The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Donald Trump and Norman Vincent Peale

Some years ago, I had an interesting discussion with a parishioner who believed that God wanted all of the faithful to be successful in their chosen professions and to live prosperous lives filled with material blessings. Out of this belief I also sensed an admonishment toward those who lacked these blessings. He seemed to be saying that those he considered unsuccessful lived mediocre or poverty-stricken lives because they were unwilling to do what was necessary to lift themselves up and achieve the prosperity God wanted for them. Such people, he believed, were doomed to live unproductive, unrewarding lives because they did not focus on the positive, because they had no drive to excel. 

It was then that I asked him if he were a big fan of the late Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993). He brightened at the mention of Peale's name, and that's when I realized changing this man's mind would be a serious challenge. 

Peale is perhaps best know for his popular book, The Power of Positive Thinking, which has sold several million copies since it was first published in 1952. A minister in the Reformed Church of America, Peale was the long-time pastor of New York City's Marble Collegiate Church, but he was also a kind of self-help guru who combined his unique brand of Christianity with his psychological theories about mental health and living the good life. 
Norman Vincent Peale
The book received criticism from both directions. Many mental health professionals believed Peale's approach offered adherents nothing more than a dangerous panacea that would only aggravate their problems and not cure them. And most Christian theologians considered Peale's approach to be nothing less than heretical, a cult that misread and misapplied the teachings of Jesus Christ. I'm neither psychologist nor psychiatrist, so I won't presume to address Peale's teachings from that direction. But I will take a moment to discuss his religious views.

In essence Peale dismissed the humility of Jesus Christ and the merciful love of God, preferring to view God as a Being who desires only to help you achieve success and avoid life's problems. He, therefore, placed man at the center of reality, turning God into a kind of impersonal force that we can use to our material advantage. As you might expect from someone who thinks this way, suffering is never a good thing and is simply an indication that one is not living life as he ought. Repentance and the need for forgiveness are also pushed aside lest they interfere with the need always to think positively. Peale's "faith" then becomes a form of Christianity without the Cross. Indeed, It replaces the Cross with man himself. In a sense, Peale was a forerunner of many of today's televangelists who preach a distorted gospel of success and wealth, while ignoring the Gospel of Jesus Christ that calls us to carry our cross alongside the Cross of Christ.

Something I didn't know about Peale was the extent of his influence on Donald Trump. I discovered this yesterday when I opened the latest issue of First Things, and turned first, as I always do, to the essay on the last page. The title of this month's essay is "Donald Trump, Man of Faith", written by Matthew Schmitz, First Things' literary editor. In it Schmitz explains many things about the Republican candidate for president, including some of the comments he has made on his religious faith. The essay is certainly worth a read for those who want to understand better Donald Trump's worldview. 

Trump, addressing his enthusiasm for Peale and his preaching, recently said,
"Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking was my pastor...To this day one of the great speakers I've seen. You hated to leave church. You hated when the sermon was over. That's how great he was at Marble Collegiate Church."
If you want to get a taste of Donald Trump's approach to work and life, check out the below, brief (3-minute) video in which he is interviewed by televangelist Paula White. In it you will see how belief in oneself seems to take precedence over a belief in God:

As you might expect, I don't agree with Donald Trump's Peale-inspired theology, which to me is little more than the glorification of materialism; but it's important to realize that variations on this theology have been shared, or at least praised, by many recent Presidents, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. 

Oh, yes, I never did change that parishioner's mind. He walked away convinced that God wanted him to be rich.

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