Given the mess that he’s in and the martyrdom that he hallucinates, it’s only fitting that Donald Trump would turn toward God.
He has fled the country – not a moment too soon! – for his first foreign excursion since taking office, and it’s less a conventional presidential trip than a roving seminar in world religions: Islam (Saudi Arabia is the first stop), Judaism (Israel is second) and Roman Catholicism (the Vatican is the capper).
I’m especially eager for his communion with Pope Francis, an entry in the annals of odd couples that ranks somewhere just above Oscar and Felix, and below Mork and Mindy.
One of them is splenetic. The other is ascetic. One sins. The other redeems. Cue the metaphors and clutch your rosary beads.
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They’ve a history, these two, and it’s not pretty. During the campaign, Francis denounced the notion of a wall along the Mexican border, and Trump didn’t exactly turn the other cheek. “Disgraceful!” he shot back, confirming his willingness to make an adversary of anyone, no matter how tall the miter.
But they can skip over that and look to future matters like the reportedly imminent nomination of Callista Gingrich as America’s next ambassador to the Vatican. She’s Newt’s third wife, who was sleeping with him when he was still married to his second. Time and, it seems, annulments have washed the couple clean.
The president intended his pilgrimage as a statement that the diverse peoples of the world can and should get along – and that he, Trump, had the stature and sway to point them toward peace. This was to be a moment of bold leadership.
But on the heels of the worst two weeks of a ceaselessly beleaguered presidency, it looks more like a hasty retreat. Plus, there’s the continued wonder – the comedy, really – of watching a man so unabashedly profane pay such ostentatious heed to the sacred.
Trump as a holy roller, spellbound by the mysteries of faith? File this in the ecclesiastical subcategory of overcompensation. Methinks he doth genuflect too much.
And mepredicts a disaster. The Israel component already is, and not only because he was just caught sharing Israeli intelligence with the Russians. He abandoned the idea of a speech at the mountain fortress of Masada after he was denied permission to land his helicopter on such an archaeologically sensitive site. When Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton went there, they were content to take the cable car to the top.
He baffled Israelis with his reported insistence on keeping his visit to Yad Vashem, a cherished Holocaust memorial, to just 15 minutes. President Barack Obama devoted about an hour to it. So did Bush.
And in rejecting any joint appearance at the Western Wall with Benjamin Netanyahu, an administration official specified that the wall did not belong to Israel. That’s a widely held position, but its gratuitous enunciation doesn’t make Israelis’ hearts go pitter patter.
Trump has been flamboyantly chasing salvation from the moment he stepped out on the campaign trail. That’s largely why he picked Mike Pence, a darling of the religious right, as his running mate. It’s behind his recent instructions to the Internal Revenue Service to give religious groups leeway for political lobbying.
On May 13, for his first commencement speech as president, he chose Liberty University, an Evangelical Christian School whose president, Jerry Falwell Jr., told the crowd, “I do not believe any president in our lifetimes has done so much that has benefited the Christian community in such a short time span as Donald Trump.”
Then Trump got up and marveled at the size of the crowd he’d drawn, because his particular brand of spirituality is heavy on self-veneration. He articulated loftier thoughts, too. “In America,” he said, “we don’t worship government. We worship God.”
His own relationship with the Almighty has not always taken obvious or typical forms. Although he was brought up Presbyterian, the Manhattan church that he attended, Marble Collegiate, was best known for its celebrity preacher, Norman Vincent Peale, who marketed and monetized the power of positive thinking.
“Attitudes are more important than facts,” Peale asserted. Little Donald listened well.
And Big Donald went on to treat the Commandments as if they weren’t etched in stone but doodled in disappearing ink. He stiffed creditors, made a mockery of the truth and publicly boasted about his promiscuity. He never talked all that much about religion, not until the campaign. Even then the results were interesting.
He referred to the sacraments as if they were pets: “my little wine,” “my little cracker.” Instead of citing “Second Corinthians,” he said, “Two Corinthians,” so that Corinthians sounded like a matched set.
Questioned about the circumstances in which he might gaze heavenward for expiation, he said he didn’t “bring God into that picture.”
But my favorite of his spiritual musings came when he was asked, on the Christian Broadcasting Network, “Who is God to you?”
“God is the ultimate,” he answered. “Nobody, no thing, there’s nothing like God.”
The angels wept.
And the evangelical voters indeed came around, a phenomenon on which we’ve lavished analysis. We’ve remarked less on the audacity of Trump’s pantomime of godliness, given his core.
It illuminates perhaps his greatest gift, politically speaking, which is his readiness to strike any pose he deems necessary, no matter how ludicrous, and his certainty that he can sell it. The past is no tether. Reality doesn’t intrude. And no arena, not even religion, is sacrosanct. He will bend it to his purposes. He will claim it as his own.
One day he’s a Democrat; the next, a Republican. One day he’s having his wares made in China; the next, he’s railing against outsourcing. One day “The Art of the Deal” is his bible; the next, the Bible is his everything, and he’s promoting piety all over the place.
Melania, too. She opened a Trump rally in Florida in February with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, speaking of daily bread despite her aura of nightly caviar.
Will her husband be forgiven his trespasses? I can’t guess about celestial judgments, but in this earthly, temporal realm, I don’t think the odds are good.
Facts are turning out to be as important as attitudes. Every hour brings some fresh mortification for his administration. A special counsel is commencing work. Words like “Watergate” and “obstruction of justice” whip through the air. If I were Trump, I’d probably get out of town, too.
And I’d definitely pray.