As I explained in the initial edition of the Sunday edition of the French Press, one of the fundamental goals of this newsletter is to bridge the gap between secular and religious readers. That certainly means explaining the basics of religious belief amid public controversies—helping the mainstream media to “get religion” in New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet’s memorable phrase. But it also means identifying the trite, the silly, and the sometimes manipulative aspects of religious political rhetoric. And that brings us to today’s topic, whether God chose Donald Trump and what the answer to that question means for America’s Christian citizens.
Rick Perry meant well, I think.
The latest version of this controversy kicked off when Fox News’s Ed Henry interviewed former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and this part of Perry’s comments rocketed across Twitter (with 5.8 million views and counting):
God uses imperfect people through history. King David wasn’t perfect. Saul wasn’t perfect. Solomon wasn’t perfect. And I actually gave the president a one-pager on those Old Testament kings about a month ago. And I shared it with him and I said, ‘Mr. President, I know there are people who say that you say you were the chosen one.’ And said, ‘You were.’ I said, ‘If you are a believing Christian, you understand God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet in our government.’
Henry noted that Perry also made it clear that he believed Barack Obama was chosen by God to be president. Shortly after Perry’s interview aired, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley made a similar point, telling an interviewer on the 700 Club that she thinks “God sometimes places people for lessons and sometimes places people for change. And you can look at everything that’s happened, and I think we are seeing a lot of change, and I think we are gaining a lot of lessons from it as well.”
What’s going on here? Are these thoughts a representation of the Evangelical cult of Trump? Are they an effort to cast those who oppose Trump as opposing the will of God himself? Let’s start the explanation charitably, describing what both Perry and Haley likely meant by reference to very basic biblical interpretations.
Virtually any biblically literate Christian can immediately recall the words of Romans 13:1—“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” The next verse is amplifies on the first, “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
Moreover the idea that God selects rulers isn’t confined to a single verse in the New Testament. The Old Testament is replete with examples of the Lord choosing to elevate leaders, including notably both King Saul and King David (the men Perry mentioned in his interview). So, when secular critics react with Perry and Haley as if they just said something cultlike and strange, Christian believers hear a direct attack on scripture. Of course God is sovereign. Of course he elevates rulers to serve his purposes.
With great power comes great responsibility …
But just as there’s a problem with secular ridicule, there’s also quite often a problem with the reflexive Christian response. While not every Christian is guilty of this hypocrisy, I’ll note that I’ve heard far more Evangelicals recognize God’s sovereignty in the elevation of Donald Trump than I heard recognize his same sovereignty in the elevation of Barack Obama. And I’ve also heard many Evangelicals use God’s sovereignty over the presidency as an endorsement of the president’s agenda or as a defense to secular critique.
But, as the saying goes, that’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works. In fact, citing Romans 13, or referencing any Old Testament king only starts to peel the onion of theological complexity.
Let’s take, for example, two of the three biblical kings Perry mentioned—Saul and David. Too many Christians who compare Trump to David seem to have forgotten the king who came before—and how his story has perhaps better parallels to our current age.
For those who’ve forgotten, King Saul’s rise and fall is an example of God granting his people what they want—and then making them endure many of the consequences of their own foolishness. The story is told in the first book of Samuel. If you don’t have time to crack open the Bible, I recommend these short summaries, from The Bible Project:
Boiled down to its essence, after a period of chaos and turmoil (which included the ultimate insult of the Philistines seizing the Ark of the Covenant), the Israelites approach the prophet Samuel and demand a king. God directs Samuel to grant their request: “Obey the voice of the people in relation to all that they say to you. For it is not you they have rejected, but Me they have rejected from reigning over them.”
Samuel warns the Israelites of the oppressions to come, but he follows God’s command and anoints Saul as the first king of Israel. Saul won initial victories, but he also defied God’s commands, God rejected him as king, and then Samuel anointed Saul’s successor—not one of Saul’s sons, but rather the most famous king in the Old Testament, David. Throughout Old Testament history, the pattern is clear—the status of serving as God’s ordained king of Israel (even in the line of David himself) does not relieve that king of the obligation of following God’s commands or the people from suffering the consequences of the king’s failures.
In other words, if Perry told the stories properly to Trump, it should have been one of the more sobering conversations of his life, complete with the knowledge that God may well raise up and empower an opponent if he fails to govern righteously. Scottish theologian John Knox stated the scriptural reality well:
True it is, God has commanded kings to be obeyed; but likewise true it is, that in things which they commit against His glory, He has commanded no obedience, but rather, He has approved, yea, and greatly rewarded, such as have opposed themselves to their ungodly commandments and blind rage.
Several days ago, the Christian writer Eric Metaxas and Evangelical leader Franklin Graham had a strange exchange where Metaxas and Graham agreed that opposition to Donald Trump was “demonic.” No, really:
Here’s the relevant part of the transcript:
Metaxas: “So what do you think of what’s happening now? I mean, it’s a very bizarre situation to be living in a country where some people seem to exist to undermine the president of the United States. It’s just a bizarre time for most Americans.
Graham: I believe that it’s almost a demonic power that is trying . . .
Metaxas: I would disagree. It’s not almost demonic. You know and I know that at the heart it’s a spiritual battle.
Graham: It’s a spiritual battle (Graham then went on to tout Trump’s economic record).
This is extraordinarily presumptuous. As we’ve seen from simply one example, above (Saul and David), a ruler’s unrighteousness can provide ample reason for his removal, and the instruments of that removal can be anointed by God for that very purpose. Thus, the mere existence of opposition to any president—much less Donald Trump—isn’t evidence of any sort of “demonic” influence (nor is it remotely “bizarre”), especially if the opposition is motivated by the president’s unrighteousness.
In fact, applying the logic of Romans 13, if Christians fight for Trump’s re-election, and Trump loses, they’ll have resisted the person who God ordained to become the president of the United States.
But let’s stay focused on the bottom line. If we’re speaking of the call of God on a ruler’s life, the true emphasis is not on deference to the ruler (indeed, resistance to unrighteousness is often an imperative) but on the ruler’s ultimate responsibility before God. The First Book of Spider-man says, “With great power comes great responsibility,” but that’s not Marvel’s invention, it’s an adaptation of Jesus’s own words: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
Putting it all together.
Biblically literate members of the media could do a great public service if they pushed leaders like Perry and Haley to amplify their views on God’s sovereignty over princes and presidents. A truly rigorous examination of the issue should lead believers (in and out of government) to humble themselves and pray. As Proverbs states, “[T]he king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water.” We don’t know God’s plans. We can only do our best to discern what is just, and our best is going to be limited by our own fallen nature.
At the end of the day, both ruler and ordinary citizen alike should remember Micah 6:8—“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Citizens who don’t temper their quest for justice with kindness and humility violate God’s command, but so do rulers—and when the people see from the fruits of a man’s life that Micah 6:8 is far from his heart, then it is right and even necessary to raise the alarm.
A thank you and a promise delayed.
In my first Sunday newsletter, I specifically asked you to provide feedback, and the response was truly overwhelming. I told you that I’d respond to the most interesting and thoughtful messages this week, but there were so many good questions and observations that I can’t keep that promise while keeping this newsletter at a reasonable length. So, here’s what I’m going to do. First, I’m going to continue to bank the best and most interesting critiques and questions and during a slow spiritual news week (those do still happen), I’m going to dedicate an entire newsletter to providing answers as best as I can.
But that’s not all. We’re working on a way to provide subscribers (and subscribers only, so subscribe!) with a real-time Q&A session after I publish a newsletter. Your comments help make me sharper, and I have no doubt that a real give-and-take will be even better. So if you don’t want to respond today, save up for later—hopefully we’ll “see” each other live and in real time soon enough.
A final thought …
Since I’ve written a bit about the spiritual thoughts of politicians, I thought I’d share an interesting perspective from another thoughtful Christian politician on the power of a president’s personal morality. He wrote:
Leaders affect the lives of families far beyond their own ‘private life’. In the Bible story of Esther we are told of a king who was charged to put right his own household because there would be “no end of disrespect and discord” among the families of the kingdom if he failed to do so. In a day when reckless extramarital sexual activity is manifesting itself in our staggering rates of illegitimacy and divorce, now more than ever, America needs to be able to look to her First Family as role models of all that we have been and can be again.
Well said. He also reminded America of a forgotten verse in the Book of Proverbs, one that should sober us as we see the ripple effect dishonesty, and the manner in which lies can thoroughly corrupt a government. Proverbs 29:12 declares, “If a ruler listens to lies, all his officials become wicked.”
Thank you Vice President Pence. The words you wrote about Bill Clinton a generation ago still ring true today.