I am sure nearly everyone in the world knows who Donald Trump is. The same cannot be said of Norman Vincent Peale. But during the 1950s, Norman Vincent Peale was a household name in America and around the world. A Presbyterian Minister, Peale skyrocketed to fame with his 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking. In what was considered the first “self-help” book, Peale combined Christianity, capitalism, and cheerfulness into a best seller. Here is a but a sample:
The way to happiness: keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry. Live simply, expect little, give much. Fill your life with love. Scatter sunshine. Forget self, think of others. Do as you would be done by. Try this for a week and you will be surprised.
I am among the small percentage of people under the age of 65 who have heard of Norman Vincent Peale. About 25 years ago, I read The Power of Positive Thinking on the recommendation of a friend. Frankly, I didn’t think very much of it. I am very skeptical when I am expected to accept something, anything at face value without questioning its merits. The book left me with the impression that Peale couldn’t discern optimism from wishful thinking. But he would inspire millions of others.
Peale died in 1993 and I hadn’t given him much thought since his death until I heard Donald Trump mention him recently on two occasions. Trump made reference to Peale in July at the Iowa Family Leadership Summit and again last week during his press conference in New Hampshire. He said roughly the same thing about Peale on both occasions. His comment about Peale at the Iowa Family Leadership Summit was prompted when pollster Frank Luntz asked him, “Have you ever asked for God’s forgiveness?”
That’s a tough question. I don’t think in terms… I’m a religious person. Shockingly, because people are so shocked when they find this out. I’m Protestant. I’m Presbyterian. And I go to church and I love God and love my church. And Norman Vincent Peale. The great Norman Vincent Peale was my pastor. The Power of Positive Thinking.
Everybody’s heard of Norman Vincent Peale? He would give a sermon. You never wanted to leave. Sometimes we have sermons and every once in a while we think about leaving a little early, right? Even though we’re Christian.
Dr. Norman Vincent Peale would give a sermon. I’m telling you I still remember his sermons. It was unbelievable. And what he would do is bring real life situations, modern day situations into the sermon. And you could listen to him all day long. When you left the church you were disappointed that it was over. He was the greatest guy.
In an April 1983 New York Times profile of Trump written by the late Marylin Bender, Peale describes the tycoon as ‘‘kindly and courteous in certain business negotiations and has a profound streak of honest humility.’’
Perhaps Peale was being overly kind to his congregant. Because if one were to ask Donald Trump’s fans what they like most about him, it is highly unlikely “a profound streak of honest humility” would be mentioned. Trump’s questioning of John McCain’s bravery at the Iowa Family Summit meeting, his unceremonious ejection of Jorge Ramos at the New Hampshire press conference, his calling Megyn Kelly a bimbo or broad brushing Mexicans as criminals and rapists demonstrates neither honesty nor humility let alone positive thinking.
Perhaps this should not come as such a surprise. Peale himself did not have positive thoughts about everyone. When Adlai Stevenson made his first run for the White House in 1952, Peale objected to Stevenson because he had divorced several years earlier. To which Stevenson replied, “I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling.” If Peale were alive today one can only wonder what he might have thought of his twice-divorced congregant’s fitness for the White House.
All things considered, Peale probably would have minded far less than if Trump had converted to Catholicism. Peale’s popularity began to decline during the 1960 presidential election when he strongly opposed the election of John F. Kennedy because of his Catholic faith. Leading an ad hoc organization known as the National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom, Peale declared, “Facing the election of a Catholic, our culture is at stake.” His group would also write a manifesto about Kennedy which asked of him:
Is it reasonable to assume that a Roman Catholic president would be able to withstand altogether the determined efforts of the hierarchy of his church to gain further funds and favors for its schools and institutions and otherwise breach the wall of separation of church and state?
The group would also state “it is inconceivable that a Roman Catholic president would not be under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church to accede to its policies with respect to foreign interests.” It was Peale’s intervention that would prompt Kennedy to deliver a famous speech to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston in which he declared it was “apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.”
While the speech proved a triumph for Kennedy, the episode proved a disaster for Peale who quickly distanced himself from the National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom and also offered to resign his post at New York City’s Marble Collegiate Church. In a 1982 profile of Peale in People, he regretted the campaign against Kennedy. “I made a mistake,” said Peale, “You couldn’t get me near a politician now. Government isn’t moral or immoral. It’s just plain amoral.”
Herein lies the difference between Norman Vincent Peale and Donald Trump. Peale saw the error of his way and was willing to admit he was wrong. Can anyone honestly imagine Donald Trump will ever admit he was wrong to question John McCain’s bravery? Can anyone conceive that Trump will ever say he was wrong to broadly characterize Mexicans as criminals and rapists? Can anyone conceive that Trump will ever say he made a mistake to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo? After all his bluster about Peale, Luntz pressed him about whether he sought forgiveness from God to which Trump replied, “I don’t bring God into that picture.”
Well, of course he doesn’t. How can Trump possibly ask God for forgiveness, let alone anybody else, when he is unable to admit that he is wrong? There are undoubtedly many in this political season who find such a quality in a presidential candidate to be appealing. I find it appalling.