Review: Choosing Donald Trump (2017)

Stephen Mansfield, who has authored a number of other works pertaining to the faith of political leaders, published Choosing Donald Trump in order to unpack Trump’s religious and spiritual heritage; Mansfield hopes further to tease out the larger place of faith in the culture during the years of Trump’s presidency (15). Importantly, Mansfield opens the work with a bit of an apologetic that gets at “the eighty-one percent’s” responsibility (or, stronger, culpability) for the Trump presidency.

Mansfield describes Trump as “a man churched if not yet converted,” (23) and in large measure this summarizes the president well. He fumbles through an inchoate theology, no doubt suffering malnutrition after Trump’s few Sundays in church over the past decades (89). Yet, he recognized the power of the Religious Right as a political institution; Trump’s recollection of a mentor (of sorts) is illustrative: “he recalls mainly that he learned how to manipulate Dobias to get what he wanted.” (52)

In terms of structure, the book has four parts: An Unlikely Champion, The Backstory, The Appeal, and Of Prophets and Presidents. Mansfield opens the book in 2012 with Trump’s convocation speech at Liberty University. The two opening chapters walk us through the years immediately preceding the 2016 campaign. Mansfield characterizes him as “a mixture, then: a maddening, unrepentant, ill-mannered, ever-bragging, ever-warring jumble of bad boy, billionaire, and aspiring saint.” (33) Nevertheless, he knew that it would be important to sidle up to “the court evangelicals.”

Mansfield proceeds to take note of those religious influences that shaped Trump’s convictions, as well as those that honed his message when the hour of his candidacy had come. Specifically, in “the Appeal,” Mansfield explores the place of Obama’s and Clinton’s faiths, neither of which are particularly interesting chapters. He does, however, hit rightly on the point that Trump embodies the American spirit. He is the Id:  “Trump has not tainted American culture by his crass talk. He has merely reflected it.” (128)

In “The Backstory,” the chapters on Norman Vincent Peale’s and Paula White’s formative influences on Trump were the most helpful pieces. Peale, who functioned as Trump’s pastor, instilled in him the “power of positive thinking,” and White connected Trump to a variety of spiritual-political leaders. These two chapters were easily the strongest in the work.

However, the closing appeal to “maintain prophetic distance” fell flat for lack of specificity in addition to its triteness. He rightly admonishes those who view Trump as a “man chosen by God” along the lines of Cyrus the Great. But, as far as sketching out how somebody without the means to reach Trump directly would “maintain prophetic distance,” Mansfield fails to offer anything of substance. This part would have served better as a coda than its own extended section.

Altogether, Choosing Donald Trump gives an interesting backstory to Trump’s religious position–but little else.


Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers http://www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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