Donald Trump was probably trying to appeal to evangelical Christians when he attended church this past Sunday, hoping to grab a few more social conservative votes before the Iowa caucus on February 1. Instead, he got a sermon about the importance of welcoming Mexican immigrants and Syrian refugees.
The incident occurred on Sunday at First Presbyterian Church in Muscatine, Iowa, when Trump made a surprise visit to the small congregation affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA) — the same denomination he has claimed on the campaign trail. Trump reportedly sat quietly throughout most of the service, singing along with hymns and nodding his head as scripture passages were read by fellow attendees.
But if Trump hoped for a quiet, politics-free sermon to accompany his visit, he was likely disappointed. When the church’s pastor, Rev. Dr. Pam Saturnia, took to the pulpit to preach on a story where Jesus implores a synagogue to help the poor and oppressed, she referenced a friend who told her the job of a preacher is to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” She then launched into a homily that appeared to directly challenge Donald Trump’s controversial policy proposals to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and bar Syrian refugees and all Muslims from entering the country.
“Jesus is teaching us today that he has come for those outside the Church,” she said. “Jesus has come to proclaim freedom and healing to those who are the most unloved, who are the most discriminated against, the most forgotten in our community and in our world. Jesus has come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor on the teenagers who are homeless, on the Syrian refugees, on the Mexican migrants, and the people who find themselves prisoners of addiction and their families, on the poorest of the poor in Haiti — Jesus has come for them. Jesus has come for everyone.”
“This text is calling of the comfortable to be afflicted,” she added.“Today friends, the scripture is fulfilled in our hearing. Today the inclusiveness of Jesus is fulfilled in our hearing.”
Saturnia’s full sermon, which never mentions Trump by name, is below.
At a press conference later that day, Trump called the service “beautiful” but offered a measured response to the sermon’s apparent critique of his policies.
“I can only tell you that I want to take care of all people but with Syrians, we just can’t do it here,” he said, according to the Washington Post. “But I do want to build a safe zone [in Syria]. We should have done that a long time ago.”
Trump also wondered aloud whether a reference to humility during the service was “directed” at him, saying of the reader, “Perhaps she had something in mind.”
Trump even defended himself against the perceived slight: “I have more humility than people think,” he said.
But Trump seemed unaware that the church member was simply reading a translation of 1 Corinthians 12, a biblical passage that was designated for that Sunday as part of the Revised Common Lectionary — an ecumenical listing of scripture readings for worship that are assigned years in advance. Several different denominations use the lectionary.
“But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of,” the passage reads in the Message translation, which was used in the service. “Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, ‘Get lost; I don’t need you’? Or, Head telling Foot, ‘You’re fired; your job has been phased out’?”
The awkward encounter highlights the stark ideological distance between Trump’s repeated claims to Presbyterianism and the actual Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination, a relatively liberal church whose leaders have publicly rebuked the real estate mogul’s policies. The Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) — one of the highest authorities in the church — published a public letter in October 2015 bemoaning Trump’s derogatory statements about immigrants and Syrian refugees as out-of-step with the denomination’s stated beliefs, saying, “faithful Presbyterians have been writing church policy urging the welcome of refugees and demanding higher annual admissions into the United States since the refugee crisis of World War II.”
The tension between Trump and PC(USA) leaders came close to a breaking point late last year, when a church in New York City called for the denomination to explore revoking Trump’s membership. But national church officials concluded that was impossible: despite Trump’s insistence that he is a Presbyterian, he currently is not an active member of any PC(USA) church in the United States — or any other church, for that matter — and thus cannot be disciplined or removed from membership rolls.
Trump’s confusion regarding the PC(USA)’s beliefs and practices — which include support for other things Trump opposes such as same-sex marriage — is but the latest in a series of theological gaffes made throughout his campaign. Since announcing his run for the presidency, Trump has been unable to name his favorite book of the Bible, articulated a questionable understanding of communion, and implied that he doesn’t ask God for forgiveness because he’s “not making mistakes.” He also sparked laughter while addressing an assembly at Liberty University, an evangelical Christian college, when he made reference to “two Corinthians” — a book of the Bible typically called “second Corinthians.” When asked about the flub, Trump blamed prominent Religious Right leader Tony Perkins for writing the number two in his speech instead of the word “second.” Trump was seemingly unaware that the book is typically written out as a number, but spoken as “second.”
"Tony Perkins wrote that out for me — he actually wrote out 2, he wrote out the number 2 Corinthians," Trump told CNN. "I took exactly what Tony said, and I said, 'Well Tony has to know better than anybody.' "
The GOP frontrunner’s repeated inability to properly articulate Christian shibboleths has cost him support from more than just left-leaning denominations such as the PC(USA). Fellow Republican presidential candidates such as Seventh-day Adventist Ben Carson have taken swipes at his faith, as has Russell Moore, head of the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore has written op-eds in the Washington chastising evangelicals who support Trump, saying, “To back Mr. Trump, [evangelical] voters must repudiate everything they believe” and decrying his attitude toward women as “that of a Bronze Age warlord.”
Moore also offered a scathing critique of Trump’s speech before Liberty University, offering a running commentary of his address on Twitter as he spoke.
This would be hilarious if it weren't so counter to the mission of the gospel of Jesus Christ. #TrumpatLiberty
— Russell Moore (@drmoore) January 18, 2016
The criticism has sent some theological conservatives flocking to Sen. Ted Cruz, an avowed evangelical whose poll numbers have been rising in recent weeks. But other candidates have since sharply criticized Cruz’s own evangelical bona fides, with Trump telling a crowd in Iowa “to the best of my knowledge, not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba, okay?” while holding a Bible aloft. Meanwhile, Trump still enjoys heavy support from so-called “cultural” evangelicals — right-wing Christians who were raised theologically conservative but either don't go to church or minimize the role of religion in their lives.