WASHINGTON — Donald Trump dutifully trundled onto the stage at Washington's Omni Shoreham hotel Friday afternoon to attend to one of his dreariest campaign-trail chores: courting conservative Christians.
"There are no more decent voters or selfless people than our Christian brothers and sisters here in the United States," Trump read aloud to the audience gathered for the 2016 Values Voter Summit. "I've witnessed that incredible generosity all across this land."
Trump continued like this for the first few minutes of his speech — plodding through prepared remarks as they crawled across a teleprompter screen — but he seemed quickly to grow bored. Before long, he was wandering off-script for several minutes at a time, as though in search for something more fun to talk about.
At one point, after indulging in a lengthy tangent about his recent meeting with a cohort of admiring clergy ("It was a love fest!"), Trump suggested the country was becoming less religious because faith leaders were no longer allowed to endorse political candidates from the pulpit (lest their churches lose tax-exempt status). The candidate's pledge to change this law and un-muzzle America's pastors has been a key element of his pitch to social conservatives, one of the few concrete offerings he's made to them. But even here, he struggled to focus.
"I actually believe that's one of the reasons why you haven't seen Christianity and other religions within the United States going like a rocket ship — like our polls have been going in the last four weeks," Trump said, to applause. "A rocket ship, right?"
Trump's religious illiteracy has been well-documented, and widely mocked, this election season — from his failure to name a favorite Bible verse (or even a preferred Testament), to his now-famous citation of a passage in "Two Corinthians." But what's striking about this year's Republican presidential nominee is not just that he doesn't know his Bible; it's how thoroughly uninterested he appears to be in any sort of discussion of faith or God.
Last year, for example, Trump gave an interview to the Christian Broadcasting Network in which journalist David Brody asked, "Who is God to you?" The clip of Trump's rambling response — in which he goes from "God is the ultimate" to boasting about one of his real estate deals in five seconds flat — went viral anew this week ahead of the candidate's appearance at the Values Voter Summit. But it's hardly the only example of Trump shrugging and changing the subject when God enters into the conversation.
Last July, Frank Luntz asked Trump at a forum in Iowa whether he'd ever asked God for forgiveness. "I don't think so ... I don't bring God into that picture," Trump replied. He then thought to offer, "When I go to church and when I drink my little wine...and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness. I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed, OK?"
In a 2014 interview at his Mar-a-Lago estate, I asked him if he considered himself a religious person.
"I do," he replied. "I'm Presbyterian." Then he began talking about the chamber music that would be performed that evening in the ballroom. "You should go down and listen. It's beautiful. Very talented people. I'll walk down with you. It's nice, they are very much into it. It's very elegant." He went on like this for a while until he'd finally exhausted the topic.
There was a beat of silence.
"And so..." Trump said, tentatively. "Here we sit." He had forgotten my question.
"You were saying you are Presbyterian..." I tried.
"Right, yes," Trump responded. "I'm Presbyterian." And thus concluded Trump's theological musings.
Trump's religious ignorance and incuriosity worried his fledgling campaign early in the primaries, and his advisers drafted a series of memos in 2015 coaching him on how to be at least semi-fluent in the language of the religious right. He ultimately blew off much of their advice, but conservative Christians haven't punished him for it. In the primaries, he routinely won the evangelical vote, and recent polls show him doing better with that demographic than any Republican nominee in modern history. It's a fact Trump clearly relishes.
"I have to tell you," he said in his speech Friday. "All across the nation, a lot of people said, 'I wonder if Donald will get the evangelicals?'" He paused before delivering the punchline. "I got the evangelicals!" The crowd roared.