Opinion

A trial of biblical proportions – Baptist News Global

During the impeachment hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Barry Loudermilk compared what was happening to Donald Trump to the “sham trial” of Jesus Christ. The Georgia Republican claimed that “[w]hen Jesus was falsely accused of treason … Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than Democrats have afforded this President in this process.”

While this juxtaposition of the President Trump and Jesus Christ is astonishing, scriptural references to support Trump and Trumpism have been used since 2016 with increasing frequency and boldness. Supporters defend Trump’s controversial policies with passion, dismissing his unpresidential words and actions unapologetically.

“I decry the use of biblical typologies for political gain.”

No strategy has been more politically contrived than the continued adoption of biblical typologies to legitimate the Big Apple businessman and reality TV personality occupying the White House. The impeachment trial of President Trump, therefore, can be described as having “biblical proportions.” This assessment is true not only because, in the usual sense of this metaphor, it is an event with immense consequences, but also because the president’s loyal supporters – in Congress and in white evangelical churches – will likely continue their biblical allusions to defend him and justify his actions.

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Trump loves to hear – and, of course, retweet – these flattering comparisons, whether they come from sincere but misguided followers or from fawning sycophants. Such praise strokes his massive ego and feeds his narcissistic hunger for recognition.

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The prescription to “make America great again” is, after all, for the country simply to acknowledge Trump’s incomparable greatness. As author and political advisor Sidney Blumenthal notes: “Great leaders, to Trump, aren’t measured by what they believe: they are great because they win and are adored.”

Now, with the Senate impeachment trial underway, it is extremely important for American Christians to be aware of this manipulative tactic. Efforts to give Trump the standing of Abraham Lincoln or Ronald Reagan are strained, if not nonsensical, yet they don’t come close to matching the illogical contortions required to compare the president to positive, or even heroic, models in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. This growing tendency should concern all Americans who claim to revere the Bible and desire to live into its vision.

These biblical comparisons to Trump fall into two categories. One, not surprisingly, is those human figures who in their lifetime were a king, emperor or even a queen. Is it only coincidental that all of these counterparts are elite, wealthy and powerful royalty? Where are the ordinary, middle-class citizens, much less the impoverished, marginalized and powerless commoners, with whom this president is identified?

“Efforts to give Trump the standing of Abraham Lincoln or Ronald Reagan … don’t come close to matching the illogical contortions required to compare the president to positive, or even heroic, models in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.”

As if to correct the perception that Trump can only reflect the “top one percent” of ancient society, the other, much more startling typology is Jesus himself – a suffering servant “despised and rejected” (Isaiah 53:3), yet whose person and work were acclaimed in messianic phrases, both confessional and laudatory. These references especially satisfy Trump, who sees himself, especially during the impeachment proceedings, as a persecuted victim who is absolutely worthy of adoration and praise.

Trump as Cyrus, David, Esther

King Cyrus of ancient Persia has been held up as a model for Trump, beginning before the 2016 election. Lance Wallnau, an evangelical author, promoted the idea in his book, God’s Chaos Candidate, arguably influencing 3 to 5 million undecided voters.

Tara Isabella Burton, a journalist with a doctorate from Oxford University, observes: “While Cyrus is not Jewish and does not worship the God of Israel, he is nevertheless portrayed in Isaiah as an instrument of God – an unwitting conduit through which God effects his divine plan for history. Cyrus is, therefore, the archetype of the unlikely ‘vessel’: someone God has chosen for an important historical purpose, despite not looking like – or having the religious character of – an obvious man of God.”

The comparison has gained traction during Trump’s presidency. In February 2018, an Israeli educational center announced a newly-minted commemorative “Temple Coin” that depicts Trump and Cyrus side by side, honoring the president’s decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made this comparison during his March 2018 visit to the White House.

John Fea, professor of evangelical history at Messiah College, is not swayed by this association: “I think in some ways this is a kind of baptism of Donald Trump. It’s the theopolitical version of money laundering, taking Scripture to … clean [up] your candidate.”

In an article in the Washington Post, two scholars from the Institute on Religion & International Studies at Cambridge University note that other political figures are taken from biblical history to enhance the president’s stature. Trump has been compared to King David, a morally flawed leader who nonetheless was “a man after God’s own heart.”

Eliot Cowen, dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, writes:

Some avowedly pious men and women have, of late, explained their support of President Donald Trump by citing the example of King David, a sinner whom the Lord used for his purposes, and whose faults – crimes, even – were redeemed by the good he did. According to this line of thinking advanced by politicians, activists, and even clerics of different hues, Trump may have wandered far from the straight path, but he is nonetheless doing God’s work.

Perhaps wishing to validate the claim that Trump is “a man after God’s own heart,” former congresswoman and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann exulted, “[Trump] is highly biblical, and I would say … we will in all likelihood never see a more godly, biblical president again in our lifetime. So we need to be not only praying for him, we need to support him, in my opinion, in every possible way that we can.”

Others use Emperor Caesar as a typology for Trump. This tactic in its more subtle manifestation relies on Romans 13:1 to suggest, as did former Secretary of State Jeff Sessions, that submitting to governmental authority is a biblical requirement, regardless of one’s disagreement with specific policies.

“‘It’s the theopolitical version of money laundering, taking Scripture to … clean [up] your candidate.’”

Perhaps even more blatant is the association of Trump with Jesus’ statement to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a Christian Right political organization, has written a book to be released by Regnery Press prior to the 2020 election that he wanted to entitle Render to God and Trump. The edited title will be For God and Country: The Christian Case for Trump.

Even Queen Esther has become an archetype for the president. In March 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opined that Trump might be a modern version of the Jewish queen, born “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14), “raised up by God” to rescue Israel from Iran.

Incredulously, Miriam Adelson, the Israeli-American wife of billionaire Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, went even further, writing, “Would it be too much to pray for a day when the Bible gets a Book of Trump, much like it has a Book of Esther celebrating the deliverance of the Jews from ancient Persia?”

How does this correlation help the president? “Identifying a biblical type elevates Trump from the mundane to the sacred, imbuing the president with a transcendent, divinely ordained mission of biblical proportions.”

Trump as the Chosen One, King of Israel, Second Coming of God, or Savior

Former Secretary of Energy Rick Perry made the audacious claim that President Trump is the “Chosen One.” Jay Parini, a poet-novelist professor at Middlebury College, stresses the theological vulnerability of claiming that God chose for Trump to be president. He proffers:

This notion has been going around the administration like a strange virus…. This may sound, to many, if not most, people a bit crazy. But evangelical Christians generally believe that God intervenes in the world on a daily basis, deciding, for example, who wins the football game on Saturday, who falls off the bike and who doesn’t, or who gets elected to public offices and who must go home and sulk. (My father was a Baptist minister, so this kind of thinking is familiar.)

Sam Kestenbaum, a religion journalist who writes for The New York Times, reports that a “recent Fox News poll found one in four Americans believe ‘God wanted Donald Trump to become president.’ Celebrities like the televangelist Paula White and Franklin Graham have boosted the idea. [Sarah Huckabee Sanders] suggested as much in a January [2019] interview. And on the opening day of the Conservative Political Action Conference [in March 2019], the millionaire businessman Michael Lindell took to the stage and declared President Trump ‘chosen by God.’”

Professor Fea points out that “chosen one” has a wider allusion than its biblical referents, noting, “The phrase ‘chosen one’ is probably part Christianity, part science fiction, part myth, part fantasy, part Harry Potter.” Nonetheless, he avers, “[A]t the same time, there is embedded within that phrase this idea that God chooses certain people – and evangelicals will believe this – that God chooses certain people for particular moments in time to serve his purposes.”

It is precisely this claim, as it relates to Donald Trump, that puzzles Randall Balmer, author and historian of American religion at Dartmouth College:

I suspect I wasn’t the only American surprised to learn that God chose Donald Trump to be president of the United States. The Almighty’s rooting interest in the 2016 presidential election was so great, apparently, that he was willing to put his thumb on the scale to ensure the outcome (with, perhaps, a little help from the Russians and the vagaries of the electoral college).

“The impeachment of Donald Trump cannot be compared to the trial of Jesus Christ. Jesus was persecuted, but he was innocent of all charges. Trump is not being persecuted. And he is hardly innocent.”

The most shocking parallels are those drawn between Jesus and Trump as “King of Israel” and the “Second Coming of God.” Wayne Allyn Root, a conservative radio host and conspiracy theorist who describes himself as a “Jew turned evangelical Christian,” used these terms to describe the president. Trump obviously loved these accolades, retweeting Root’s unfounded assessment: “The Jewish people in Israel love [the president] like he’s the King of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God…. But American Jews don’t know him or like him.”

While some evangelical leaders performed “mental gymnastics” even to tolerate such assertions, one conservative Christian, Texas evangelist Jay Lowder, wasn’t buying it. He wrote:

Christians believe and profess that the only true “King of Israel” is God, as clearly stated in Isaiah 44:6, and that he sent his son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah, into this world. That makes the description of Trump as “the second coming of God” shocking, blasphemous and sacrilegious.

Most incredibly, the president has been designated by some of his base as Savior. Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, wrote on Twitter: “There has never been and probably never will be a movement like this again. Only God could deliver such a savior to our nation, and only God could allow me to help. God bless America!”

Lest anyone think that “savior” is used generically by Parscale and others, televangelist Jim Bakker – whose personal credentials are dubious at best – made the preposterous leap explicit: “You know what? Trump is a test whether you’re even saved. Only saved people can love Trump.”

A final word

As a Christian I am disturbed that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016, given his well-documented and public moral indiscretions. I am not duped by what I perceive to be Trump’s feigned interest in evangelical Christianity, since he exhibits no evidence of a life transformed by a relationship with Christ. I suspect that behind the circle of conservative Christian “advisers” who gather around the president to pray for him, there is a shadow infatuation with power and prestige and the thrill of access to the White House.

Most emphatically, I decry the use of biblical typologies for political gain, as I see this as a crass contrivance intended to sway votes in the coming election.

The impeachment of Donald Trump cannot be compared to the trial of Jesus Christ. Jesus was persecuted, but he was innocent of all charges. Trump is not being persecuted. And he is hardly innocent.

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