CNN scores hit with its well-sourced take on Donald Trump, guilt and the Gospel

It’s rare that an article about Donald Trump’s faith can say something new and fresh, yet a recent CNN.com piece managed to pull that off. It helped that the reporter had some very good sources.

The headline was pretty apropos: “The guilt-free gospel of Donald Trump.” (A similar piece about Hillary might, as my colleague Jim Davis has suggested, have a headline like "Hillary Clinton offers gospel-free guilt.") 

There's been a lot written about the puzzle that is Donald Trump's religious beliefs, but this story manages to break some new ground less than three weeks from Election Day. 

(CNN) -- Donald Trump was ashamed -- contrite even -- as he spoke to Paula White hours after the video of him bragging about groping women was released.
"I heard it in his voice," said White, a Florida pastor who, outside of Trump's family, is his closest spiritual confidant. "He was embarrassed." ...
During his phone call with White, the GOP nominee said he regretted his remarks and was grateful for the evangelicals still supporting him. Later that evening, he publicly apologized in a video that was remarkably free from the usual rituals enacted by disgraced politicians.
Trump didn't stand beside his wife, Melania. He didn't ask for forgiveness. He didn't lament that he had fallen under sin's sway but that by God's grace and with his family's support he hoped to earn a second chance. In fact, Trump didn't mention faith, family or reconciliation at all.

The article goes on to cite several of Trump’s vapid responses to questions about religion.

Trump's attempts at public religion have been awkward, at best. He said he does not ask for forgiveness and "does not bring God into that picture" when he makes mistakes. He has tried to put money in the Communion plate and referred to the sacrament as "my little wine" and "my little cracker." He mispronounced a book of the Bible, and when asked about his favorite verse, has either deferred or, in one case, cited "an eye for an eye," an Old Testament revenge scheme specifically condemned by Christ. (Turn the other cheek, Jesus said.)

The reporter then tells about Trump’s history with the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, the minister at Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan who was into positive thinking way before the world ever heard of Joel Osteen. 

Maybe this chapter in Trump's past has been written about elsewhere, but I didn’t know this background, so it explained Trump’s faith –- such as it is –- to me.  

One thing that some of you under 50 might not remember is that Peale-like spirituality was a big thing back in the 1950s and 60s, when Trump was in his formative years. Early Baby Boomers like him (and Hillary) grew up in an era where this sort of masculine Protestantism was quite popular. Not everyone got swept up in the Jesus movement or in Woodstock.

The reporter got some very good quotes from Paula White, Trump’s spiritual mentor. In the days when I covered her, getting through to Paula was a lot of work, so I appreciated the fresh comments. At the same time, I loved the Kate Bowler quote about why Trump is attracted to Paula:

"She's blonde and cute and perky and endlessly optimistic."

Well, yes, that’s true. There is that. And also true that Paula is a 21st century edition of Peale.

All good points. But as the article closes, one gets the impression that inside, Trump is actually quite empty.

"I don't like to analyze myself," Trump told biographer D'Antonio, "because I might not like what I see." In recent years, Trump has said that he attends church occasionally, on Christmas, Easter and "special occasions," but that he is too busy on most Sundays.
He is no longer a member of Marble Collegiate or First Presbyterian in Queens, and it's hard to picture him sitting through a service, or confessing his sins before a congregation, or listening, in quiet hours of Trump Tower, for the still, small voice of God.
Trump puts his faith in work, and waits upon the whirlwind.

I didn't quite get the last few words. "Reaps the whirlwind" is more like it. One huge difference between him and his opponent is that Clinton has used religion as part of her scenery since Bill was in the White House. Trump is so unfamiliar with religion, he doesn't know how to manipulate it. His attempts to dip into that world are so transparent, they are amusing to everyone who knows what 'Two Corinthians' means (OK, click here for a reminder about that whole media storm).

If you read the piece, be sure to click on the “theology of Trump” video attached to it. It's hard to know what to like best or least: Someone who manipulates faith language or someone who doesn't even know the language.

Had Trump spent more years as a politician, surely he would have come up with a personal religion narrative much earlier in the game. As it is, he's had to assemble one on the road, as it were. But to be fair, has Hillary spent time waiting on the "still, small voice of God" herself? I've never seen any sign of it.

CNN managed to deliver a Trump profile that's snark-free. These days, that's a rare find indeed. 

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