“More persons, on the whole, are humbugged by believing in nothing than by believing in too much.” — Phineas Taylor Barnum
Let’s just cut to the chase: “The Donald” has as good a chance of becoming “The President” as Pope Benedict XVI does of replacing Steven Tyler as a judge on “American Idol.”
Despite the legitimate news coverage Donald Trump‘s flirtation with running for president in 2012 has garnered in recent days, the eccentric billionaire will never reside in the White House for one reason alone (and it’s not his questionable coiffure.)
The insurmountable hurdle to a Trump presidency is religion. Like it or not, there is a spiritual litmus test for the presidency and Trump undoubtedly would not pass.
For the majority of American’s, Trump is far better known for his undying devotion to mammon than his love for God. Not that wealth and the presidency are mutually exclusive. Many former presidents were men of great means.
Yet Trump, twice-divorced with a very public history of philandering and questionable ethics, is not just a wealthy man. He is the poster child for conspicuous consumption and delusions of grandeur.
Surely an intelligent and accomplished man with more than average savvy about his public image and aspirations, earlier this month Trump embarked on a faith offensive when he sat down for an interview with political chief David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network (the house that Pat Robertson built.)
“How do you see God,” Brody asked.
“I believe in God,” Trump began his answer. “I am Christian. I think The Bible is certainly, it is THE book. It is the thing….First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens is where I went to church.
“I’m a protestant, I’m a Presbyterian. And you know I’ve had a good relationship with the church over the years. I think religion is a wonderful thing. I think my religion is a wonderful religion,” Trump said.
Brody followed up with a question about Trump’s churchgoing habits.
“Well, I go as much as I can,” Trump said. “Always on Christmas. Always on Easter. Always when there’s a major occasion. And during the Sundays. I’m a Sunday church person. I’ll go when I can.”
So he’s on the record a Chreaster (those who show up for church only on Christmas and Easter.) It’s not exactly a resounding testimony to Trump’s living faith.
For his part, Brody seemed unfazed by the Donald’s rather unorthodox spiritual biography.
“Donald Trump has piqued the interest of some Evangelical leaders. His bold talk is something conservative Christians like to hear,” Brody wrote in an analysis of the interview. “Remember, Evangelicals tend to operate in a world of biblical absolutes. Their world is very black and white. Not many shades of gray. That’s how Trump sees the world, too.
To borrow a line from “Weekend Update” hosts Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers on “Saturday Night Live: “Really, Brody? Really?!”
While recent polls seem to indicate that Trump could be a viable Republican presidential candidate and has garnered enough support to perhaps even prevail in a match-up against President Obama (whose birth records and religious predilections Trump has called into question in recent days), experts on the role of religion and the presidency say the mogul’s political aspirations are quixotic at best.
“I’m inclined to see the Trump extravaganza as something of a sideshow,” said Boston University’s Stephen Prothero author of several books about religion in American life, including A Nation of Religions: The Politics of Pluralism in Multireligious America.
“[Trump] is the P. T. Barnum of his time. In my view he’s drumming up interest in his brand more than he is making a serious run for the presidency. That said, I think his candidacy is a test of sorts for where the Republican Party stands today. Is it really about economics and budgets and deficits, as Tea Party partisans pretend? In that case, the businessmen in the race (Trump and Romney) would seem to be, literally, well suited.”
Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and a 2008 also-ran, is often mentioned as a leading candidate for the GOP ticket in 2012. But religion-and-politics watchers repeatedly question whether the powerful evangelical bloc would support a Mormon candidate, despite his family-friendly traditional values.
But stranger things have happened in American politics.
“We’ve seen once-insuperable barriers fall in presidential politics — and probably none more significant than a divorced man (Reagan) garnering the evangelical vote in 1980,” said Randall Balmer, professor of religious history at Barnard College and author of God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.
“Reagan, however, exuded an air of piety — how sincere or not I still can’t figure out — whereas Trump seems to have a severe piety deficit,” Balmer said. “This seems especially debilitating for someone with his sights set on the Republican nomination, where some semblance of faith seems to be a prerequisite. On the other hand, if (Newt) Gingrich can pull it off, I suppose anyone can.”
If religion and culture still matter, Prothero believes both Romney and Trump are in trouble. He wouldn’t be on either man, even in one of Trump’s casinos.
“My money,” Prothero said, “is on ‘neither of the above.’”
A version of this post originally appearead via Religion News Service.