Review: Choosing Donald Trump

Choosing Donald Trump

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.

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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.

 

Review: The Search for God and Guinness

god and guinness

The Search for God and GuinnessStephen Mansfield. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014.

Summary: A history of beer, of the Guinness family and the history of Guinness from its beginnings, and the faith that that motivated the social goods pursued by many of the family members who led the company, and others in the family line.

Unlike the author, who came from a family of teetotalers, I came from a family that enjoyed a good beer in moderation. Most of the beers I grew up with were American beers and often my response to them was “meh.” It wasn’t until recent years that I discovered Guinness, and concluded, that this is what I’ve always thought beer should taste like.

So my curiosity was piqued when I came across this book in a second-hand store. I happen to love God and like Guinness and so I wanted to see how these two went together. Along the way, Stephen Mansfield took me on a delightful journey on the history of beer, including the long line of saints who enjoyed a good brew including the Pilgrims, Saints Patrick, Bartholomew, Brigid, and Columbanus, Charlemagne, Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Wesley. He traces the origins of beer, the science of brewing, and the different types of beer. A fascinating side note of this history is how beer provided a much more temperate alternative to the gin palaces and other forms of hard liquor that spelled the ruin of many.

Mansfield traces the beginning of the Guinness brewery with Arthur Guinness’s purchase in 1759 of a derelict brewery at St. James Gate, Dublin, including his bold move to increase the size of pipes carrying water from the River Liffey to his brewery and “defend it by force of arms.” Guinness had learned the art of brewing from his father, brewing small amounts for an inn, and starting a small brewing operation before taking over the derelict brewery in Dublin. Influenced by George Whitfield, he used profits from his growing brewery to fund the growing Sunday School movement.

From these promising beginnings, Mansfield traces the growth of the Guinness brewery through the generations, and the good family leadership it enjoyed in each generation. There was the key decision to focus on stout and improvements in the scientific brewing of that stout, the transport and storage of the product that provided consistent high quality wherever it was served in the world, and in the twentieth century, the advertising campaigns that made the brand ever-more popular. Among those working on these campaigns was Dorothy L. Sayers.

Most striking in this narrative is the care the company showed toward its workers, providing medical care for employees, families and even widows, housing, and superior wages (as well as a couple free pints a day of stout). During wars they guaranteed the jobs of servicemen, and paid families half salaries while their men were in service. In many respects, including employee education programs, their policies exceeded today’s most progressive companies.

The other intriguing aspect of this book is that while many of the leaders of the brewery were Christians who employed their wealth and position not only to benefit their workers but wider Dublin society, there was also a branch of the family, the Grattan Guinnesses marked for their pursuit of ministry and world missions activity. Mansfield gives us a thumbnail biography of Henry Grattan Guinness, an evangelist who was easily the equal of D. L. Moody. Mansfield notes that the definitive biography of this man remains to be written.

In more recent years, the company diversified and passed from Guinness family leadership and experienced some scandals. Mansfield doesn’t focus much attention on this and handles lightly any problems in the history of the family. He does imply that the long focus on brewing stout was a strength of the company that was lost as they diversified. The emphasis throughout is on the growth of the company, and the positive contributions made by this family, and the influence their faith played in the good works accomplished through their wealth and influence. So I would treat this account as entertaining and informative but not definitive history.

The book concludes with an epilogue that summarizes “the Guinness Way” in five principles:

  1. Discern the ways of God for life and business.
  2. Think in terms of generations yet to come.
  3. Whatever else you do, do at least one thing very well.
  4. Master the facts before you act.
  5. Invest in those you would have invest in you.

This suggests another value of this book, as an example of a business that does well by doing good along several key dimensions from its spiritual compass, to thinking beyond the next quarter, to having a laser focus, quality strategic planning, and respecting the dignity of workers, investors, and customers. While technologies and markets change, it might well be argued that these basics do not, but may be more crucial than ever.

Review: Ask The Question

Ask the Question

Ask The Question, Stephen Mansfield. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016.

Summary: Contends that an in-depth understanding of the faith of political candidates and the role of religion in their lives, as well as in the world, is an important right of citizens entrusted with important decisions in the voting booth.

Stephen Mansfield opens his book describing a White House Correspondents Association dinner and a notable absence among the three thousand in attendance. There were no religious correspondents, despite the fact that there were a number of qualified people who could have attended. Yet even this number is lessening as newspapers and other media are facing budget issues in an internet age. And among the many who cover the news, there is a combination of reticence and ignorance around religious issues that results in either an unwillingness to ask questions about religion or a lack of knowledge about what questions to ask. Mansfield, who has written books on the faith of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney contends that careful reporting of religious views and an understanding of the role of religion both in our society and globally is as vital as ever.

Mansfield attributes that lack of interest in religion to the influence of Auguste Comte’s ideas on the academic and media elite. The idea was that the rise of science including the scientific study of society would lead to the eclipse of religion as people moved into the brave new scientific, secular world. Yet globally and nationally, this has been shown to be a mistaken conclusion. China may soon have the most Christians of any nation in the world. Pentecostalism, Mormonism, and Islam are rapidly spreading in the world, as well as in the U.S. which is becoming an increasingly religious, though pluralistic nation.

Similar to Randall Balmer’s God in the White House  (reviewed here), Mansfield explores the watershed moment of John Kennedy’s 1960 speech in Houston about his faith arguing that he was the Democrat candidate for President, not the Catholic candidate and that he would not take orders from the Vatican. Essentially he made the case that no religious test should be applied to the presidency, even for Catholics. Yet candidates did talk about their faith, especially from Jimmy Carter on, and the votes of faith communities were sought by appealing in part to the religious views of candidates. Thus, when Mitt Romney was a candidate, he tried an approach similar to JFK, even speaking in Texas, except that it didn’t work. Mansfield argues that it would have helped Romney to be forthcoming about the positive influences of his faith throughout his life, particularly given the significant leadership role and family heritage Romney has in Mormonism. Mansfield also has a chapter on the rise of the “nones”, whose spirituality doesn’t fit the standard religious classifications and often are an eclectic mix. He argues (and I think accurately) that Thomas Jefferson was a “none”, even as he was aware of the importance of religion.

Perhaps his most interesting chapter is an in-depth exploration of the faith of Hilary Clinton, who he would suggest may be one of the most religious people on today’s political scene. He traces her involvement in a Methodist youth group led by Don Jones who exposed her to radicals like Saul Alinsky, whose watchword was that “Christianity is either a faith that relieves the suffering of others or is dead.” He points to the deepening of that faith in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky affair in which she spoke of God more often, and participated both in Capitol Hill prayer meetings and conferences of progressive Christian organizations like Sojourners. Yet the key word may be progressive, evident in her voting record on various social issues, and it may very well be her understanding of Christianity that, at least in part, helps shape her political commitments.

I found myself wishing he had profiled Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Perhaps when he was writing the book, he may not have believed them serious candidates. It would be fascinating to explore Sanders atheism and how his ideals fuel his candidacy. What reporting has there been about Trump’s claimed Presbyterian affiliation? People have decried his positions as “un-Christian” but how many have explored what, if any religious or ideological commitments have shaped his ideas?

Mansfield concludes the book by returning to his basic premise–that faith narratives are important within life narratives, that presidents have often taken religious counsel in the White House, and knowing something about how one’s ultimate commitments shape how they have thought about the political issues of the day is something Americans ought to have access to as they prepare to go to the ballot box.

I found myself heartily in agreement that religion is often badly reported and misunderstood in the press. Voices like Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Jonathan Merritt are showing the value of careful, investigative reporting done by religion reporters. I also think that reporting, like what Mansfield has done, that goes beyond sound bites, to biography and the connection of faith and a politician’s political positions and practice is valuable. I did at the same time find myself wondering how one safeguards against turning such reporting into a “religious test”.

I would advocate that “religious clarity” is only one factor to be weighed along with integrity of character, stated positions and actual voting records, and an assessment of competence to serve in the office. In 1976, for example, I voted for Gerald Ford rather than Jimmy Carter, even though Carter’s faith was quite attractive to me. I thought Ford, who I saw as a man of quieter faith but principled, had demonstrated a competence over his career and grasp of the matters a president must contend with. I still think I was right, though we will never know. Yet Mansfield addresses an important “blind spot” in our political reporting, that will always have an important role in the decisions we make and the leadership we are given.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”