In a party race where Christian credentials are important, minister’s son speaks out against tycoon, writes Paul Schwartzman

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

God?

Jesus?

Himself?

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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 frontrunner refers to the preacher, who ministered to Trump and his parents before his death in 1993.

The feeling towards 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 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 wasn't until the past year, after Trump launched his White House bid, that John Peale, a retired philosophy professor in Charlottesville, Virginia, 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 emphasised "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 recognise 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 instead praised Peale's father as a "great gentleman and a wonderful person". He said he was a young man, perhaps a teenager, 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 own name, Trump would never be confused for a Bible salesman. On Tuesday, 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". By invoking Peale, 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's Anderson Cooper last July, a sentiment he repeated in Atlanta and in Iowa during stops in Ames and Dubuque.

Peale, for his part, described Trump during the 1980s 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 he would become "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, though Trump said in the interview that it all started at a party.)

Discussing his religious views last August, Trump told reporters, "I go to Marble Collegiate Church." But the church issued a statement that Trump was not an "active member".

Norman Vincent Peale (right) at his 90th birthday party, which was co-hosted by Donald Trump. Photo / AP
Norman Vincent Peale (right) at his 90th birthday party, which was co-hosted by Donald Trump. Photo / AP

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 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 son, 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. Pick yourself up by your bootstraps. 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."

Despite their different realms - the church and business - Peale and Trump share similarities that extend beyond mutual admiration. In 1935, 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 television reality series and is a ubiquitous presence on Twitter, news and talk shows.

"I can see the similarities," said Carol VR 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.

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's "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."

Ultimately, he said, "I believe in the power of the positive and the power of the negative and being careful. In terms of preparing yourself, you have to look at both sides of the equation.

"You have to be prepared for the negative so you can change it."

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."

Peale, who grew up a Methodist in Ohio, preached on Sundays to several thousand worshippers 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. It was kind of inevitable."

The Trumps hosted the Peales for dinner in the 1970s, John Peale recalled. The lavish scene is indelible: "Each person had a separate waiter and they brought the plates out at the same time and lifted the covers off the plates in unison. It was a grand dinner."

In 1988, John Peale attended a 90th birthday party for his father that was co-hosted by Donald Trump at the Waldorf-Astoria. 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," Peale recalled, adding that from then on the moment became a recurring source of humour 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 year after reading an article in Politico 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," Peale said. "This is a religious thing. 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." Washington Post-Bloomberg