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By David Mislin

Today marks the anniversary of the birth of Norman Vincent Peale, one of the most influential religious leaders in the United States during the past century.

Peale is the subject of Christopher Lane’s new book Surge of Piety, which explores the minister’s melding of Protestant Christianity and popular psychology. In his own lifetime, Lane notes, Peale was best known for his 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking. It was among the most-read books of the 1950s and was one of the most popular self-help books of all time.

During the last couple of years, though, Peale has also taken on renewed significance because of a different role that he played: he was Donald Trump’s minister.


Peale was born in Ohio, and he studied at Ohio Wesleyan and Boston University School of Theology. He first worked as a pastor in Rhode Island and in New York State. In 1932, he became the minister of the Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue in New York City, a position he would hold for over half a century. [1]

During the 1930s and 40s, Peale attracted attention for his fierce anti-communism. Early on, he framed ideological differences between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in religious terms. By doing so, Peale helped to set the rhetorical terms of the Cold War. [2]

At the same time, as both Lane and Kevin Kruse have noted, Peale also grew famous as a critic of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The minister was an outspoken proponent of big business. With other noted Protestant clergy, he crafted a popular message that blended anti-communism, patriotism, support for American business, and adherence to Protestant Christianity. This potent message won him widespread admiration among elites and access to political and business leaders.

Peale’s major triumph, though, was The Power of Positive Thinking. The book spent over three-and-a-half years on the bestseller list. In 1953 and 1954, it was the most-purchased book in the U.S. after the Bible. [3]

Between his large audience of readers and the connections he made with national leaders, Peale exerted enormous influence in the U.S. His prestige declined somewhat in his later years, and especially after his death in 1993.

At least until the candidacy of Donald Trump.

On the campaign trail, Trump referred to “the great Norman Vincent Peale” as his major religious influence (an opinion, it’s worth noting, that’s not appreciated by the Peale family). The clergyman officiated at Trump’s first wedding, and his successor at the Marble Collegiate Church officiated at Trump’s second.

But beyond the personal connection, it’s easy to see the influence of Peale’s self-help rhetoric on Trump’s. “Don’t go crawling through life on your hands and knees self-defeated,” the minister wrote. Elsewhere in the book, Peale added “things become better when you expect the best instead of the worst, for the reason that being freed from self-doubt, you can put your whole self into your endeavor, and nothing can stand in the way of the man who focuses his entire self on a problem.”

In reading these words, it’s not difficult to see their influence on Trump. As a candidate, he was widely believed to face long odds against Hillary Clinton. Yet, as he famously proclaimed to supporters, “we’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning.”

In fact, one finds in Peale’s work not just the seeds of Trump’s ideas, but of his language as well. Early in The Power of Positive Thinking, the minister lamented “the number of pathetic people” who suffered from an “inferiority complex”.

And yet, for all that Trump draws on his late pastor’s writing, there is an important difference between the two men. While it is easy to mock the superficial self-help language of Peale’s book, there was more to it than that. The confidence that Peale urged his readers to cultivate was meant to be grounded in something larger than themselves. “Develop a tremendous faith in God and that will give you a humble yet soundly realistic faith in yourself.” Positive thinking should encourage thinking beyond oneself.

That crucial point seems to have been lost on the president. Trump’s tremendous faith, it appears, is only in himself.

[1] Christopher Lane, Surge of Piety: Norman Vincent Peale and the Remaking of American Religious Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 14.
[2] Lane, 2-4
[3] Lane, 11.