I did not intend for this to happen.
But for me, church is like the Natural History Museum. It’s free. It’s open on Sundays. It attempts to explain what happened to those dinosaurs. And do I go?
Of course not.
It’s not that I don’t intend to go. That’s what I do every weekend: intend to go. It’s almost a hobby at this point. I play piano. I read. I purchase pink balls of cake from Starbucks. “Want to go bowling?” my friends ask. “I can’t,” I say. “That’s the time I spend intending to go to church.”
I thought everyone was like me. These days, it’s not regular to be regular. People who meet every Wednesday at the pub or at the evening service are the exception, not the rule. We like our communication instant and our plans spontaneous. Some would say that our plans are less spontaneous than, well, lazy. Spontaneous is when you decide, “That’s it, I’m chucking it all to live on a sailboat!” Lazy is when you think, “Hey, I don’t want to watch ‘Source Code’ alone. Maybe I should text Carl.”
Twenty-eight percent of Americans have not attended a religious service in the past six months, according to a survey conducted by the evangelical Barna Group. Some don’t identify as religious. But many do — they just don’t make it down in time.
Most of us churchgoers are the wedding-funeral crowd – we pop by on joyous occasions but sparsely otherwise. We show up only on big days, like when you’re born, or when we think you’ve died and then it turns out that you haven’t.
The one day when our intent usually triumphs over our general lassitude is Easter. People have the vague general sense that Easter is a religious holiday, so we drift into churches looking vaguely confused and wondering when the rabbit is going to show up. To help encourage us, some churches are giving away brand-new cars. Others are trying more subtle techniques, such as inviting the Jonas Brothers.
So I was surprised when Donald Trump, before talking about the bad vibes he got from the Koran, told an interviewer about his churchgoing habits: “Well, I go as much as I can. Always on Christmas. Always on Easter. Always when there’s a major occasion. And during the Sundays. I’m a Sunday church person. I’ll go when I can.”
In the course of a few minutes, he upgraded from “always on Easter” to “Sunday church person.”
Trump gets it.
Say what you will about Trump (and I’ve said some of it) he understands how Americans like our politicians to go to church: regularly. Ron Chernow wrote that when Alexander Hamilton was deciding whether to throw his support behind Thomas Jefferson or Aaron Burr as the nation’s third president, he decided that he “preferred a man with wrong principles to one devoid of any.” We don’t care if it’s our church. We don’t care if it’s weird and you play guitars instead of organs, or if the minister plays bamboo flutes during the offertory. We just want proof that you go. Yes, some people took issue with the particular sermons of the Rev. Wright at Barack Obama’s church. But they never took issue with the fact of his being a regular churchgoer.
It’s tied up in our complicated dance with the men and women we elect. We want them to be like us. That’s where the apparent anti-elitism comes in — we would never be caught dead eating arugula on a bus. Not like us in the sense that we scratch below our armpits and sometimes forget to pick up our children from summer camp for weeks at a time. We want them to resemble our best selves, the selves that read the paper every morning, know what paper it is and have sound and reasonable opinions on foreign policy. Our leaders can’t fail in the ways we admit that we constantly do. We inhale. They don’t. We forget how to spell potato. They can’t. We mean to go to church. They have to actually show.
That’s why Donald Trump is a Sunday churchgoer. Soon it’ll turn out that what he worships is himself, or an effigy of himself made entirely of gold and platinum and the tears of orphans that stands 18 feet high. Before, I would have pegged him as an Easter and Christmas kind of guy. And that’s what he started off saying – then stopped.
Americans like to think of ourselves as religious. We also like to think of ourselves as responsible about taxes and debt and things, yet answer that we want the government to buy everyone bulletproof platinum hips while still cutting the deficit. We view ourselves as religious – 83 percent of us identify as Christians on surveys — and we won’t vote for you unless you do too.
Or at least, we’ll intend to vote for you. You’ll have to wait and see how that works out.