At Donald Trump’s recent rally in Florida, Mrs Trump was at his side and at one point led the audience in the recitation of the Our Father. This strikes me as unusual, given the American obsession with the so called separation between Church and State. I am guessing that most people at the rally, including the Donald, were delighted, and most of anti-Trump America would have had their prejudices confirmed. Prayer has long been a bone of contention in America. Prayers are banned in American public schools, for example.
Melania Trump is Slovenian, and according to her Wikipedia entry, a Roman Catholic. She is noted for all sorts of reasons, being, for example, on the second First Lady not to have been born in America, and the first to be a naturalised American, and the first not to speak English as her first language. But if it is true that she is a Catholic, that makes her only the second First Lady to be so.
Of course, Melania and Donald’s union is not a regular one from a Catholic point of view, as he has been married twice before, and both previous Mrs Trumps are happily still with us. But there are many people who are in irregular unions who nevertheless strongly identify as Catholics and go to Mass, though not to Holy Communion, and who have had the children of their union baptised. In America great play is often made of politicians’ religious allegiances. Yet with Melania, few details are in the public domain, as far as I can see.
One thing that is common in American public life is the way people can move with some ease between denominations. Mike Pence has been described as a Catholic, but is now an Evangelical. Or so at least it seems, as he is loath to cast off the label Catholic. But the truth seems to be – it is truly hard to be sure one way or the other – that he now attends some sort of Evangelical megachurch and has, therefore left the Catholic Church. But one thing is certain: Mr Pence wants to appeal to both Catholics and Evangelicals, hence the way he has described himself as an “Evangelical Catholic”.
Sarah Palin made the same journey. She was baptised as a Catholic, but in early childhood her family embraced Pentecostalism. Though Mrs Palin has made no attempt to deny her Catholic origins, at no time has she claimed to be a Catholic still. Because she effectively left the Church as a little child, she has not incurred any canonical penalty.
Marco Rubio, another faded luminary of the Republican Party, also has a checkered religious history. He is usually taken to be a Catholic, and it is clear that he has been baptised and confirmed as a Catholic and married in the Catholic Church. However, it is also clear that he was for a time a Mormon, and has at various times worshipped in a Baptist Church. This amount of religious zig-zagging may be the sign of a tender and questioning conscience; there again, it may simply be an inability to stick at one thing, and yet another reason why voters looked at Mr Rubio and decided, after all, that they preferred Trump.
Another Republican with what is called a “complex faith journey” is John Kasich, yet another candidate who failed to dent Trump’s rise to power. Yet Kasich’s journey is not that hard to understand. He is a Catholic who has become an Anglican, as indeed have his parents. However, Kasich’s Wikipedia page contains this gem: “Kasich was raised a Catholic, but considers denominations irrelevant, while stating that ‘There’s always going to be a part of me that considers myself a Catholic.’”
Mr Kasich needs to be reminded that one can never be the member of two churches at the same time, and that Church membership is very important indeed. But he is by no means alone among Americans in trying to give the impression that one can have one’s cake and eat it. And just as there are some who try to belong to more than one Church, there are also those who identify as Christian without actually belonging to any Church at all. My best guess is that Melania, born a Catholic, and baptised as such, is now occupying some sort of grey area between churches. Her husband too seems to be in a similar situation: a generic self-identified Christian without much actual denominational allegiance.
Nevertheless, she led that rally in prayer. She may have been trying to tell us something in so doing. Is it that the Donald, unlike some Republicans, is a proper Christian, a man of fixed and coherent beliefs? Let’s remember that both Catholics and Evangelicals played an important role in getting Trump elected. Perhaps that Our Father was an acknowledgement of that.