As someone who’s always thought of myself as an evangelical Christian, nothing in the confounding past couple of years has confounded me like my fellow evangelicals’ devotion to Donald Trump.
I wrote about this non-sequitur several times — Christians swearing allegiance to the most brazenly immoral president we’ve ever had — but then decided to leave it alone because all I did was make friends fighting mad at me, without accomplishing anything positive to counterbalance the fury.
Lately, though, I’ve found a theory about evangelicals’ support that’s so intriguing I want to visit the topic again.
“For American evangelicals, there is a term of praise for President Trump that falls like a question mark on most everyone else: ‘You are Cyrus,’” writes Samuel Goldman in a recent New York Times op-ed. “That’s what the Christian pro-Israel activist Mike Evans promised to tell President Trump after his announcement that the United States would move its embassy to Jerusalem.”
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He says top evangelicals — circles in which I decidedly do not travel —support Trump because they believe him to be the 21st century embodiment of the Old Testament monarch Cyrus.
In their minds, Trump’s willingness to go against the grain means he can support biblical mandates and even fulfill biblical prophecies that may usher in the second coming of Jesus Christ.
For those of you rusty on your Old Testament, Cyrus was a Persian king who allowed the Jews to return from Babylonian captivity to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple.
Today, for many evangelicals, Cyrus represents the idea that God, moving in his mysterious ways, can sovereignly use an ungodly leader to accomplish godly ends.
For them, Trump’s appointment of conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, for instance, and his startling, controversial decision on the U.S. embassy, fits the Cyrus bill perfectly.
Especially the latter move.
Many evangelicals expect Jerusalem to become the center of the world’s attention during the period leading up to Jesus’ return. Some say the Jewish temple will eventually be reconstructed there. Some say a cataclysmic world will may erupt in the process.
Hardly anything looms as large in the evangelical mind as the second coming. It’s drilled into us from birth. We learn it in Sunday school. We exuberantly sing about it as if were an approaching Kentucky Derby party: “Jesus is coming soon! Morning or night or noon! Many will meet their doom!”
As a young minister, I spent years poring over scriptural passages about the return of Jesus, as well as books interpreting those passages and books debunking those books. And books debunking those books.
Eventually, I gave up. I confessed to my parishioners that the longer and deeper I studied, the less I understood. They felt pretty much the same. We moved on.
Still, it’s a fascinating subject. I remember finding a 100-year-old book in a seminary library predicting from Scripture that shortly before Jesus was to come back Israel would be re-established as a nation and Jerusalem would be returned to Jewish dominion.
The former happened in 1948, the latter in 1967, both events decades after this book was published, both against impossible odds.
I encountered many such coincidences — intersections between ancient prophecies and modern history — that made the hair on my arms stand up.
The problem is, if you’re an evangelical, anything that suggests God’s intervention in current events, especially if it hints toward the approaching day of the Lord, can cause you to lose your discernment and common sense.
I can testify from long experience that it’s easy to over-extrapolate, to engage in wishful thinking, to take every daily headline as something cosmic.
More often than not, a headline is just a headline. And a president is just a man, not a biblical icon.
Goldman, in his op-ed, talks about other historical figures whom Christians formerly dubbed as Cyruses.
In the 1790s, a New Jersey minister imagined President John Adams as a potential Cyrus.
In the 1890s, it was President Benjamin Harrison. More than 400 prominent citizens, including a Supreme Court justice, a future president, and tycoons J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, beseeched Harrison to carve Palestine from the Ottoman Empire and give it to the Jews. Their petition’s cover letter explicitly compared Harrison to Cyrus.
In 1953, President Harry Truman did them one better. Introduced as the man who had helped create the state of Israel, Truman replied, “What do you mean, ‘helped create’? I am Cyrus!”
They couldn’t all have been Cyruses, I wouldn’t think.
And although I don’t know for sure — who does but God? — I doubt Trump is, either.
For reasons of Christian charity and diplomacy, I’ll leave it at that.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.