One evening during the 2016 primary season my husband and I were reconnecting, as we often do, through political analysis. As we discussed the daily rumination on the latest and greatest from Donald Trump’s campaign, we stumbled upon a video from one of his more notorious public appearances: the 2015 Family Leadership Summit in Iowa. You might have seen clips from this interview as well, for it is when he defended his tweet calling John McCain a loser because, according to Trump, “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Watching his appearance in its entirety, however, I heard something remarkably clarifying about the belief system of Donald J. Trump. Not only is this the part of the interview where he stated his uncertainty over ever asking God for forgiveness, but he also named his favorite pastor and life-long spiritual advisor who wrote his favorite book. A book, I’d wager, that represents his personal gospel: The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale.
Now, the astute student of Christian History that I am, I had to get my hands on a copy of this former New York Times bestseller to read for myself. I’d heard of Peale’s mid-century popularity and was aware of his role as a precursor of sorts to our modern day self-help/prosperity gospel movement, but I had not done much study of his seminal work before this month. What I’ve found in the pages of his once dominant bestseller concerns me deeply.
Given the importance of so many of the issues and attitudes addressed in the pages of Peale’s crowning achievement, I’ve decided to blog my way through this onetime favorite of the American public. It is a bestseller that helped fashion the ethic of Donald Trump, but it also helped fuel any number of theological abuses within the Evangelical church.
A few cautionary thoughts: The majority of observations gleaned from this work are not primarily meant as political guidance. While it is prudent to understand the worldview accepted by Donald Trump, or any other leading candidate for president, these deviations from Christian orthodoxy are not enough – in and of themselves – to deem him unfit to serve as Commander-in-Chief.
In fact, it is likely many other presidential candidates from the 20th Century adopted a Peale-esque understanding of Christianity. They just didn’t live out this belief system as publicly and unabashedly as Trump does to its inevitably selfish and soulless ends.
If you are looking for reasons to not vote for Donald Trump in November I suggest there are a multitude of other factors that might lead you to that conclusion. The problem regarding his ambition for the presidency of the United States is not purely his favored spiritual guidance and its lack of Christian orthodoxy, but how it appears that he applies it in the defense and promulgation of evil. Therefore, consider my musings as one way to contextualize much of Donald Trump’s public behavior, policy suggestions, and persona.
Additionally – I might say, primarily – reading through this book became a self-critique of modern Evangelicalism. More than a guide for the election in 2016, The Power of Positive Thinking acts as an indictment of our faith community: against the pernicious ways we are all tempted to use our faith in God for selfish and hurtful purposes; against how we often demean His story for personal gain; and against those who devalue the great cost associated with Christian grace.
More than once when reading this work I was struck by just how familiar these ideas and stories were, almost as if I’d heard them all before. The familiarity almost lent the chapters a sense of compelling legitimacy, even as I identified the problems riddled throughout. Then it dawned on me. I’ve heard these same talking points in sermons! Far too many sermons, in churches representing a full spectrum of denominations, scattered throughout our country.
Rather than demonstrating a throwback to old heresies, I found myself staring straight into the mirror of our contemporary American church. Peale might be forgotten or out of fashion, but the school of thought he promoted certainly lives on. It is little wonder so many prominent Evangelical leaders now wholeheartedly embrace Donald Trump and even applaud the ways he addresses them and speaks of their all important “power.” More on that to come.
For those who champion Bonhoeffer’s costly grace, for those who believe words forgotten to history still matter, for those who think what leaders claim to believe is central to understanding how they might act, this series is for you.
As a starting place, let’s take a look at the introduction of Donald Trump’s favorite book:
Introduction: What this book Can Do for You∗
Beware cure-all elixirs. In Victorian society, both in North America and in Europe, the peddling of health tonics and pills claiming to solve all forms of illness was a fashionable trend and a regular facet of culture for both high society and the emerging middle class. These cure-all elixirs were typically comprised of anything from mere sugar water, to some kind of oil, to varieties containing high levels of arsenic, alcohol, opium, morphine, or cocaine.
The tonics and cures were often schemes designed to help their creators, and sometimes doctors and pharmacists, get rich quick while fleecing the general public. Although, I’m sure some producers also genuinely believed in the efficacy of their products. Either way, few “cures” possessed actual medicinal qualities.
In spite of, at-best, minimal legitimate health benefits, these elixirs were considered by many people as a go to cure-all for colds, flus, teething, headaches, toothaches, and just about any other malady of young and old you can fathom. The more popular varieties continued to be used even when communities were faced with their inability to improve their ailments, or even their potential to harm and kill those who consumed them.
There was always a testimony or three offered of how these tonics genuinely helped cure some great illness or blemish. No doubt – when not a boldface lie – the testimonial phenomenon is understood by the power of the placebo effect or even, dare I say it, the power of positive thinking. Unfortunately, many people positively thought their way to the grave.
In his introduction to The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale offers us a cure-all elixir for the maladies of life. The back cover of my edition makes tremendous claims about what this book will do for me, but my first thought is that perhaps this was just some marketing strategy by the publisher embellishing the original intent of the author. But no. Let me assure you, Peale literally intends for this book to change your life.
His self proclaimed simple work, with “no pretense to literary excellence nor does it seek to demonstrate any unusual scholarship,” was written with the “sole objective of helping the reader achieve a happy, satisfying, and worthwhile life”(x). Well, what’s wrong with that?
Not only will his book achieve those things but I counted at least six key promises he makes in how our lives will improve by following his understanding of “applied Christianity; a simple yet scientific system of practical techniques of successful living that works” (xi). By employing these teachings, we will:
- Become better liked and more popular
- Gain a new sense of well-being, or “new life”
- Achieve a new degree of health
- Attain more pleasure in living
- Transform into more useful and efficient people
- Expand our influence and power
All that gleaned from the teachings found in this one little book. Where has it been all my life?
Lest you think Peale overlooks the fact that life can be tragic or difficult at times, he assures us, “I certainly do not ignore or minimize the hardships of this world, but neither do I allow them to dominate.” Rather, “obstacles are simply not permitted to destroy your happiness and well-being” (ix).
Oh, ok. Perhaps you are starting to catch on to how someone who is captured in war – and who chose to remain imprisoned when given an opportunity to leave before his fellow POW’s – is, well, a loser.
It turns out our ability to overcome these tragedies and obstacles stems from the realization that “you can modify or change the circumstances in which you now live.” Tell that to a Syrian refugee child in Lebanon and see how it works out for them. Thus we encounter the opening flaw to Peale’s notion of “Christian” power, success, and happiness.
His is an ethic for an affluent audience, most specifically for his parishioners from the upper crust of New York society (such as young Donald Trump and family). He is writing for those who can afford to change their circumstances with relative ease, or “will” a better life. However, if you aren’t already living amidst the trappings of earthly power, just follow his steps and you too will soon attain this level of material success, have no fear. Or so he claims.
Still, who doesn’t want to believe that their “life can be full of joy and satisfaction” (ix), or that it is possible to experience improved levels of “achievement, health, and happiness” (xi) as we walk on this earth? Maybe, somewhere inside of us we agree that “It is a pity that people should let themselves be defeated by the problems, cares, and difficulties of human existence, and it is also quite unnecessary” (ix).
We’ve all met the “Debbie Downers” of life – maybe we’ve been them ourselves at times – who only see the foreboding or fearful throughout the day and who rarely note the hopeful or positive. Perhaps you are drawn, as intended, to this idea that if we forgo negative thoughts we will also forgo negative consequences and experiences.
Our life is in our control, so the story goes, and as such we can control where we take it and what we make of it. This is a pastor writing about the practical applications for Christianity after all. Doesn’t God want the best for us in this life?
As much as Peale’s promises come across as over reaching, they may also strike you as secretly appealing. They are meant to. Beware cure-all elixirs.
Also in this Series:
Part 2: On Justification, Insecurity, and God’s Will
Part 3: On Forgiveness, Prayer, and Eternal Life
∗ I am using the 1992 edition printed by Fawcet Crest/Ballantine Books. All citations reference this copy.
The propagation of this Christianity is so dangerous. Yes, it is extremely appealing. However, to die to self is to gain Christ’s life. We must suffer. I’m curious what Bible he was reading when he said that you’ll become liked and more popular with his “applied Christianity”. My Bible clearly states, from the mouth of Jesus, that we should expect to be hated since Christ himself was hated. May we never fall fully into the alluring temptation of Peale’s theology, and sadly much of American Christianity today. I’m excited to read your analyses of this text. Thanks.