.” 

When Trump has spoken specifically on religion, it has sometimes led to awkward moments, such as his speech at Liberty University. Some observers laughed after he referred to the book “Second Corinthians” as “Two Corinthians,” hinting at his suspected lack of biblical knowledge. 

Also, Trump’s controversial statements on immigrants, his obscene and sexist comments regarding women and his three marriages have led some to question the sincerity of his Christian beliefs. 

Among them were Pope Francis, leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the world’s largest Christian denomination, who expressed concern that Trump has been “thinking about only building walls and not building bridges.”

However, Paula White, a pastor and spiritual adviser of Trump, is among supporters who say that the new president’s reluctance to speak about faith’s place in his life comes from his desire to be consistent. In other words, he doesn’t want to come across as fake.

“Donald has never been public about his faith, and when he has tried, it has been futile,” White told CNN. “It’s not his language, but that doesn’t mean it’s not his heart.”

White said she spoke with Trump extensively during the campaign after recorded comments of him boasting about pursuing a married woman and being able to touch women inappropriately because of his celebrity status were made public.

She noted that he did apologize for his statements, but publicly asking for spiritual forgiveness or repentance should not be expected, because it has never been his style.  

“If he suddenly came out all religious, that would seem staged to me,” White said.

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