Donald Trump does religion

The big political news this weekend is Donald Trump’s discussion of religion: his and Ben Carson’s. Speaking in Florida, Trump said:

I love Iowa. And, look, I don’t have to say it, I’m Presbyterian. Can you believe it? Nobody believes I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian; boy, that’s down the middle of the road folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.

Trump’s statement about the Seventh-day Adventist religion can be interpreted in either of two ways. First, one can take it literally as a statement of ignorance regarding this particular religion. Alternatively, one can interpret it as a statement of skepticism as to whether the religion is “down the middle of the road.”

Responding to criticism, Trump is insisting on the first, more innocent interpretation. Today, he asserted I didn’t say anything bad about [the religion], I just don’t know about it.”

However, the second interpretation seems more plausible if one considers not just the last two sentences of Trump’s rant (the ones professing ignorance), but also the sentence that precedes them (“I’m Presbyterian; boy, that’s down the middle of the road folks, in all fairness”).

Regardless of which interpretation one embraces, it’s clear from the words Trump used that he was drawing a contrast between his religious faith — down the middle of the road Presbyterian — and Carson’s — if not down the middle of the road then too obscure for Trump to know about.

There’s no doubt, moreover, what prompted Trump to draw the contrast — the Iowa caucuses. In fact, this was the very subject Trump was discussing when he turned to religion. The first sentence of his rant was “I love Iowa.”

Unfortunately for Trump, Iowa Republicans in increasing numbers seem to love Carson. With evangelical voters so prominent in the caucus process, Trump clearly felt the need to contrast his religion to that of Carson.

But does the comparison Trump drew redound to his favor? That depends on how evangelical caucus-goers in Iowa view the two religions. Apparently, some conservatives question whether Seventh-day Adventists are Christians. On the other hand, as I understand it, this is an evangelical religion. Moreover, it’s not clear to me whether evangelical voters are partial to a “middle of the road” religion.

For me, then, the interesting question isn’t how much Trump knows about Seventh-day Adventists. Rather, it is how much he knows about how evangelical voters view Seventh-day Adventists.

The other interesting question is whether evangelical voters care more about formal religious affiliation or about personal traits associated with Christian ideals. If the latter, then no matter how many times Trump shouts “I’m Presbyterian,” this vote may elude him.