Donald Trump at Liberty University, a Christian school in Lynchburg, Va., on Jan. 18. The mogul, who has been warmly received by evangelicals, cites the late Norman Vincent Peale as his spiritual mentor. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Donald J. Trump likes to cite an exalted force when he’s asked about his religious convictions.

God?

Jesus?

Himself?

Try Norman Vincent Peale, the Christian minister whose book “The Power of Positive Thinking” was a pillar of American self-help culture during the 1950s and beyond.

Or “the great Norman Vincent Peale,” as the Republican front-runner refers to the preacher, who ministered to Trump and his parents before his 1993 death.

The feeling toward Trump is not exactly mutual among Peale’s offspring.

John Peale, 79, the minister’s son, said he winces when Trump invokes his father’s name, as the candidate has several times since launching his presidential campaign.

“I cringe,” Peale said in a phone interview. “I don’t respect Mr. Trump very much. I don’t take him very seriously. I regret the publicity of the connection. This is a problem for the Peale family.”

The Trump and Peale clans have history. Norman Vincent Peale presided at Donald Trump’s wedding to Ivana Trump. He also officiated at the wedding of Trump’s sister Maryanne. The mogul co-hosted the minister’s 90th-birthday bash.

It was not until the past year, after Trump launched his White House bid, that John Peale, a retired philosophy professor in Charlottesville, Va., started forming less-than- positive opinions about the developer.

In particular, Peale said, he fears that Trump associating himself with Norman Vincent Peale suggests to the public that the minister emphasized “material success, and that was not the main characteristic of his ministry, big time.”

“I don’t think the image of Norman Vincent Peale that comes through Donald Trump is any connection to the idea I have of him,” said Peale, an ordained minister who described himself as a Democrat. “He doesn’t recognize the significant character of Dad’s ministry, which is a sincere desire to help people.”

Trump, in a telephone interview, responded that he does not know John Peale and praised Peale’s father as a “a wonderful person.” He said he was a young man when he first heard Norman Vincent Peale preach.

“He would give the best sermons of anyone; he was an amazing public speaker,” Trump said. “He could speak for 90 minutes and people were upset when it was over.”

Trump said he was drawn to stories the minister told in the pulpit about successful business executives “overcoming difficulties.” “I found that very interesting,” the billionaire said, adding that he and Peale became friends.

“He thought I was his greatest student of all time.”

Trump, who has described himself as a Presbyterian, has cited Peale and touted “The Power of Positive Thinking” during interviews when asked about the role of faith in his life and whether he has ever sought God’s forgiveness.

Twice divorced, unapologetically crude and the owner of casinos bearing his name, Trump would never be confused for a Bible salesman. On Monday, during an appearance at Liberty University, which was founded by evangelist Jerry Falwell, Trump cast himself as Christianity’s defender, even as he drew snickers when he incorrectly referenced the Bible’s Second Corinthians as “Two Corinthians.”


Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, seen here with his wife, Ruth, during a lecture tour of Australia, was a fore­father of the self-help movement. (The Straits Times/via AP)

By invoking Peale, who died in 1993, Trump has something ecclesiastical he can talk about as he seeks support in the faith community, an all-important voting bloc.

“The great Norman Vincent Peale was my minister for years,” Trump told CNN last July, a sentiment he repeated in Atlanta and in Iowa during stops in Ames and Dubuque.

Peale, for his part, described Trump as “kindly and courteous” with “a streak of honest humility,” and touted him as “one of America’s top positive thinkers and doers.” The minister also called Trump “ingenious” and predicted that he would be “the greatest builder of our time.”

Trump’s parents, Fred and Mary Trump, formally joined Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan — a venerable affiliate of the Reformed Church in America — during the 1970s. Trump visited Marble Collegiate with his second wife, Marla Maples. (Newspaper accounts have reported that Trump’s adulterous relationship with Maples began at Marble Collegiate — “THEY MET IN CHURCH” was the New York Post headline — although Trump said in the interview that it all started at a party.)

At his peak, Peale reached millions through radio and television shows and a syndicated newspaper column. He wrote more than 40 books, including the ever-sunny “The Power of Positive Thinking,” published in 1952; it spent three years on the New York Times’ bestseller list. The minister’s advice included: “Formulate and stamp indelibly in your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Never permit it to fade.”

Peale’s congregants at Marble Collegiate — where he preached for more than 50 years — included Richard M. Nixon, who moved to New York and joined the flock after losing the 1960 presidential race. In 1968, the minister officiated at the wedding of President-elect Nixon’s daughter Julie to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s grandson David.

At points, Peale’s allegiance to Republicans made him a target of Democrats. Adlai Stevenson, for one, liked to tell audiences that he found the Apostle Paul “appealing and Peale appalling.”

“He was huge,” Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth College religion professor, said of Peale. “He had a populist touch and a feel-good theology. The idea of it was that you can be better by not feeling sorry for yourself. Think positively and good things will come your way.”

But Peale’s detractors, a crowd that included theologians and psychiatrists, derided his teachings as simplistic and for promoting the idea that reality’s tougher edges could be muted by repeating phrases and flicking a mental switch.

“The criticism of Peale was that he was soft,” Balmer said, “that his theology was insubstantial.”


Peale, seen here in 1968, was pastor of Manhattan’s Marble Collegiate Church and a best-selling author. (AP)

Fred Trump, seen at right with Donald, joined Peale’s church in the 1970s with his wife, Mary. Donald Trump later had his son baptized there but is not an active member, church officials say. (Dennis Caruso/New York Daily News via Getty Images)

Despite their different realms — the church and business — Norman Vincent Peale and Donald Trump share similarities that extend beyond mutual admiration. In 1937, Peale wrote a book called “The Art of Living.” A half-century later, Trump wrote “The Art of the Deal.”

Peale spoke extemporaneously during sermons, in simple, folksy language, a technique Trump uses at his rallies. Peale delivered his message through books and magazines, and even appeared on popular TV shows such as “What’s My Line?” Trump starred in his own reality-television series and is a ubiquitous presence on Twitter and talk shows.

“I can see the similarities,” said Carol V.R. George, a historian who wrote a biography of Peale titled “God’s Salesman.” “The very enthusiastic way Trump communicates. The lack of notes. Peale said you need to know what you’re going to say. He could talk off the cuff for an hour.”

The differences between Trump and Peale are also stark.

A bespectacled, avuncular figure, Peale was not prone to angry public outbursts. He was capable of expressing regret for a controversial statement, as was the case in 1960 when a coalition of ministers he chaired said John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism made him unfit for the presidency.

“Faced with the election of a Catholic,” Peale said, “our culture is at stake.”

After a torrent of criticism, Peale disavowed the effort to undermine Kennedy and pledged to steer clear of politics.

Peale advised acolytes to “eliminate certain expressions of thought and speech we may call the ‘little negatives.’ ” His newspaper columns were published beneath headlines such as “Relax, Be Cheerful — and Live Long” and “Grateful Attitude Aids Digestion.”

Trump’s campaign speeches are rife with negativity, whether he’s insulting his opponents or forecasting doom for the country.

In the interview, Trump said his campaign’s theme, “Make America Great Again,” is positive. But he acknowledged that he is “negative on what they’re doing,” referring to the Obama administration.

“But when we turn it around, it’s very positive,” he said. “I will be very happy when I’m in office.”

Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer, said what the candidate is “positive about is Donald Trump’s excellence and his own power. He’s absolutely faithful to Donald as a leader and as a brilliant man and a man of destiny.”

“When he speaks apocalyptically, he’s talking about the ruination caused by others,” D’Antonio said. “But there’s redemption at hand in the person of Jesus Christ.

“Or in this case, Donald Trump.”


Trump and his first wife, Ivana, with Ruth and Norman Vincent Peale at Rev. Peale’s 90th birthday party in New York on May 26, 1988. Trump hosted the event at the Waldorf-Astoria. (Ron Galella/WireImage)

Peale, who grew up a Methodist in Ohio, preached on Sundays to several thousand worshipers at Marble Collegiate, where he presided from 1932 to 1984. He lived the life of an aristocrat, with a Swiss chalet, a Fifth Avenue apartment and an estate in Upstate New York.

Fred Trump, then a successful developer in Brooklyn and Queens, began attending the services with his wife, drawn as many business executives were to Peale’s can-do theology and his belief that faith could lead to greater success.

“I know that with God’s help,” the minister wrote, “I can sell vacuum cleaners.”

“He was the embodiment of the salesman’s spirit,” D’Antonio said of Peale. “And Fred was at bottom a salesman. It’s not a surprise that Fred Trump would gravitate towards the church.”

In 1988, John Peale attended a 90th-birthday party for his father that was co-hosted by Donald Trump at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. At one point, he said, Trump presented Norman Vincent Peale with a painting “and made some remarks that were particularly inane.”

“He repeatedly said, ‘This is a very great painting,’ as if he didn’t know anything else to say about the painting,” John Peale recalled, adding that from then on the moment became a recurring source of humor within his own family.

More recently, as he has followed Trump during the campaign, Peale said he finds himself asking, “ ‘What’s he saying now?’ and rolling my eyes.”

Peale said he became upset last fall after reading a Politico article that claimed that Norman Vincent Peale helped shape Trump.

“It ignored the major focus and contribution of a spiritual and Christian nature that my father was making in humility and sincere desire to be helpful to other people,” John Peale said. “There’s the power of Jesus Christ that can effect that change. I never heard of anything that came out of Trump that had anything to do with that.”

Told that Trump praised “The Power of Positive Thinking” as “fantastic,” Peale said: “There’s no content to that statement. It’s like kids saying things are awesome.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to David Eisenhower as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s son. He is his grandson. This version has been updated.