Can Trump Get an Iowa ‘Amen’ With His Liberty U. Performance?

Donald Trump (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)
Donald Trump (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Media coverage of Donald Trump’s recent address to Liberty University students has typically highlighted his “Two Corinthians” theological flub – as if it will mean something significant to voters in Iowa:

Trump was slightly mistaken in his Bible reference. “Two Corinthians” does not exist. He likely meant to say “Second Corinthians,” referring to the second letter of Paul to the Corinthians.

To their credit, devout Iowa Evangelicals are deeper than that. They are more likely to see “Two Corinthians” as a slightly amusing – if not disquieting – confirmation about other more troublesome statements Trump has made about his faith. In a ThinkProgress piece last September, Jack Jenkins noted:

When Frank Luntz inquired in July whether Trump has ever asked God for forgiveness, the famously confident real estate mogul answered no, saying, “I don’t bring God into that picture” before offering a questionable explanation of Christian communion. He later explained to CNN’s Anderson Cooper that this is largely because he usually doesn’t believe he’s sinning in the first place.

“Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes?” Trump said, seemingly dismissing two millennia of Christian teaching on human sinfulness.

If Evangelical Christians were skeptical of Trump’s “I am Christian” declaration of faith, his speech at Liberty and student reactions to it likely confirmed that his profession of faith is more akin to a categorical identification than it is the walking, breathing, living faith they send their children to Liberty to study and embrace. Donald Trump talks about his faith with the halting shallowness of someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time thinking about it:

“Two Corinthians, right? 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame,” Trump said. “Where the spirit of the Lord, right…there is liberty. Here, there is liberty…Liberty University, but it is so true.”

His awkward Corinthians reference seemed more on par with someone who reads Cliff Notes than the actual book; and then it smacked of pandering:

“Here, there is liberty…Liberty University, but it is so true. You know when I think, and that’s really – is that the one? Is that the one you like?”

And then became self-referential:

“Who has read the Art of the Deal in this room?” Trump asked, referring to his bestselling business advice book from the 1980s. “Everybody. I always say. I always say – a deep, deep second to the Bible.”

Citing James 1:22 might have proved more authentic to the Evangelical ear. But students seemed to grasp the incongruity a Christian Trump presented:

“I would say that he’s genuine in his belief that he’s religious,” said 18-year-old Josh Curry, a freshman business major management. “But he doesn’t go to church at all. So, God knows the heart, not people, so take that as you will.”

Credit Trump chutzpah to go to a place like Liberty and try to play to a crowd that’s taught to be instinctively suspicious of false prophets.

He doesn’t bring the resume that deeply religious conservatives typically seek. Trump is a lifelong New Yorker who has been married three times, used to speak in favor of abortion, and curses often in speeches. Monday’s address came a day after he said on CNN that he doesn’t like to ask for forgiveness.

But when the Iowa caucus begins, will the inconsistency of Trump’s Christian witness be enough to stifle a true believer’s willingness to choose him? Probably. Especially in a field of candidates crowded with those who have made transparent, reverential, even exegetical testimony to their own Christian faith.

But while Evangelicals might prefer to have the Oval office occupied by a fellow believer, in an era of growing political, legal, and cultural hostility to Christianity they could be tempted to short arm the primary and choose a champion who will merely commit to defending them rather than a theological purist. Trump gets that, and despite not quite drawing to an inside straight, he played the religious liberty card to great effect at Liberty. A January 18 AFP report of his speech noted Trump’s pledge brandished the “S” word every Evangelical understands:

“You look at the different places, and Christianity, it’s under siege,” he said…

“We’re going to protect Christianity. If you look what’s going on throughout the world — you look at Syria, where if you’re Christian, they’re chopping off heads.”

When the devil’s at the door, you’ll use any tool for defense. Two Corinthians? I can hear it now: “at least he got the Corinthians part right…”

Clint Cline is the president of Design4, a national media and messaging firm based in Florida.