On Saturday, firebrand businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump took a swipe at the faith of Ben Carson, a rising star in the race for the GOP nomination. Speaking at a campaign rally in Florida, Trump dismissed the religious affiliation of the neurosurgeon-cum-politician, a Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Christian who is beloved by evangelicals and is currently besting Trump among Iowa voters.
But in an attempt to score a few political points, Trump may have exposed ignorance of his own church’s teachings.
“I’m Presbyterian,” Trump said at the rally, repeating the line several times, according to the Washington Post. “Boy, that’s down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”
Trump refused to apologize for his remarks on Sunday, saying, “I would certainly give an apology if I said something bad about [Carson’s faith] — But I didn’t.”
Piety contests are hardly new among Republicans, and the jab was effectively a belated response to Carson’s own attack on Trump’s faith in September, when he questioned Trump’s Christian humility. Yet while religious debate is common within the GOP, Trump’s assertion that his Christian denomination is “middle of the road” is, by almost every political (and arguably theological) measure, false.
When Trump says he’s Presbyterian, he’s specifically referring to the Presbyterian Church (USA), or PC(USA). Trump grew up attending First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, a PC(USA) congregation in New York City. Although he currently claims to attend Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan — a congregation affiliated with the Reformed Church in America (RCA) — that church issued a statement in August clarifying that Trump is not an “active member,” and Trump himself has never abandoned his Presbyterian affiliation. Instead, he repeatedly claims the historic faith group when speaking to evangelical voters, citing it as proof of his Christian credibility.
Unfortunately for Trump, the PC(USA) — as a denomination — is discernibly not “middle of the road,” but arguably one of the most progressive major Christian groups in the country. The PC(USA) is a liberal mainline denomination, a category that includes several other historic Protestant groups such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, and the United Methodist Church. These groups have significant theological differences, but share a common trend: almost all skew towards the progressive end of the religio-political spectrum.
This is largely why the PC(USA) has directly challenged Trump on his policy positions — specifically his negative statements about immigrants, who he has called “rapists” and “drug dealers.” Earlier this month, the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) — one of the highest-ranking officers in the denomination — called on Trump to renounce anti-immigrant rhetoric, saying, “Presbyterians through decades of policy have demanded humane treatment of people of all nationalities and faiths who find themselves within our borders.” The PC(USA) also openly advocates for comprehensive immigration reform that includes offering “people already here to earn the opportunity to adjust their status,” a position that directly contradicts Trump’s own highly controversial plan to deport all of America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
The church also differs from Trump on a multitude of other issues. While Trump continues to oppose marriage equality by citing the Bible, the PC(USA) has ordained LGBT pastors for years, and voted in March allow its ministers to officiate same-sex weddings. The PC(USA)’s Stated Clerk and the head of the denomination’s Washington office signed a letter in August endorsing the the recent nuclear agreement brokered between the United States and Iran, whereas Trump called the deal “incompetently negotiated.” The PC(USA) applauded the Supreme Court’s decision to protect the Affordable Care Act in June, but Trump thinks the law has “gotta go,” and plans to “repeal and replace [it] with something terrific.”
Granted, the PC(USA) also saves seats for many conservatives in its pews, and one could argue that neither Trump nor Carson is an exemplary example of their respective faith traditions. Moreover, being a Presbyterian doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything the denomination does — the tradition is Protestant in its theology and church structure, and generally values individual thought and spiritual liberty.
Nevertheless, calling the PC(USA) “middle of the road” is dubious at best — unless that road leads directly towards religious progressivism.