Obama and Trump: Two Presidents, Same God

Mixing politics and religion is a longtime tradition

President-elect Donald Trump (L) talks after a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama (R) in the Oval Office Nov. 10. Trump on Wednesday slammed Obama and said a smooth transition is not possible. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images file photo)
President-elect Donald Trump (L) talks after a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama (R) in the Oval Office Nov. 10. Trump on Wednesday slammed Obama and said a smooth transition is not possible. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images file photo)
Posted January 19, 2017 at 5:00am

If Franklin Graham did not actually endorse Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, he stepped right up to the line — the one separating church and state. Graham was absolutely giddy post-election, when he gave credit to a force greater than the electorate. The evangelist and president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse credited the “God factor” for Trump’s poll-defying win.

You might be seeing a lot of Graham, starting at Friday’s inauguration where he is one of the faith leaders invited to offer a prayer for America’s new president. It marks a resurgence of a familiar name when it comes to mingling politics and religion, and a continuation of a tradition in a country that doesn’t have an official faith but celebrates a National Day of Prayer and seems most comfortable with leaders who praise a higher power.

If Graham sees the hand of God — as well as the rallies the evangelist held in state capitals around the country — in Trump’s win, it begs the question of what deity or force he held responsible for President Barack Obama’s back-to-back, far more decisive victories.

I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that one, though I have a clue. While on a 2007 walking tour through the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, Franklin Graham told me his doubts about Obama’s professed Christian faith because he was “born a Muslim,” which Graham once described as a “very evil and wicked religion.”

Obama and Trump created contradictions for some faith leaders, and illuminated once again the difference in how religious folks view faith in action: through a lens of traditional conservatism or social justice, through personal behavior or political action.

When judging the legacy of eight years of President Obama, voices from all political perspectives would have to agree: Barack Obama and his wife and daughters and mother-in-law personify “family values.” The strong, loving, supportive, high-achieving black family — the likes of which African-Americans, but shamefully too few others, knew existed — set an example all could follow.

But in 2016, the white, conservative Christian community elevated the political over the personal, giving its overwhelming support (81 percent worth) to Trump, a man with a somewhat checkered personal and professional past.

Imagine a Barack Obama caught bragging on tape about grabbing women — in the right or wrong circumstances, black men were once lynched for the same. If he stood on a convention stage with five children from three different wives, expect lectures on the pathology and immorality of African-American “culture” to follow.

But for Trump, all of that — as well as disparaging remarks about minorities, the disabled, opponents, the list goes on — proved no deal breaker with white evangelicals, perhaps because of the candidate’s views on the threats from Islam and abortion, and the choice of Mike Pence as his running mate.

“I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican,” the former Indiana governor has said. “In that order.”

Pence, whose state adopted, then softened a Religious Freedom Restoration Act that critics thought could cause discrimination against the LGBT community, is also an opponent of same-sex marriage.

Trump’s picks for his Cabinet and other positions have certainly justified support from folks such as Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr., who stood strong in his Trump support despite protests from some students at his Liberty University.

For example, Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for Education secretary, has said her visit to a Christian school in Michigan led to her advocacy for school choice. She has been questioned during confirmation hearings on whether she would support using public money for vouchers for religious schools.

Organizations such as the North Carolina Values Coalition rallied supporters for Trump because of his position on issues such as school choice and the promise to appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court.

But North Carolina is also the home base for the Rev. William J. Barber II of the Moral Mondays movement who led protests in the state for a different set of issues, from voting rights to health care to criminal justice reform to environmental justice and more. His multiracial, nonpartisan, ecumenical Repairers of the Breach organization “seeks to build a progressive agenda rooted in a moral framework to counter the ultra-conservative constructs that try to dominate the public square,” according to its mission.

They will have opportunities and challenges in the Trump years, though being on the outside may be less tempting than a seat at the table, a faith lesson Billy Graham, now 98, could teach.

When the Billy Graham Library was dedicated, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton all made the trip, a tribute to the worldwide respect for the man, once called “America’s pastor,” whose name it carried.

Exhibits and photos tell the story of the “pastor to the presidents,” with the youthful Graham matching John F. Kennedy in glamour in a Florida photo op in a convertible. But for all the golf outings and coffee chats, Billy Graham said he became sick when listening to his own voice engaging then-friend and confidante Richard Nixon on the Watergate tapes in comments viewed as anti-Semitic.

In the current political climate, humility is a rare quality, though one politicians and preachers could use more of. Franklin Graham should not get too comfortable, despite his powerful perch alongside President-elect Trump. When it comes to politics and religion, doing your best to serve God is a lot safer than trying to speak for him.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.