It was a tricky question when Jesus asked his disciples: "Whom say ye that I am?"
This was still a tricky question when conservative columnist Cal Thomas posed a version of it to Donald Trump, while interviewing the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
"You have confessed that you are a Christian," said Thomas.
Trump responded: "And I have also won much evangelical support."
"Yes, I know that," said Thomas. "You have said you never felt the need to ask for God's forgiveness, and yet repentance for one's sins is a precondition to salvation. I ask you the question Jesus asked of Peter: Who do you say He is?"
Trump responded: "I will be asking for forgiveness, but hopefully I won't have to be asking for much forgiveness. As you know, I am Presbyterian and Protestant. … We have tremendous support from the clergy. I think I will be doing very well during the election with evangelicals and with Christians. … I'm going to treat my religion, which is Christian, with great respect and care."
Thomas repeated the question: "Who do you say Jesus is?"
Trump tried again: "Jesus to me is somebody I can think about for security and confidence. Somebody I can revere in terms of bravery and in terms of courage and, because I consider the Christian religion so important, somebody I can totally rely on in my own mind."
For the record, here is St. Peter's response: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God."
That isn't political language and people in pews and pulpits know that politicos fear being that blunt. Still, in a week in which Trump courted nervous religious leaders -- primarily in a closed-door United In Purpose forum in New York City -- it was obvious many were still struggling to discern if he could be trusted on issues crucial to millions of potential voters.
No one expects a "canned evangelical-sounding answer" when Trump faces religious questions, stressed historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University, co-founder of the Gospel Coalition's "Evangelical History" website. The key is whether Trump can use personal language that rings true.
"If Trump was a believer, they'd want him to say, 'Jesus is the Son of God, and my Lord and Savior. He died on the cross so I could be forgiven of my sins,' " said Kidd. "I don't think he could say anything in evangelical-talk that wouldn't sound fake."
Before the New York gathering, Trump supporter Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, stressed -- once again -- that believers are seeking a political partner, not a pastor.
Trump "doesn't expect you to agree with him on every issue or to endorse or condone his style of leadership," Falwell told Time magazine. "If we all wait for the perfect candidate who has the demeanor of our pastors and agrees with us on every issue, including our personal theological beliefs, then we may all sit at home on election day for the rest of our lives."
The key issues? Trump offered a litany of pledges at a recent "Faith & Freedom Coalition" meeting, starting with, "We want to uphold the sanctity and dignity of life."
Trump punched on: "Marriage and family as the building block of happiness and success -- so important. … Religious freedom, the right of people of faith to freely practice their faith -- so important. … The importance of faith to United States society. It's really the people who go to church, who work and work in religious charities -- so important. … We will respect and defend Christian Americans."
"Christianity -- I owe so much to it in so many ways," he told the audience. "I also owe it for, frankly, standing here, because the evangelical vote was mostly gotten by me. If you remember, I went to South Carolina, and I was going to be beat -- very heavy evangelical state -- and I was going to be beaten by (Ted) Cruz or somebody because he had a very strong evangelical vote, and I ended up getting massive majorities of the evangelical vote."
The bottom line, said Trump: "I am so on your side. I am a tremendous believer."