Earlier this month, CNN’s website ran an interesting analysis piece under this headline: “Does God really want Donald Trump to be President?”
Written by Daniel Burke, CNN’s religion editor, it explored assertions by some Christians that God personally placed President Trump in the White House to fulfill his divine purposes, such as protecting religious freedoms, installing conservative judges and curtailing abortions.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders recently agreed on-air with a Christian Broadcasting Network reporter who suggested God had raised up Trump “for such a time as this.”
That phrase, “for such a time as this,” refers to the Old Testament book of Esther, in which God uses the ungodly Persian King Ahasuerus — swayed by his Jewish queen, Esther — to save the Jews.
“I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times,” Sanders, an evangelical Christian, told the CBN reporter. “And I think he wanted Donald Trump to become president and that’s why he’s there.”
According to Burke of CNN, that view is widely held among evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic Christians.
He cites a 2017 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, which found that 57 percent of white evangelicals say God played a “major role” in the 2016 presidential election.
As I (and various others) have written before, some Christians also describe the president as a modern King Cyrus — referring to a different biblical monarch of questionable moral suitability who also bailed out the Lord’s people.
These assertions raise theological dilemmas that all Christians, Republicans and Democrats alike, whatever their views on Trump, might do well to contemplate.
St. Paul, who tradition (if not contemporary scholarship) says wrote half the New Testament, held that “the powers that be are ordained by God,” as he says in Romans.
In Paul’s view, all the world’s present and past rulers were placed in their posts by the Almighty. As Paul tells the pagan philosophers in Athens, the Lord sets rulers’ geographical boundaries and determines how long they’ll stay in power, according to his mysterious predestined plan.
Paul mentions elsewhere this includes both the despotic Pharaoh of Exodus and the Roman caesars of his own day, who allegedly fed Christians to lions. All kings, good or bad, are ordained by God.
That being so, to oppose a king is to oppose God, Paul says. Christians should respect and obey their rulers regardless.
You don’t need a doctorate from Harvard Divinity School to anticipate the implications of this.
For starters, if Christians today, using the Bible as their model, believe God ordained Donald Trump to be our president, then they must by definition agree God also appointed Barack Obama as president for the previous eight years.
And before him, George W. Bush. And before him, Bill Clinton. And so on, right back to George Washington.
To disrespect any leader — including incompetent James Buchanan or racist Andrew Johnson or crooked Richard Nixon or modern conservatives’ banes, Clinton and Obama — is to stick your finger in the Lord’s eye.
Some months ago, we discussed Paul’s views about submitting to the governing authorities in my congregation’s midweek Bible study.
“Wait,” one friend said uneasily. “If he’s right, then our founding fathers sinned when they revolted against King George III. That can’t be, can it?”
I don’t know. Can it?
What would Paul say about Adolph Hitler, who started a war that killed upwards of 70 million people, including 9 million in his concentration camps?
Was he appointed by God? Was Stalin? Was Pol Pot?
Why would a loving, merciful God raise up a Pharaoh or a Nero or a Hitler to serve his larger purposes? How could the righteous be expected to respect and obey them?
But there are perils on the dilemma’s other side, too, if you’re serious about your faith.
Many Christians respond by deciding God doesn’t ordain the powers that be. He’s allotted free will to humanity, they argue, and sometimes we make horrific choices by raising into leadership people who are manifestly evil. When we see we’ve done that, we have a spiritual duty to oppose those leaders by any necessary means.
Fair enough. I sometimes hold this position myself.
Yet to hold it is to maintain that the Bible generally, and St. Paul specifically, aren’t quite to be trusted.
It’s to maintain, whether or not we intend to, that we hold greater power down here than God does. That belief — thinking humans are better equipped to exercise power than God is — re-enacts the Old Testament sin that started this whole mess of longing for human kings.
There’s no simple, one-step-fits-all solution.
You might just chuck it and go start your own religion. You might decide you don’t believe in God, period. But those reactions only lead to problems of their own, and if you are possessed of a Christian faith they’re not options anyway.
This is the frustration of living as a pilgrim. You want God to swoop down and explain everything, to make it clear, to include some footnotes. Mainly, he doesn’t.