Truth, Sincerity, and Trump: A Brief Anecdote

Charles McCrary

Last December, I defended my dissertation, “Sincerely Held Religious Belief: A History.” I’m now at work on the book, and one of my first tasks has been mercilessly chopping the fatty bits out of the manuscript. So, I present to you today one such fatty bit, a short prologue. I wrote it because I didn’t think anyone would believe that my dissertation truly was written in 2017 if it didn’t include some reference to Donald Trump. Enjoy!

Promoting his then-forthcoming television show on Trinity Broadcasting Network, Mike Huckabee assessed the character of his first guest: President Donald Trump. Perhaps the president was a strange choice for Christian programming. Huckabee’s new show would incorporate politics—he had media experience as a Fox News host and political experience as a former governor of Arkansas—but he was a former Baptist pastor hosting a show on a Christian network. So, why Trump? “Nobody pretends that he would be an ideal Sunday-school teacher, to be fair,” Huckabee said. “I don’t think he is a person who is deeply acquainted with the Bible and he’s not known to set attendance records at church. But he’s very respectful of people of faith. And that’s really all people in the Christian community want. They don’t care whether or not the guy believes as they do.” One might wonder, then, why so many “in the Christian community” believed President Barack Obama was a Muslim, and why it seemed to matter. But Huckabee’s next answer might hold a clue.

Interviewer Emma Green quoted Huckabee’s book Character Makes a Difference: “character is that which causes you to make the same decision in public as you would make in private.” Green cited Trump’s private actions “that don’t necessarily show strong character,” but she missed the point. Huckabee responded that, although he would prefer if the President spoke “every day with the most extraordinary sense of faith,” that was not what character was about. He clarified, “To me, character is if you’re the same in public as you are in private, and I think that in many ways, that’s what’s appealing about [Trump]…Even his tweets, for example, are very transparent about what he’s thinking, what he’s feeling.” Character is when the inner and outer, the private and the public, the heart and the mouth, are in sync. For Mike Huckabee and the “Christian community” for whom he portends to speak, Trump’s public and private vulgarity are permissible. Sincerity, regardless of content, is a moral good in and of itself. They do not care as much about what Trump believes, as that he does not pretend. And Trump “has not pretended that he’s sitting on the front row of church or that he’s memorized any Bible verses. And I think they’re frankly refreshed by the honestly. But more importantly,” Huckabee pivoted, “they want a president who simply respects them—who recognizes that underneath all the Bill of Rights is religious liberty.” These two issues, sincerity and religious freedom, have an interconnected history in the United States. This is a story of secularization. It is not about the decline of religion, but the processes by which religion is relegated to the private and the importance of doctrine diminishes. Religious freedom, instituted through secular governance, protects the private consciences of individuals in public life. Sincere believers like Trump do not filter or misrepresent themselves. The public is the private. Among the perennial problems of religious freedom is sorting the sincere from the duplicitous.


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