Surge of Piety: Norman Vincent Peale and the Remaking of American Religious Life
by Christopher Lane
Yale University Press, 224 pp.
When I drink my little wine--which is about the only wine I drink--and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed.... I think in terms of 'Let's go on and let's make it right.'"
Donald J. Trump said this in 2015, whilst scrambling to articulate the theory and praxis of his Christian faith--a faith lightly worn, but who can say how deeply felt? The mysteries and the opacities of the human heart loom up before us. At first, the reader or auditor is startled by the image of the Body of Christ reduced to a "little cracker." Yet, being a Presbyterian, Trump is supposed to take the Eucharist in symbolic terms.
All right, let's admit it--analyzing Trump's position on religion feels like an exercise in conjuring light out of darkness, a kind of creatio ex nihilo, as it were. But before we throw up our hands and skip to the next book review, we ought to consider a possibly revealing fragment of philosophy lodged in the last sentence of the above quote. The Trumpian sentiment "I think in terms of 'Let's go on and let's make it right'" hearkens back to the self-help guidance of Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking and pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, where the young Trump was a congregant. It would be more than unfair to blame Peale for Trump's rise or appeal; the fact that the teenage Trump snoozed in his pews shouldn't retroactively impugn the Reverend in total. But, thanks to Northwestern University professor Christopher Lane's book, Surge of Piety, we have a little perspective on what Peale's philosophy meant for America, and, by extension, for Trump. (True, Trump is not actually mentioned in the book, but, in hindsight, he lends the work most of its contemporary relevance.)
Lane studies how Peale developed a popular theology that fused American business-speak with Christianity, psychoanalysis, and political conservatism (with considerable long-term success--his Guideposts magazine is still in publication). Founding the Religio-Psychiatric Institute in New York City, along with the psychiatrist Smiley Blanton, Peale brought his version of the Gospel to wide swaths of the American public. Lane writes, "In proselytizing patients and Christianizing psychiatry, and medicine more generally...