There’s a reason so many Republican presidential hopefuls traveled to the Family Leadership Summit this past weekend: social conservatives are a dominant force in Iowa Republican politics, and this forum caters specifically to religious right activists.
With this in mind, moderator Frank Luntz asked Donald Trump on Saturday, “Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?” The question elicited some laughter from the audience, though the Republican candidate seemed to take the matter seriously.
“I’m not sure I have,” Trump said. “I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
He quickly added in garbled syntax, “We I take, when we go, and church and when I drink my little wine – which is about the only wine I drink – and have my little cracker, I guess that’s a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed, OK? But, you know, to me that’s important, I do that, but in terms of officially, I could say, ‘Absolutely!’ and everybody, I don’t think in terms of that. I think in terms of, let’s go on and let’s make it right.”
The comments, obviously, were largely overlooked because they were soon followed by his controversial criticisms of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), but Byron York reported yesterday that it was Trump’s religious rhetoric that arguably mattered more to this specific audience.
A senior Iowa Republican who was in the room, sitting with a group of grassroots activists as Trump spoke, was dumbfounded by the candidate’s views of religion. “While there were audible groans in the crowd when Trump questioned whether McCain was a war hero,” the senior Republican said via email, “it was Trump’s inability to articulate any coherent relationship with God or demonstrate the role faith plays in his life that really sucked the oxygen out of the room.”The senior Republican continued: “Milling around talking to activists in the hallways/lobby after Trump’s speech, THAT is what those Iowa conservatives were discussing, not the McCain comment.”
It’s probably best not to overstate this – Trump did receive a standing ovation at the end of his appearance, so if the social conservatives on hand for the event were bothered, they hid it well.
But given the setting and the audience, it’s rather extraordinary that Trump didn’t seem to have the foggiest idea how to even pretend to talk about matters of faith.
It’s not that Trump’s comments were emblematic of hostility towards religion, but rather, he reflected a degree of indifference. The Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore had a good piece on this:
Calling the Blessed Sacrament “the little cracker” would be jarring to Catholics. Most conservative evangelicals drink grape juice at communion, not wine. And all sorts of conservative Christians would dislike the idea of feeling cleansed by communion; the idea is to cleanse oneself through some sort of self-examination (with or without clerical assistance) before communion, which gets back to the idea of asking for forgiveness. Even the “I do that as often as possible” is a bit off for Presbyterians like him; back in the day American Presbyterians typically took communion once a year, on Easter, after an entire day of examination and self-examination – you know, “asking for forgiveness.”Ah well, nobody really expects candidates to be theologians, but everything about Trump screamed the oafish tycoon speaking the unaccustomed language of faith.
Right-wing blogger Erick Erickson added, “Donald Trump made a potentially fatal error yesterday in Iowa…. The media might not have noticed. But it was the talk of evangelicals yesterday and today at church.”
For what it’s worth, other candidates quickly made clear they noticed. Jeb Bush told a conservative radio show yesterday he “regularly” asks God for forgiveness. “I’m as imperfect under God’s watchful eye as the next person,” the Florida Republican said. “And if you start with that premise, then you’re seeking his forgiveness to be better, to be more committed to taking care of people, to be more committed to being a loving husband, a good father.”
Some candidates understand the language of faith, some don’t.