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As Trump Defies Expectations Of Faith, Might We Be Entering A New Era?

A newspaper correspondent observing Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration in March 1865 — delivered to a crowd "as far as the eye could reach" — noted that the president laid his right hand on a Bible and, facing Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon Chase, swore to preserve, protect and defend the U.S. Constitution.

"Then," the reporter noted, "solemnly repeating 'So help me God!' he bent forward and reverently kissed the Book."

It was the first documented eyewitness account of a U.S. president asking for God's assistance at his inauguration. While the oath of office is laid out in the Constitution, it includes no reference to God. The founders barred any religious requirement for the office.

The words "so help me God" have nevertheless become the standard conclusion of the oath. U.S. presidents have long understood that their fellow citizens want them to show some humility and demonstrate a faith in God as they perform their duties. Most have felt the need to attend church on occasion, talk of prayer and seek the counsel of ministers, if only for the sake of appearances.

"In the United States, religion serves as a proxy for morality," says Randall Balmer, a historian of religion at Dartmouth College. "What we as voters want to know is that our presidential candidates have some sort of moral center or moral compass, and we really don't know how to ask the question other than to say, 'Are you religious?' "

This expectation of presidential religiosity, however, is being tested with the candidacy of thrice-married Donald Trump, who mangles his references to the Bible, says he doesn't often need forgiveness and when asked what he thought about Jesus, managed only to say he respected him "in terms of bravery and in terms of courage."

In the modern era, Balmer says, "I think he would be the first president who really makes no credible claims to religiosity." By contrast, Hillary Clinton refers regularly to her devout Methodist upbringing and talks of her rootedness in the social gospel associated with the liberal wing of that church.

Hillary Clinton has often emphasized her Methodist upbringing on the campaign trail. Here she speaks during church services at Greater St. Paul Church in Oakland, Calif., on June 5.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Hillary Clinton has often emphasized her Methodist upbringing on the campaign trail. Here she speaks during church services at Greater St. Paul Church in Oakland, Calif., on June 5.

For a Republican especially, Trump's lack of religious credentials is significant. Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 was boosted by his alliance with a newly formed Christian group calling itself the Moral Majority, and Republican candidates since then have gone out of their way to court Christian support. The evangelical vote remains important enough that Donald Trump felt the need to meet with conservative Christian leaders last week in New York.

His awkwardness among religious leaders, however, clearly came through. The meeting was officially closed to the press, but some attendees recorded Trump's remarks and shared them on Twitter or elsewhere. In those recordings Trump does not mention the Bible or Jesus Christ. He calls himself a "tremendous believer" but doesn't say what exactly he believes in, other than himself and his own success.

"Christianity, I owe so much to it in so many ways — through life, through having incredible children," he told the group, without explaining what he meant. "But I also owe it ... frankly ... because the evangelical vote was mostly gotten by me." To its credit, Christianity had made him a winner.

As for prayer, Trump said, "Pray for everyone. But what you really have to do is, you have to pray to get everybody out to vote, for one specific person. And we can't be politically correct and say, 'We pray for all our leaders,' because all of your leaders are selling Christianity down the tubes."

Many of the people at the meeting came away with positive impressions of Trump, but that feeling is hardly universal among evangelicals.

"I think he is without a moral core," says Michael Farris, an ordained Baptist minister and one of the founders of the Moral Majority. Farris is now chancellor of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., and an activist in the home schooling movement.

"He doesn't keep his word in his business transactions," Farris says. "He ridicules people. He doesn't believe anything about treating his neighbor better than himself. I mean, that's what the Bible teaches. We just don't see any semblance of honesty, decency, integrity."

In a commentary for the Christian Post, Farris wrote that the evangelicals' meeting with Trump in New York "marks the end of the Christian Right." He is dismayed by the extent of support Trump is getting from his fellow Christians.

"We have evangelical leaders saying, 'We're going to support this guy anyway,' " he tells NPR. "It means our principles don't mean anything at all."

It may mean more than that. The country may no longer be demanding God-fearing presidents.

"Americans, I think, are looking for something else in their presidential candidates these days," says historian Balmer.

A willingness to speak plainly, perhaps, even without religious overtones.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.