It was less than a year ago that celebrity businessman-turned-politician Donald Trump delivered a baffling promise to the American people: “I am your voice,” he boasted, breaking tradition from two centuries of American politics by imploring the nation to put its faith not in God or even one another, but in him.
Fast-forward to the midway point of President Trump’s first year, in the wake of his return from his first foreign trip — to the Abrahamic religious capitals of the world — and the same solicitation for the confidence of the American people holds no less true, if slightly more refined.
While it put him front and center — indeed, even by force, as was the case with Montenegro’s prime minister — the president’s trip also forced him to publicly put to bed previously expressed grievances with world leaders, specifically Muslim leaders and Pope Francis, Trump’s religious foil and partner-in-quarrel during the campaign season.
The trip seemed to be, at its heart, a spectacle — an opportunity to redeem the president in the eyes of the American people and the world, and to make Trump great again.
The administration also hoped that Trump’s first foreign trip would ease global skepticism of the president’s leadership and demonstrate the global presence of the United States, particularly pertinent in an era of strongly nationalist rhetoric and agenda.
These issues were addressed in all of the countries he visited, but only in pure Trumpian fashion.
In Saudi Arabia the president preached a message of religious tolerance to an audience of more than a dozen Muslim leaders, asking for their allegiance in the fight against the fanatical violence of Islamist extremist groups.
He even referred to Islam as "one of the world’s greatest faiths."
During his trip to Jerusalem, President Trump became the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall – an experience he later described as deeply moving and forever impactful.
But one cannot help draw parallels between the historic visit and the president’s infamous and impending campaign promise to build a border wall. Will this apparently moving experience at a site of such obvious religious significance have any long-term impact on the president’s passion project?
At the Vatican, Trump’s spectacle-driven approach to problem solving was put on more prominent display, given that he and Pope Francis, as The Washington Post put it, “hold divergent worldviews on everything from migrant rights to climate change.”
Of his experience, the president tweeted: “Honor of a lifetime to meet His Holiness Pope Francis. I leave the Vatican more determined than ever to promote PEACE in our world.” But, the ending to the story was less than ideal. Days after his audience with Pope Francis, Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement. One Vatican official described the withdrawal as “a disaster.”
So, in the wake of the president’s return from his religion world tour, I have to wonder: Did the Trump administration accomplish anything from the foreign trip that increasingly seemed like a political publicity stunt more than anything else? If Trump can walk away relatively unchanged from an experience with such spiritual weight as this one, what type of divine intervention will it take to truly stir his soul?
Other than showcasing Trump himself, the religion world tour displays prominently the president's tendencies to jump to conclusions about long-lasting issues he does not and cannot fully understand in order to appease his fan base — American evangelicals.
As The Atlantic’s Dan P. McAdams writes, white American evangelicals, 81 percent of whom voted for Trump, “‘are trying to save the country’ … from sin and damnation, of course, but also … from the threats and impurities of a corrupt and dangerous world.”
Regardless of the president’s personal religious convictions — of which McAdams describes as indisputably “less ideological than most presidential candidates” before him — Trump has mastered the art of persuasion, strategically situating himself in places where he appears to be a true political savior for his supporters.
Trump’s trip, then, is the epitome of this unique, sales-based approach that characterized his campaign and administration — a move toward achieving personal, political, and even religious victory, simultaneously. But to what end? The only clear motivation to which I can point is the uncannily vague promise to “Make America Great Again.”
As an evangelical Christian American, I am left confused by my president’s behavior, rhetoric, and religious convictions. If the president, his evangelical supporters, and I are of the same religious flavor, then why do I get the feeling that my religion is being used to further an agenda rather than as a foundation for the formation of impactful and sustainable policy?
I critique Trump, and the American evangelical community, out of biblical conviction that iron is made to sharpen iron.
As Christians, if we do not find ourselves rallying around one another, Scripture, and ultimately God, to ask these tough questions of our country’s leadership — especially, but not limited to when a self-proclaimed savior promises that he, not Christ, is the solution to our problems — I fear that we will be further from truth than we realize.