There is an absurdity in seeing Donald Trump trying to play the role of 2016 religion referee. This is a man whose sincerest praise for the Bible is to deem it even better than his best-selling book “The Art of the Deal,” a man whose most famous religious experience is having reportedly struck up a romance with his second wife among the pews of a Manhattan church (while he was still married to Ivana).
But Mr. Trump’s religious posturing is not about theology, it’s about branding — and if his religious worldview seems impossibly dated, that’s by design. His entire message, right down to his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan, is rooted in a gnawing nostalgia and economic anxiety that grips much of the country’s white working class. Mr. Trump’s target demographic is not America’s most devout, but its most anxious and aggrieved, and what he’s selling isn’t salvation, but a bygone era of plentiful factory jobs, robust pension funds and safe, monochromatic suburbs dotted with little white churches that everyone in town attended on Sundays.
By focusing his rhetorical firepower largely on minority faiths that have grown in size and influence in the United States over the past 60 years — displacing the old Protestant monopoly — Mr. Trump is stoking a tribal hostility toward those who worship differently, one that hucksters have seized on throughout history to infect and co-opt America’s faith communities. It is the same visceral force that animated the witch trials in Salem and set fire to the crosses in front of black churches.