At a campaign event in Iowa, Trump shocked the audience by saying that he had never asked God for forgiveness. All his other disturbing statements—his attacks on every vulnerable group—are made intelligible by this one. The self-sufficient faith Trump absorbed from Peale has no place for human weakness. Human frailty, dependency, and sinfulness cannot be acknowledged; they must be overcome. This opens up the possibility of great cruelty toward those who cannot wish themselves into being winners. A man who need not ask forgiveness need never forgive others. He does not realize his own weakness, and so he mocks and reviles every sign of weakness in his fellow men.
Because Peale was a decent man of sincere if not quite orthodox Christian faith, he never drew out the harsh implications of his views. Trump feels no such restraint, and so has taken Peale’s teaching to its logical conclusion. He has called the widow whose house he tried to take a “terrible human being” whose lawyer is a “loser.” He has mocked a reporter for having a disfigured hand. He has demeaned a contestant on one of his reality shows by suggesting how she’d look in a pornographic scenario. And he has applauded Planned Parenthood for doing “very good work.”
Peale is now largely forgotten, and his bestseller languishes in used book stores. This is a shame, for it has led us to underestimate the influence and power of the self-sufficient faith that he promoted, and that he imparted to his greatest student. Peale meant to preach a gentle creed, one that made hellfire and terror into mere afterthoughts. In Trump it has curdled into pagan disdain. Both forms of this philosophy have captured the public imagination, and both stand at odds with the faith taught by Christ.