Donald Trump emphatically claims that he is a Presbyterian. During a campaign appearance in Iowa he reportedly said, “Can you believe it? Nobody believes I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian.” Mr. Trump makes this claim based on his upbringing in the First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, New York—denominationally affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). More recently Mr. Trump has been affiliated to some degree with the Marble Collegiate Church in New York. The Marble Collegiate Church is part of the Reformed Church in America. However, Mr. Trump admits that he is not an active member of the congregation, and he continues to identify himself as a Presbyterian. But there are serious problems with Mr. Trump’s claim to be a Presbyterian.
One problem with his claim is that he does not appear to be a member of any Presbyterian congregation. Some in the PC-USA, not happy with some of Mr. Trump’s political positions, have called for him to be put on trial and possibly excommunicated from the denomination. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the denomination, explained that “church judicial action could not be taken against Trump because ‘there is no factual evidence that Mr. Trump currently holds membership in any local congregation.’” Chapter 25 of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), one of the official creeds of the PC-USA, requires membership in the “visible” church—a local congregation. By forsaking membership in a local congregation Mr. Trump removed himself from the church. He is no longer truly Presbyterian.
Another problem with Mr. Trump’s claim to be a Presbyterian is that he has made statements that demonstrate that he holds to beliefs that are contrary to Presbyterian doctrine. Here is a an excerpt from a recent interview of Mr. Trump by Jake Tapper that aired on CNN:
TAPPER: Well, let me ask you because one of the potential attack lines has to do with an answer you gave . . . months ago when you said that you've never asked God for forgiveness. Do you regret making that remark?
TRUMP: No, I have great relationship with God. I have a great relationship with the evangelicals. In fact nationwide, I'm up by a lot—leading everybody. But I like to be good. I don't like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don't do a lot of things that are bad. I try and do nothing that's bad. I live a very different life than probably a lot of people would think. And I have a very—
TAPPER: Always or just now?
TRUMP: I have a very great relationship with God and I have a very great relationship with evangelicals. And I think that's why I'm doing so well with Iowa.
TAPPER: The life you have now when you say that you try to do good, that sounds very different from decades of tabloid media coverage in New York in which some of your wilder escapades were—
TRUMP: No, I'm talking about—I'm talking about over the last number of years.
TRUMP: You know—I mean, I'm leading a very good life. I try to lead a good life and I have.
Mr. Trump claims that he has attained a state of perfection in which he does not sin! This is contrary to Presbyterian doctrine which teaches that in this life believers are never able to be sinless. The WCF states that the corrupt nature which was handed down to all mankind from Adam and Eve “during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated: and although it be through Christ pardoned and mortified, yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin” (WCF, 6.5). The Heidelberg Catechism, which is also included in the PC-USA’s Book of Confessions in Lord’s Day 44 asks, “But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments?” and answers, “No; but even the holiest of men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience.” And because believers continue to sin both the WCF and the HC teach that it is necessary for believers to ask God daily for the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Jesus’ Christ (WCF, 11.5; HC, LD 51).
Although members of the PC-USA strongly condemned Mr. Trump for some of his political positions, there is no evidence of a similar outcry against his theologically unsound statements. This is sad but unsurprising since even the media describes the PC-USA as a “generally liberal Mainline Protestant denomination.” The denomination is more interested in taking political stances to support “same-sex marriage, comprehensive immigration reform, and the Obama administration’s recent trade deal with Iran” than it is in teaching the truth that men are sinners who need the daily forgiveness of sins. Politically Mr. Trump and his former denomination are at odds with each other, but theologically they seem to have much in common—and in at least one respect Mr. Trump and the PC-USA stand together in perfect unity; neither is truly Presbyterian.