Donald Trump and I went to the same progressive church, but he betrayed its teachings

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President Donald Trump and I were members of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City for decades. I never saw him. Neither did at least one of our pastors, Rev. David Lewicki, who led the Bible group I attended in my 20s.

Like Trump, I’ve also lapsed in my church participation and I don’t criticize him for that. Although I haven’t attended in years, I strive to live my life in accordance with the Christian principles I learned in our church: love, peace, generosity, and empathy for the poor, sick and marginalized.

But Trump’s divisive rhetoric and behavior over the past four years is a betrayal of everything our church taught us. It’s hard for me to understand how we could have received the same progressive message of Christian compassion and tolerance for years and reached such different views of service and community.

No talk about winners and losers

Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s preaching on the “power of positive thinking” attracted Trump’s father and my own mother to Marble Collegiate. Peale, who led our church for 52 years, officiated President Trump’s first wedding and baptized me in 1982.

Commentators have pointed to the influence of Peale’s self-help, positive thinking doctrine on Trump’s grandiose, at times pathological, proclamations, such as his recent claims of “immunity” from COVID-19 and Twitter incantation, “Don’t be afraid of Covid.”

While Peale’s teachings have garnered well-deserved criticism, the president’s delusional optimism, which his niece, Mary Trump, calls “toxic positivity,” is a monstrous departure from the positive thinking gospel that helped my mother heal from past traumas, such as her chaotic upbringing with a loving but alcohol-addicted father.

Presidential Donald Trump at a church on Oct. 18, 2020, in Las Vegas.
Presidential Donald Trump at a church on Oct. 18, 2020, in Las Vegas.

The power of positive thinking has nurtured my resilience through many hardships. But I’ve also recognized its limits. Individual optimism help avoid hopelessness but alone cannot eradicate injustices such as structural racism.

Marble Collegiate Church welcomed my family and me, though we were at times poor. Where else but a church sanctuary could we share pews with millionaires, including the Trump family? My mother gave me a dollar to put in the shiny collection plate, a meager amount that strained her pocketbook but showed me the importance of giving as much as you can — another lesson Trump seems to have missed, given his paltry federal tax payments for essential government programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Race politics: Trump's move to ban racial sensitivity training cements his desire to divide Americans

The Christian message I received at Marble didn’t cast people as winners and losers or prioritize the loudest person in the room. A scroll through the church’s Facebook page today shows it is continuing the progressive traditions I remember, such as making space for LGBT+ members and hosting an Interfaith Trialogue between a Protestant minister, a rabbi and an imam. Sadly I can’t picture the president participating in church events about climate change and racial justice and celebrations of National Coming Out Day and National Indigenous Peoples Day.

According to Christian teaching, we’re all sinners and deserve forgiveness and mercy. But that doesn’t mean the president deserves another four years. He has willfully avoided self-reflection and admitting any mistakes, putting his own interests before our country’s physical, emotional and moral health. President Trump has shown a grave disregard for life in his handling of a pandemic that has killed more than 223,000 Americans and his mission to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, threatening more than 20 million people with the loss of health care coverage. He has endangered the lives of his supporters by politicizing mask wearing and undermined public health advice by holding large rallies and showing disdain for scientists, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Time to get back on course, together

Since I cannot take comfort in the president’s words, I’ve sought solace in the archived sermons of our late minister, Rev. Arthur Caliandro, who left an indelible mark on me and many other church members. I wish I saw some evidence of any impression left on Trump. Rev. Caliandro spoke openly of his shortcomings, such as his failed marriages. He preached the power of quietude and stillness, of beauty possible in our present struggles, and the need for cooperation. “He talked to his congregation, not down to the congregation,” his widow, Sandra Graham Caliandro, said of him. She also said he was the child of Italian immigrants and "never lost that humble immigrant spirit.”

A right to be treasured: At 87, all my mom wanted was to vote in this election

As the election draws near, I remember one of my mother’s last lessons: She taught me the sacred responsibility of voting. As she lay dying of cancer in Pennsylvania in 1996, she cast an absentee ballot for the Republican nominee, Sen. Bob Dole. My mother was the type of voter the Biden campaign needs to reach now, a once lifelong Democrat who felt left behind. I could never imagine her voting for Trump today. I take her last lesson to heart as I review the last four years and look ahead to an uncertain future with a mix of weariness, fear, but also a flickering hope that we as a country can turn a corner.

In his last sermon before retiring, Rev. Caliandro said, “Really, what it is all about is love. That which every human being, every one of us, needs and wants more than anything else is to be in a relationship, or in relationships, where we feel safe. Relationship where we are understood, accepted, affirmed and forgiven.”

As you weigh your vote, I ask you to consider these principles of healthy relationships. In our relationships with elected officials, do we — individuals, families, neighbors, local and global communities — feel safe, understood, accepted, affirmed and forgiven? If the answer is no to any of these questions, the choice is simple. We can and must steer this ship around and get back on course. Together.

Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of California, San Francisco.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump’s divisive rhetoric and behavior betrays our church's teachings