Perhaps the only subject Donald Trump likes to talk about as much as the almighty self is, well, Almighty God.
Need proof? At a White House “state-like dinner” for evangelical leaders in late August, President Trump spoke about “the glory of God” and the “power of prayer,” while promising that he would ensure America would “forever proudly remain one nation under God.”
This kind of religious rhetoric is not new for Trump. He has consistently tried to “grab ‘em by the Bible” when addressing his conservative base. At a 2015 rally, he declared that the Good Book was his favorite published work of all-time—just topping “The Art of the Deal.” During another speech that same year, he waved his childhood Bible in the air to prove his religious bona fides.
Trump has even indicated that God probably had a hand in the election, noting that such a victory “would require major help from God… and we got it!”
Considering these anecdotes, one might assume that Trump using the presidential mega-microphone to speak about faith might help revive God-talk among the masses. But according to a new poll I commissioned with Barna Group, a prominent social research firm focused on religion and public life, it may be hurting the Christian cause rather than helping.
In our poll of more than 1,000 American adults, 93 percent of respondents said they do not talk about their faith regularly. Indeed, a whopping 87 percent of churchgoing Christians said the same. And among those who avoid God-talk, one of the top motivations for their reticence is feeling “put off by how religion has been politicized.”
From sea to shining sea, spiritual conversations are now an endangered species. And when politicians like Trump co-opt religious language for political ends, it accelerates the demise of sacred speech.
To be fair, the mingling of religion and politics is not unique to Donald Trump or even Republican politicians. George W. Bush was famous for invoking the Almighty and quoting from the Bible, and both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama engaged in God-talk often as president. The politicization of religious language is an American tradition.
But this is not Bill Clinton’s America. The proliferation of social media combined with a 24/7 news cycle amplifies every word a politician speaks. So when a politician like Trump appropriates God-talk, it ripples out into the broader culture like never before.
Unlike those who’ve occupied the Oval Office in years past, the thrice-married, foul-mouthed Trump also has the added disadvantage of not being believably religious.
When asked to name his favorite verse in the Bible he likes to showcase, Trump couldn’t name one. Though forgiveness of sins is a central Christian tenet, the president commented that he has never asked God for it. He described the ordinance of communion as the practice whereby “I drink my little wine… and have my little cracker.” And though he claimed to attend Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, the congregation reported that he is not an “active member.”
The president has clearly taken a crash course in Christian rhetoric, but the lack of depth shows up in his public speeches. In a 2016 at Liberty University, a conservative Christian college founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, Trump quoted from the epistle of 2 Corinthians, saying, “Now the Lord is that Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty.” Unfortunately, he mispronounced the name of the epistle. And in the same speech, Trump also cursed. Twice.
The mingling of religion and partisan politics discomfits many Americans. And as my research shows, they are even more allergic to this behavior when it feels disingenuous, coercive, or manipulative. Though he touts himself as a savior of conservative Christianity, Trump is actually driving its demise.
But despite this data, you shouldn’t expect Donald Trump to cut out the God-talk any time soon. He needs religious voters’ support, and religious language is a deft tool for signaling that he has their back.
When the conservative faithful hear their commander-in-chief talking in such a way, it makes them feel like the culture wars are finally tilting in their direction. But as it turns out, the opposite is true. The president’s public religiosity is actually contributing to the cultural secularism that his faithful supporters assume he’s helping beat back.
Jonathan Merritt is author of the book “Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing – and How We Can Revive Them” and a contributing writer for The Atlantic.