Evangelicals Still See Trump as God's Emissary in the White House

Donald Trump is about as far away as one can get from evincing the morality espoused by his evangelical supporters. To get around that, they’re turning him into a biblical figure

Nettanel Slyomovics
Nettanel Slyomovics
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Trump bows his head during a prayer while surrounded by Vice President Mike Pence and faith leaders and evangelical ministers in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Sept. 1, 2017.
Trump bows his head during a prayer while surrounded by Vice President Mike Pence and faith leaders and evangelical ministers in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Sept. 1, 2017.Credit: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg

Donald Trump doesn’t like journalists, but when he needs to talk to them, he drags them outside. There, with the din of the helicopter in the background, he holds supposedly off-the-cuff briefings under the open sky. On one such occasion this past summer, he supplied one of the weirdest quotes of a presidency already rife with bizarre remarks. It came on August 24, while Trump was explaining why he was taking a tough line against China in the trade talks. “Somebody had to do it,” he said, before pausing, looking up to the heavens and adding, “I am the chosen one.” No less.

“I can’t believe we have to sit here and discuss this as if it’s some sort of normal thing,” senior CNN presenter Don Lemon said to journalist Chris Cuomo after the president appeared to have cast himself as a divine emissary. “It’s a laugh or cry thing,” Cuomo replied. In the days that followed, Trump tweeted one clarification after another: “I was kidding, being sarcastic, and just having fun.” In fact, it looks as though he really had been joking, but regardless – he hit on something.

As far as his most enthusiastic bloc of supporters, evangelical Christians, is concerned,Trump was speaking the truth, whether he meant to or not. That belief about Trump is something the president’s aides are reluctant to talk about in public – which is why the interview given by then-outgoing Energy Secretary Rick Perry late last month was so unusual. Perry, a former Republican governor of Texas and a devout evangelical, had become one of Trump’s most avid loyalists. He’s also involved up to his neck in the Ukraine affair – the scandal that has spawned impeachment proceedings against Trump in Congress.

In an interview with Fox News on November 24, Perry explained the apparent contradiction between his own deep religious beliefs and his support for a president who is alleged to have committed offenses of bribery, tax evasion and sexual assault, among others.

“God’s used imperfect people all through history. King David wasn’t perfect. Saul wasn’t perfect. Solomon wasn’t perfect,” said the former energy secretary, who regards the Bible as an authoritative book of history. “I said, ‘Mr. President, I know there are people that say you said you were the chosen one, and I said, ‘You were.’… You understand God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet in our government.”

Trump, Perry added, “didn’t get here without God’s blessing.” He noted that he had even told the president, “You are here at this chosen time because God ordained it.” 

For many liberal Americans, the relationship forged between Trump and the evangelicals is proof of the hypocrisy of the latter. Here’s a head of state who is twice divorced, who cheated during his marriages, slept with a porn starlet, was recorded bragging about a sexual assault and in effect violates Christian morality in every speech he makes, without regret. All this was known in 2016, when he won 80 percent of the evangelicals’ votes in the election against Hillary Clinton. And since then, his status among them has only grown stronger. Trump’s remark and Perry’s Bible-tinged commentary each became, in its turn, punch lines in the news media and on late-night TV shows. The jokes emphasized a single underlying phenomenon: There’s apparently no question of belief here, only hypocrisy on the part of tens of millions of Americans.

Preacher, leader

In the past three years, the evangelical community, whose members constitute more than 20 percent of the U.S. population, has become the president’s most significant and loyal group of voters. A survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, whose results were published in late October, examined support for Trump following the launch of the formal impeachment inquiry on September 24. It found that 99 percent of white evangelicals object to the proceedings.

One may believe they are cynical and hypocritical, that they see themselves as morally superior to the rest of American society while in practice they support an immoral president. But when you dig deeper into the internal discourse of the evangelicals about Trump, it becomes apparent that the problem goes beyond mere hypocrisy: They really believe what they say.

Evangelicalism in the United States is a relatively new phenomenon, having emerged from 19th-century Protestantism. In practice, the movement consists of an unaffiliated, decentralized collection of churches, with many significant differences between them but united in a very specific kind of messianic faith (which sees the End of Days contingent on the return of the Jews to Zion) and a very literal reading of the Bible. So, they reject the theory of evolution, because it contradicts the Book of Genesis. Indeed, it’s the Hebrew Bible that provided them with overwhelming proof that Trump actually fits the pattern of the desirable leader.

A 2015 Trump campaign rally in Mobile, Alabama.
A 2015 Trump campaign rally in Mobile, Alabama. Credit: Mark Wallheiser / Getty Images

“God called King David a man after God’s own heart even though he was an adulterer and a murderer,” said Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, a private evangelical Christian institution in Virginia, when he endorsed Trump in January 2016. Falwell recalled that when his own father, the late Southern Baptist pastor and televangelist, who endorsed Ronald Reagan, entered the voting booth, “he wasn’t electing a Sunday school teacher or a pastor or even a president who shared his theological beliefs; he was electing the president of the United States with the talents, abilities and experience required to lead a nation.”

It’s obvious that every new revelation about Trump stirs discomfort among devout believers who aspire to a sinless life. Which is why Sunday sermons, Christian media outlets and social network forums are almost obsessively focused on King David when they talk about Trump. The story of the biblical monarch walking on the roof and peeping at Bathsheba, getting her pregnant and sending her husband to his death on the battlefield, is a constantly recurring image. The Rev. A.J. Dudek, an evangelical pastor in Wisconsin, told The Washington Post that he doesn’t enjoy the president’s tweets, but “If Donald Trump will help save a couple million babies [by facilitating the outlawing of abortion], that’s a good thing. My vote has to align with my view of God’s word – I should care for the baby in the womb.”

Trump is notorious for scandalous behavior, but in the Christian world he is depicted, with considerable justification, as the president who has delivered the goods better than anyone before him. The evangelicals are relative newcomers to politics, having refrained from acting as a political bloc until Reagan persuaded them in 1980 that it would be worth their while. The highlight for them was gaining a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, an achievement accomplished during Trump’s first two years in office. The two justices he appointed, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, were chosen primarily because of their opposition to abortion. The evangelicals are now deploying for a battle to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, which protected women’s right to abortions.

The appointment of like-minded Supreme Court justices is an achievement for all conservatives, but especially for the evangelicals. Trump also gave them the most important gift of all, from their point of view: the transfer of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, along with recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights and just recently, validation of the settlements in the occupied territories. For the evangelicals, in contrast to most other Protestants, the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel is an essential precondition for Jesus’ second coming and the End of Days.

Whereas Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu habitually takes credit for Trump’s moves, as proof of the warm relations between them, it’s more likely that they are gestures intended to strengthen the alliance with the president’s most important constituency.

The remarks made in connection with the May 2018 transfer of the embassy may not have struck the average viewer as noteworthy, but for evangelicals they were replete with assertions and allusions linking Trump to biblical motifs. One historical figure who was mentioned by Netanyahu during a visit to the White House after Trump’s announcement regarding his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, is associated with Trump by evangelicals: Cyrus the Great of Persia. “I want to tell you that the Jewish people have a long memory. So we remember the proclamation of the great King Cyrus the Great... Twenty-five hundred years ago, he proclaimed that the Jewish exiles in Babylon can come back and rebuild our temple in Jerusalem,” said Netanyahu, resonating precisely with a significant role model.

This is also the crux of the debate going on among Trump analysts who look to the Bible to understand whether it is David or Cyrus who offers the appropriate analogy to the American leader, and it encapsulates a meaningful nuance. King David coveted a married woman on the roof and saw to the killing of her husband, but he was still king of the Jews and, according to Christian tradition, Jesus’ ancestor. Cyrus, in contrast, was a foreign monarch who served only as a tool in the service of the Lord. A theological approach that comes down on the side of Cyrus would effectively distance the president and cast him as a kind of “Shabbos goy,” external to the body politic. This perception goes even farther toward eliminating any moral dilemma that might be harbored by Trump’s supporters: He is only a divine conduit, and God’s ways are, of course, mysterious.

“God is in total control,” Kenneth Ham, an evangelical preacher, said in an interview with the Religion News Service, on the eve of Trump’s inauguration, in 2017. “He makes that very clear in the Bible where he tells us that he raises up kings and destroys kingdoms. He even calls a pagan king, Cyrus, his anointed, or his servant to do the things that he wants him to do.”

Seen through evangelical eyes, Trump is God’s incontestable emissary, but God’s will is mysterious. Ben Howe, author of “The Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power Over Christian Values,” belongs to a negligible minority of evangelical Republicans who object to Trump. In the book’s introduction, Howe takes issue with his fellow Christians, writing, “Broadly speaking, we have taken to confronting immorality by becoming immoral. But because our immorality is intended to stop an objectively worse immorality.” Howe sharply depicts the moral dilemma evangelicals are facing, as they are compelled to scour the Scriptures for justification of their choice of a leader whom they perceive as immoral.

Meanwhile, Trump is delivering great victories to millions of Americans who have seen themselves as being on the losing side of a culture war that has been ongoing since the 1960s, and has been characterized overall with soaring divorce rates, the rise of feminism, increasing numbers of abortions and so on. In many interviews it emerges that the authentic debate and criticism among evangelicals concerning the character of the president is effectively put on hold and transformed what appears to be a consensus – thanks to the liberals, actually: When the latter deride evangelicals for being hypocrites, that criticism, which was perhaps intended to be political in nature, takes on the sense of a religious attack, and prompts them to close ranks with their great protector.

If the evangelicals are able to fall asleep at night with a leader whom many perceive to be immoral, it is precisely because they espouse a different moral worldview. Biblical morality often squares with modern morality – helping others, community, charity – but at certain moments the profound gap between this community and the rest of society is revealed. A modern democracy expects its leader to maintain a moral standard identical to that of every other citizen, sometimes even higher. The biblical approach, though, views the leader as being set apart from the people and as one whose actions are an expression of the will of God.

Franklin Graham, the son of the Christian evangelist and missionary Billy Graham, who is following in the footsteps of his late father, said last month on the nationally syndicated radio show hosted by author Eric Metaxas that the political and religious offensive against Trump is an expression of “almost a demonic power” but agreed with Metaxas that it’s really a “spiritual battle.” Graham went on to defend Trump who, though not perfect, is doing his best “to make America great again.” Metaxas, who also backs Trump, commented that, “People seem to devolve to a kind of moralistic Pharaseeism,” and ask how it’s possible to support someone who is “the least Christian” president ever. “These people don’t have a biblical view when it comes to that, but just because someone doesn’t hold to our theology, doesn’t mean they can’t be a great pilot or a great doctor or dentist. It’s a bizarre situation that we’re in, when people seem only to have these standards for the president.”

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