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The U.S. Constitution says there can be no religious requirement for public office. But Americans have generally wanted their presidents to show their faith in God. Donald Trump is now testing those expectations. He says he attends church and takes communion but has also said he doesn't often need forgiveness. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports on whether religion still matters.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Incoming presidents must swear to faithfully execute the office of president of the United States and to the best of their abilities, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. The first contemporary account of a president asking that God help him do that is from 1865, Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration. In recent years, it's been standard practice.
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RONALD REAGAN: The Constitution of the United States.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: So help you God?
REAGAN: So help me God.
GEORGE H. W. BUSH: So help me God.
BILL CLINTON: So help me God.
GEORGE W. BUSH: So help me God.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: So help you God?
BARACK OBAMA: So help me God.
GJELTEN: Those words are entirely optional, but Randall Balmer, a historian of religion at Dartmouth College, says presidential candidates have long felt pressured to demonstrate at least some religiosity.
RANDALL BALMER: I think in the United States, religion serves as a proxy for morality. What we as voters want to know is that our presidential candidates have some sort of moral center or moral compass. And we really don't know how to ask the question other than to say, are you religious?
GJELTEN: Back in 1980, Ronald Reagan's election was helped by his alliance with a newly formed Christian group that called itself the Moral Majority. The evangelical vote remains important enough to Republicans that Donald Trump felt the need to meet with conservative Christian leaders last week. Trump has shown in the past that he's not especially familiar with the Bible and that awkwardness came through in the meeting. It was closed to the press, but some attendees recorded Trump's remarks and shared them on Twitter or elsewhere. In those recordings, Trump does not mention the Bible or Jesus Christ. He calls himself a believer but doesn't say what exactly he believes in other than himself and his own success.
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DONALD TRUMP: Christianity - I owe so much to it in so many ways, through life, through having incredible children. But I also owe it from, frankly, standing here because the evangelical vote was mostly gotten by me.
GJELTEN: Many of the people at the meeting with Trump came away with positive impressions, but that feeling is hardly universal among evangelicals.
MICHAEL FARRIS: I think he is without a moral core.
GJELTEN: Michael Farris is an ordained Baptist minister, an activist in the home schooling movement and one of the founders of the Moral Majority.
FARRIS: He doesn't keep his word in his business transactions. He ridicules people. He doesn't believe anything about treating his neighbor better than himself. I mean, that's what the Bible teaches. We just don't see any semblance of honesty, decency, integrity.
GJELTEN: In a commentary for The Christian Post, Farris wrote that the evangelicals meeting with Trump, quote, "marks the end of the Christian Right."
FARRIS: We have evangelical leaders saying, you know, we're going to support this guy anyway. It means our principles don't mean anything at all.
GJELTEN: It may mean more than that. Historian Randall Balmer says Trump's popularity suggests Americans may no longer demand God-fearing presidents.
BALMER: I think he would be the first president who really makes no credible claims to religiosity.
GJELTEN: At least in the modern era, Balmer says.
BALMER: Americans are looking for something else, I think, in their presidential candidates these days.
GJELTEN: Like a willingness to speak plainly, perhaps - one more indication of America's changing cultural values. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
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