Choosing Donald Trump, Stephen Mansfield. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.
Summary: Written just after the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency, this book explores his character and formative influences, what his appeal was to the voters who elected him, and a call for the church to exercise “prophetic distance” in its relationship with this and all presidents.
I think it is safe to say that the United States has never seen a president like Donald J. Trump. That may be the one thing both those who support him and those who oppose him agree upon. When I came across Mansfield’s book, I wasn’t sure what I would encounter. However, I had read his fascinating narrative (reviewed here) of the Guinness family and the beer that bears their name, and so I thought I would take a chance on this book. There are several reasons I’m glad I did.
But first for an overview of the book. Mansfield begins with the unlikely rise of Trump, and the puzzling phenomenon of his defeat of a huge Republican field, with many candidates of accomplishment, character and religious faith, and then his defeat of a Democratic candidate who had probably spoken of her own religious faith more extensively and thoughtfully than most candidates. Though apparently religiously illiterate while claiming faith, known for sharp business practices, serial marriages, and sexually crude language about women and allegations of sexual impropriety, he managed to get elected with 81 percent of whites identifying as “evangelical” voting for him. Mansfield explores his background, and particularly the profound influence his father had upon his boy, who he nicknamed both “King” and “Killer,” raising a young man who always believed he must win, and for whom ruthlessness toward that end was warranted. Both military academy and early business associations with lawyer Roy Cohn deepened the killer instinct of this man who thought he must be king.
Oddly, this utterly secular, ruthless young man nevertheless had religious influences. The pastor who most influenced him was Norman Vincent Peale, with his theology of positive thought. For a young man relentlessly driven to pursue success to win the father approval he never knew, this was the ideal “theology,” one that brooked no possibility of failure or defeat, but believed that you could eventually do what you dream. Peale’s death left a religious vacuum in his life filled by evangelical prosperity televangelist Paula White, who Trump first met around 2000, who helped gather a group of pastors to pray for him in 2011, as he was grappling with a decision to run, counseling him that the time was not yet, and who now chairs his evangelical advisory council. She prayed at his inauguration, vigorously defends him as a born-again Christian, and has helped gather support of key evangelical leaders.
In the third part of the book, Mansfield turns from the formative influences in Trump’s life, past and present, to the factors, that propelled Trump into the White House. He speaks of the growing concern of evangelical leaders of Obama administration decisions that both violated moral convictions and policies that were encroaching on religious liberties. A pivotal point for Trump was when he realized the role the Johnson Amendment played in silencing evangelicals in the pulpit who wanted to speak out against these policies and support those who opposed them. He made overturning this amendment his rallying cry in support of religious liberty. He also offered an alternative to a candidate on one hand far more religious, and yet one whose statements about gay rights, in support of Planned Parenthood, and lack of engagement with evangelicals suggest to these evangelical leaders that things would only get worse in her administration. The result was support of Trump, likened to King Cyrus, a pagan king who yet accomplishes God’s purposes in liberating the Jews from exile. Finally, Mansfield briefly discusses how Trump proclaimed himself the “voice” of white working-class people struggling in the Obama economy, saying things people only felt free to say at dinner tables and working class bars.
The last part of the book discusses the relationship of religious leaders around the presidency and advocates a stance Mansfield calls “prophetic distance.” He describes how in the early years Billy Graham was seduced by presidential access and the decisions he later made:
“Graham’s conclusion about his ministry was telling. After all of his years of friendships with presidents and being asked to comment on politics, he finally realized, ‘I have one message” — the gospel. He decided in his later years that he could have done more good by speaking his truth to presidents and politicians than by allowing himself to be pulled into their orbits, thus dissipating his message” (p. 137).
He then highlights the example of Paul Marc Goulet’s International Church of Las Vegas, and his Latino co-pastor Pasqual Urrabazo, who met Trump at a meeting at Trump Tower and told Trump of how offended he was about the things said of Hispanics and how wrong he was on immigration policy. Trump asked to meet his people and attend his church. Goulet did not give him the pulpit but allowed him to visit the church’s school, where he met former Vegas gang members. Goulet later said, “I won’t endorse candidates. But I will give them a chance to hear truth and see it in action. I will show them a picture of what, with God’s help, they might be.” This is what Mansfield believes the religious leaders who have gained access to Trump must do, or they will pay a great price.
As I mentioned, I liked this book for several reasons. One was that it was neither a hagiography or a screed, but a nuanced treatment of Trump, although I would have appreciated a stronger treatment of the element of racism in Trump’s appeal. The background of Trump’s life helped me realize this is both an extraordinarily driven, and yet wounded individual, that even at his father’s funeral had to talk about what his father would have thought of him. I also appreciated the chapters on the religious influences in his life. In particular, I had not appreciated the role Paula White has and continues to play in his life (see this recent story in the Washington Post). Finally, his advocacy of a role of “prophetic distance” for religious leaders who have access to the president is one I think important.
What the book doesn’t answer is whether those around the president have the breadth of vision that addresses the prophetic concerns of the Old Testament prophets for the poor, the stranger, and the marginalized of all ethnicities, and warns against the idolatry and materialism of the rich as well as advocating for a pro-life ethic and other concerns most popular among conservative evangelicals, including concerns for sexual morality in word and action. What those who do enjoy this access to the president must consider, as Mansfield notes, is that they will face a great reckoning for how they have used this access. For the rest of us, whatever we think of the evangelical advisers around the president, it suggests they are worthy of our prayers, and perhaps our own prophetic engagement as their brothers and sisters.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.