Donald Trump and the cynical conversion

Have you heard? Donald Trump has found the Lord. And in the process, he’s attracted scores of evangelical voters, who delight in the dual pleasures of a fellow Christian and a conversion narrative. In its own way, I think this may be one of Trump’s most ghastly and cynical campaign moves yet, and he’s likely to get away with it.

But maybe he really did find Jesus, you may wish to tell me, and you might like to know that I have a bridge to sell you. Because I’m sorry, but the timing of this grand event is too suspicious to make it anything more than a naked attempt at appealing to evangelical voters, and it’s really gross.

I’m an atheist, as we know, but I also take religion pretty seriously. Religion is something to be treated with respect, and so are people of faith. The fact that I don’t believe in a higher power doesn’t invalidate their faith and religious traditions. People of faith derive important things from their spirituality, and I respect that. I also try to be respectful of religious traditions and spaces when I am invited into them as a guest, and if I don’t feel that’s possible, I politely excuse myself. Taking off my shoes when I enter a temple is respectful, and costs me nothing. I would not rise for Communion at a Catholic service, because that would be disrespectful. When I attend funerals for Jewish friends and the rabbi invites me to join in the kaddish, I do so.

I may lack faith, but I do not lack manners.

Donald Trump, as we know, is not exactly known for being mannerly, but he is known for his cynical drive and lust for the White House. And evangelical voters are a huge block with tremendous organising power. If you can reach that block, you have an important footing in the larger Christian community, and you have an army of followers to help you get elected. And I strongly suspect that Trump is pandering with his professed ‘closer relationship to Christ,’ and it is disgusting to see someone making a mockery of religious beliefs in a single-minded pursuit of power.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps Donald Trump really has accepted Christ after considerable thought, prayer, and personal consideration, and perhaps I am being a raging asshole right now. But I doubt it. And moreover, I very much doubt that the evangelical community even believes in his conversion — but socially conservative evangelicals have been looking for a reason to rally behind Trump, and now they have one.

Hillary Clinton is also Christian, and attends services periodically, though she’s clearly not extremely devout, unless she maintains her religious practices as a primarily private matter, which is perfectly reasonable and in its own way quite admirable. But the thing is that she’s a woman, which is a point against her in the eyes of conservatives, and she’s liberal, which is another point against her, and she’s a Clinton, which is the fatal blow in the trifecta.

Trump’s conversion allows them to take a soft, easy way out — he’s a man who publicly professes an interest in the faith, and therefore, it’s reasonable to rally around him, ignoring all of his myriad problems. His slew of highly unChristian behavior certainly won’t pose much of a barrier, given the fact that most conservative evangelicals aren’t very Christian in their behaviour either, no matter what they claim about their religious beliefs and values.

It’s just too neat. It’s too neat that he should suddenly leak the details of his conversion right before a major evangelical conference, when he’s fishing for endorsements. It’s too neat that the identity of the person who ‘led him to Christ’ is some sort of shady secret, with people vouching for Trump’s conversion by proxy. I don’t believe that you need credentials to present yourself as a member of a faith, but if you’re going to claim that someone ‘led you to Christ,’ you might want to be open about who that was, and surely, this is an accomplishment that someone would be proud of, yes?

No. It stretches the bounds of believability that he should just happen to convert right in time for election season. Religion is a serious undertaking. Joining a religious faith is a huge deal. It involves a lot of time, and thought, and education, and it’s not something that should be taken lightly, because to do so is really offensive, suggesting that religion can be shrugged off and on like a coat. I have a very hard time believing that Donald Trump has been thinking about and studying Christianity for an extended period of time — rather, it seems much more probable that he realised, or someone led him to realise, that if he wanted to clinch the evangelical vote, he needed to throw them a bone.

I don’t see Trump suddenly deciding to attend church on a serious basis. Nor do I see any indication that he’s involved in Bible study, which is important to many evangelicals. Nor have I seen any moderation of his behaviour that might reflect a genuine desire to reflect on his actions and deeds. What I see is the same man we’ve been seeing, except that now, he thinks he can cloak himself in religion to score points, and it’s reprehensible.

Image: Donald Trump, Matt A.J., Flickr