The Political Theology of Trump

Only a pagan ruler who knows nothing of the God of Israel—and who was in fact just as happy to finance the building of pagan abominations as part of a general policy of restoring the local religious observances his predecessors had uprooted—can restore the righteous remnant to the Promised Land. Why not raise up a Jewish military hero to repeat the gesture of Moses and demand that the Persians let his people go? Why not have the mighty emperor convert to Judaism and decide to rebuild the Temple as an act of praise to God? The answer is that humans still have too much opportunity to take credit for the outcome, whereas the use of an ignorant, pagan ruler makes the divine agency unmistakable from the Israelite perspective. How could it be more clear that God is really controlling events when his purpose is fulfilled without the involvement of any conscious human intention?

What looks like hypocrisy is the surest possible evidence that God is in control

Jerry Falwell Jr., Donald Trump, and Becki Falwell.

Why do evangelical Christians support Trump? Again and again, through every new scandal, they have proven themselves to be among his most loyal and unshakeable defenders. This is an aspect of our bizarre political moment that has provoked widespread confusion and accusations of hypocrisy, but I’ve approached the topic with something more like urgent despair. I was raised in a conservative evangelical church and my parents remain active members. Both of them found a way to overcome their initial misgivings and support a strikingly amoral candidate. Hearing their rationalizations, hearing my mother in particular claim that she and her friends had thoroughly discussed the matter from a religious perspective and prayed together for guidance, I was shocked and angry—not only about the destructive agenda they had talked themselves into supporting, but about my entire upbringing.

For our family, evangelical Christianity was not a casual affair. My mother was raised in a very pious household—my grandfather was reportedly very reluctant to break the family’s prohibition on movies to let his children see The Sound of Music. My father was born again as a young adult and believes this saved him from a lifetime of alcoholism and self-destruction. From the very beginning, his religious journey anticipated the distinctive features of the modern evangelical movement. We often heard about how he had decided college wasn’t for him when his professor expressed misgivings about his paper “disproving” the theory of evolution (and dared to give him a B!)—a model in miniature of the evangelical movement’s distrust of secular higher education.

More appealing to me was the story about the day he volunteered to do “special music” during a service and performed an acoustic rendition of “Stairway to Heaven”—a song that the congregation did not recognize and assumed to be spiritual in nature due to all the references to heaven. My dad was convinced that rock music, which had been such an important part of his life, had a place in the church, and my parents were strong advocates for the fledgling Christian contemporary music industry, as well as so-called contemporary worship, which emphasized simple choruses and guitars over hymns and organs. They were among the first to become aware of the mega-church movement and made a pilgrimage to the iconic Willow Creek Community Church, pushing our congregation to move in that direction. They were on the vanguard of the movement, as Christian music and mega-churches proved to be absolutely crucial developments in evangelical culture.

We were in church every Sunday morning, every Sunday evening, every Wednesday night, and for many other activities besides. Radio preachers were a constant companion at home and in the car. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, was practically a member of our family. Not only did we listen to his radio show religiously, but his book Preparing for Adolescence represented my sole guidance on puberty and sexuality. (In retrospect his advice was quite liberal and humane in the context of a very sexually repressive culture, as when he recognized the inevitability of masturbation.) Typing his name just now, I had to stop myself from referring to him as “Dr. Dobson,” as though he were my family’s own personal psychiatrist.

I have always rejected the simplistic view that Christianity is somehow monolithically oppressive or destructive. Such an approach erases the many champions of social justice—including Martin Luther King Jr. and the liberation theology movement that began in Latin America and spread throughout the world—who were explicitly motivated by their religious commitments. It also fails to grapple with the core appeal of Christianity: the promise of deep personal transformation, the feeling of being part of a dramatic story that stretches from the first day of creation to the Last Judgment, the sense of belonging that comes from fellowship with people who share the same spiritual outlook and hold themselves accountable to the same difficult moral standard.

But on that fateful post-election phone call, looking back on all those hours spent in church, all that time spent in study and reflection on the Bible, all those sleepless nights wondering whether I truly measured up and could be saved, I was confronted with the possibility that this, somehow, was where all of that led—into a vortex of lies, bigotry, brutality, and nihilism. On this question, my mom was not reassuring. “What was I supposed to do?” she said at one point. “It’s the only thing I’ve known my whole life.”

In democratic societies, religious values are inevitably going to play a role in politics. For religious minorities, the influence of their faith on their politics is likely to be indirect, determined by the very fact of being a religious minority. Hence in postwar America, Jews, Roman Catholics, and Muslims have historically voted for Democrats due to the perception that Democrats would defend their community rights more vigorously, even if other Democratic policies appeared to be contrary to their values. The same can be said for black Christians, whose values sometimes align with Republican positions but who remain loyal to the Democrats nonetheless.

For mainstream white Christians, though, the story is different. Especially in a country like the US, where religious affiliation is a matter of personal choice, there is bound to be a feedback loop between the two realms, as people will find it difficult to remain in a religious community that defies their political instincts. Hence throughout American history, churches have tended to split according to the political questions of the day: revolution vs. loyalism, abolitionism vs. slavery, and today, liberal vs. conservative. One can almost always point to a conservative and liberal version among the major Christian denominations. In recent decades the liberal vs. conservative divide has consistently proven more salient than almost any doctrinal dispute, leading conservative Protestants to ally themselves with Roman Catholics and even Mormons on political questions, in ways that would have been unimaginable a generation ago.

Evangelical Christians are thus not unique among US religious groupings in having strong political loyalties. There are good reasons to bemoan the effects evangelicalism has had on American political life, but the frequently voiced objection that their interventions are religiously motivated does not get us far. After all, there are people raised in liberal Protestant denominations who would never dream of voting for a Republican due to their religious values.

Which religious values do evangelical Christians emphasize? To state them in the least tendentious possible way, they embrace what they consider to be traditional patriarchal family structures and a sexual ethic based on heterosexual monogamy, leading to their well-known opposition to abortion and gay marriage and support for things like abstinence-only sex education. They also value self-sufficiency and voluntary charity, making them suspicious of social welfare programs.

I don’t agree with their reading of the Bible on these questions, but there is at least a clear case for their positions. Yet there is one value that evangelicals cannot possibly derive from the Bible: the belief that America is or at least should be a distinctively Christian nation. If the negative condition for evangelicalism’s “relevance” to so many Americans—or at least so many white, suburban Americans—is its decision to forego the baggage of the debates and doctrines forged over the course of the two millennia that separate us from the biblical authors, the positive condition is its strident Americanism, which treats the Founders as religious icons on par with the Apostles. And this Christianization of America is coupled with a paranoid outlook where both Americanism and Christianity, to the extent that they can be distinguished, are under siege and always in danger of being lost.

Evangelical paranoia, tied as it is to nostalgia for an idealized American past, is an obvious point of contact with Trump. And the link between that paranoia and the explicit racism of Trumpism seems obvious enough, given evangelicalism’s overwhelmingly white and suburban constituency. But at least in the evangelical circles I have run in, I have found most people to be racist by implication rather than intention, as their emphasis on personal responsibility collides with their ahistorical outlook and leads them to wonder why black people can’t get their act together or why Latin American immigrants can’t follow the rules like their great-grandparents did. They are not marching with Tiki torches. Their white supremacy is more casual and less dogmatic. In other words, on race they are all too typically American—and the typical American neither voted for Trump nor approves of him now.

The other possible explanations of evangelical support for Trump are similarly unsatisfying. There is a strong vein of sexism in evangelical culture, but it is more in the style of patriarchal control than Trump’s openly abusive objectification. We can see this more paternalistic sexism in evangelical leaders’ denunciation of Trump’s Access Hollywood tape on the grounds that they couldn’t stand for their wives or daughters to be treated like that. I have also heard speculations that Trump embodies the unbridled id that evangelicals can’t allow themselves to release, which is about as reliable a guide to politics as the notion that every homophobic politician is a repressed homosexual. In some individual cases, that is doubtlessly true, just as it is obviously true that some evangelicals are committed racists or misogynistic abusers. Yet the overwhelming evangelical support for Trump cannot come from the idiosyncratic dispositions of particular individuals—systemic effects have systemic causes.

I would suggest that the systemic cause in question is the distinctive evangelical approach to the Bible. Evangelicals’ identification of Americans as the chosen people renders all the political-theological narratives in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) immediately relevant to their concerns, and their lack of explicit interpretive filters from the historic Christian tradition means that they do not have access to some of the typical strategies for coping with the inner contradictions of biblical monotheism.

In The Price of Monotheism, Jan Assmann captures those tensions nicely when he points out that biblical monotheism presents itself as a revolutionary movement. Unlike the Greco-Roman religion or Hinduism, biblical monotheism is a radical break, a rejection of the polytheistic tradition as actively blasphemous and destructive. This is evident from the very first page of Genesis. As scholars have noted, what appears to be a calm and orderly account of the divine creation of the world is actually a polemical revision of other Ancient Near Eastern myths, asserting the superiority of Israel’s God over the gods of the other nations.

This theological polemic plays out, inescapably, on the political level as well, as the power structures underwritten by polytheism must be utterly rooted out. This is why God must devastate Egypt with the Ten Plagues and wipe out Pharaoh’s army, and it is also why the Israelites must slaughter every man, woman, child, and domesticated animal in the Promised Land to avoid pollution. As Assmann points out, neither event is likely to have happened in historical reality—but that only highlights the conceptual necessity of such a radical “year zero” in the monotheistic imagination. Most nations and religions attempt to downplay or whitewash the crimes against humanity that lie at their foundations, but biblical monotheism actually invents such crimes.

This gesture of destruction is accompanied by an assertion of divine rule over and against the false rulers and their false gods. The God of the Bible, meanwhile, ensures the very existence of the people through his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and rescues them from oppression and slavery in Egypt. In this latter achievement, he shows himself to be a God of justice, and unlike the capricious pagan gods, he lays out an explicit legal covenant with his people. He then secures them territory and ultimately determines their governmental structure. Everything a great king does for his people, God does.

Everything, that is, except the day-to-day work of governing—and that is where the problems begin.1 From the very beginning, God must work through human intermediaries, even the greatest of whom are flawed in some way. Moses displeases God and is excluded from the Promised Land, while King David, a man after God’s own heart, commits adultery and arranges the death of his mistress’s husband to cover it up. Aside from a few pious mediocrities, the biblical account presents most Israelite leaders as indifferent to God’s commands at best and virtually demonic at worst. To the extent that evangelicals identify America as the new chosen nation and themselves as the godly remnant, then, it is easy to understand how they are able to square the circle between their kneejerk patriotism and their disdain for most actual existing political leaders.

Things become more complex when Israelite self-rule comes to an end as their small kingdom is swept up in successive waves of imperial conquest. One reasonable interpretation of this event is that Israel has finally tried God’s patience long enough and that he is bringing their covenant to an end on grounds of non-compliance. Yet the Israelite prophets interpreted these events differently. Speaking in the name of God, the Prophet Jeremiah calls the Babylonian emperor “my servant” (Jeremiah 25:9)—and in virtually the same breath promises to “punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, says the Lord, making the land an everlasting waste” (25:11).2 Evangelicals appear to have something like this in mind when they speculate about whether a given Democratic president is the Antichrist—recruiting them as part of the divine plan, even if only in a negative and unwitting way.

This brings us to a scriptural parallel that evangelicals themselves have drawn with Trump: Cyrus the Great, the Persian Emperor who allowed Israelite priestly elites to settle back in the Promised Land and financed the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.3 In one of the most-cited passages of the Hebrew Bible among Christians, the Prophet Isaiah sings this pagan ruler’s praises, even calling him God’s “anointed”—the root meaning of “Messiah” in Hebrew or “Christ” in Greek—and promising divine assistance in his ongoing conquest (Isaiah 45:1). This passage is often quoted selectively as a prophecy about Jesus Christ, but the prophet mentions Cyrus by name multiple times (44:28, 45:1, 45:13), explicitly promising him divine favor while nonetheless declaring (again speaking in the voice of God): “you do not know me” (45:4).

It’s the biblical version of “only Nixon can go to China.” Only a pagan ruler who knows nothing of the God of Israel—and who was in fact just as happy to finance the building of pagan abominations as part of a general policy of restoring the local religious observances his predecessors had uprooted—can restore the righteous remnant to the Promised Land. Why not raise up a Jewish military hero to repeat the gesture of Moses and demand that the Persians let his people go? Why not have the mighty emperor convert to Judaism and decide to rebuild the Temple as an act of praise to God? The answer is that humans still have too much opportunity to take credit for the outcome, whereas the use of an ignorant, pagan ruler makes the divine agency unmistakable from the Israelite perspective. How could it be more clear that God is really controlling events when his purpose is fulfilled without the involvement of any conscious human intention?

My mom suggested that something similar was at play on that painful phone call the morning after the election, when she wondered aloud whether the improbable events that made Trump President against the American people’s will spoke of a divine intention. Trump’s gestures toward Israel—most notably moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem—have only reinforced the parallel with Cyrus for biblical prophecy buffs.

Yet as far as I can tell, Cyrus was a just and reasonable ruler, with none of the character flaws that mark Trump. To understand the ways that his moral failings may paradoxically be a feature and not a bug from an evangelical perspective, we need to look at another set of biblical stories set during the Babylonian exile: the trials of the prophet Daniel. In these popular Sunday School stories, King Nebuchadnezzar is continually tempting his Jewish officials to commit idolatry, but God continually rescues them—from the fiery furnace, from the lion’s den, and even from losing their jobs. The pious Daniel eventually rises up to become Nebuchadnezzar’s right-hand man, then that of his son, and ultimately of a foreign conqueror as well, making him the Ancient Near Eastern equivalent to the Deep State. If it is easy to see a parallel with the evangelical Mike Pence, it is just as striking that Daniel and his Jewish compatriots never attempt to overthrow King Nebuchadnezzar, even though he repeats the same pattern of demanding idolatry with alarming frequency. Nor does God dethrone him despite his impostures. What is going on here?

My theory is that King Nebuchadnezzar is kept in place precisely because of his impulsive and blasphemous ways. That is what makes his declarations of divine power and authority all the more meaningful when they do come, because they are so obviously contrary to his inclinations. Here the parallel with Trump is clear. Though some evangelical leaders—most notably good old Dr. Dobson—played along with his fleeting claim to be born again in some sense, they have mostly been frank about his personal failings. After all, what is a clearer demonstration of divine authority than the transformation of a man who has surely financed multiple abortions into the strongest possible opponent of a woman’s right to choose? How could it be clearer that God’s hand is guiding events than to witness a man who has never darkened the door of a church calling for greater public recognition of Christianity? What looks like hypocrisy, or at least deep irony, from the outside appears from within the evangelical perspective as the surest possible evidence that God is in control.

The question now is how to confront this strange view of politics. In my experience, many secular liberals view the ideal intervention as something like the first episode of The West Wing, when President Bartlett meets with a group of evangelical Christian leaders and schools them in scripture, leaving them in stunned silence. But this is simply not how it works—otherwise evangelical Christians would have been open to dialogue with the Clintons and Obamas on the basis of their obvious Christian faith. Evangelicals don’t want dialogue or negotiation. They certainly don’t want to be schooled on their own scriptures and values by outsiders. In a sense they don’t want to be doing politics at all. They want to live in a world that is ruled by God, and their convoluted political theology has led them to the conclusion that this is what Trump has offered them. The younger generation of evangelicals, who tend to hold more progressive views than their parents and who have often reacted with horror to the Trump phenomenon, may well transform the movement from within. But that is the work of decades, and it is likely that many of those most disillusioned in the movement will choose to leave rather than devote their lives to this battle. In the meantime, there is not much that any of us can do to convince evangelical Trump supporters that their anointed one is an antichrist.

  1. I write more about the tensions and contradictions of God’s relationship to earthly rulers in The Prince of This World (Stanford University Press, 2016). 

  2. All biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version. 

  3. Tara Isabelle Burton has discussed this strange theological trend in Vox

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