Where religion is concerned, Donald Trump’s bigotry is his biggest problem, but his ignorance comes in a close second.
We already know that Trump will say whatever he thinks will appeal to the crowd he is talking to, but calling Hillary Clinton’s faith into question before a group of evangelical leaders on Tuesday represented a new low – if such a thing is possible in a campaign that hits those markers on an almost-daily basis.
Trump’s comprehensive and often factually challenged attack on Clinton is drawing much attention. But his comments on her faith say even more about him.
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Trump does not appear to be very religious and seems uncomfortable around the subject. In principle, this is not a problem. The Constitution explicitly forbids religious tests for federal office. Over our history, presidents have varied in their attachment to religion, and there is no sure-fire way to know whether what a politician says about his or her belief in God is true.
Moreover, many deeply religious people don’t talk much about their faith outside intimate circles. One of the year’s best statements on the matter came from John Kasich (who is, by all accounts, very religious) when he explained why he had not invoked religion much on the campaign trail. “I’d rather have an eternal destiny,” he said, “than try to cheapen the brand of God.”
It’s hard to imagine that God worries about branding, but Kasich’s unease with the way politics can devalue faith was admirable.
This is not something that bothers Trump.
Because white, conservative evangelical Christians are an important part of the Republican base and because many evangelicals have expressed qualms or outright opposition to Trump, he tried to get them onboard by hinting darkly that Clinton is an infidel.
“We don’t know anything about Hillary in terms of religion,” he told the evangelical leaders. “Now, she’s been in the public eye for years and years, and yet there’s no – there’s nothing out there. There’s like nothing out there. It’s going to be an extension of (President Barack) Obama but it’s going to be worse, because with Obama you had your guard up. With Hillary you don’t, and it’s going to be worse.”
No, we – meaning anyone who has taken the remotest interest in the topic – know quite a lot about Hillary Clinton’s Methodist faith.
She has spoken of it often and is a regular churchgoer. In his 2007 biography of Clinton, Carl Bernstein wrote that other than her family, “Methodism is perhaps the most important foundation of her character.”
Just as even George W. Bush’s political adversaries freely acknowledge that faith plays a central part in his life, so have Clinton’s many detractors accepted the role that faith plays in hers.
Trump might usefully check out Clinton’s remarkably personal speech to the United Methodist Women Assembly in 2014 where she argued that Methodism “gave us the great gift of personal salvation but also the great obligation of social gospel.”
But of course trashing other people’s faith is standard Trump practice.
His willingness to deny basic rights to Muslims is well-known. In March, he said of Mitt Romney, one of his sharpest critics: “Are you sure he’s a Mormon? Are we sure?” Romney’s loyalty to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is as defining for him as Clinton’s Methodism is for her.
And when Ben Carson looked to be a serious challenger, Trump went after the physician’s allegiance to Seventh-day Adventism. “I’m Presbyterian. Boy, that’s down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness,” Trump said. “I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about, I just don’t know about.”
What exactly didn’t he “know” about Adventists? A presidential candidate who uses ignorance as a vehicle for peddling religious prejudice is condemning himself twice over – as both ill-informed and a bigot.
Trump’s indifference to truth, to a basic decency toward the religious convictions of his opponents, and to any seriousness about how religion should and should not be discussed in the political arena ought to terrify believers and nonbelievers alike.
But those who defend faith’s role in our nation’s public life should be especially alarmed.
Absent anything substantive to say about his belief system, Trump lashes out at others. And lacking an affirmative vision, he plays on fears and tells evangelicals, as he did on Tuesday, that his Democratic foes are “selling Christianity down the tubes.”
Well. If religion is being sold out, it’s Trump who is orchestrating the deal.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.