Anyone who has been watching the evangelicals’ love affair with President Donald Trump in the last four years would have rightfully concluded by now that they will not abandon him in the November election. For this group of Americans, Trump is not just a presidential candidate; he is a Messiah. He is not just a Messiah who will lead his followers to godly redemption, but he is also the unique one who will, through sin, accomplish redemption both for them and also for the whole of America.
Scholars and news analysts have been befuddled by the fact that evangelicals have stood solidly behind him regardless of his well-known ethical lapses or what in evangelical circles is plainly called “sins.” Whether it was evangelicals sticking to his side as he boasted about grabbing women by their pudenda, or looking the other way as Trump violated the Christian ethics of neighborly love by putting children behind cages at migration centers, or even the recent revelation of his tax shenanigans, evangelicals have stood resolutely behind him. Many watchers have therefore concluded that the evangelicals have lost their minds.
No, they have not gone crazy. The analysts have only failed to understand where evangelicals presently stand, theologically. That they consider Trump as the Messiah does not mean that they expect holiness from him. In fact, his messiahship is one accomplishable through sins—bold, reckless, bible-defying sins. There is such a thing in Judeo-Christian history as redemption through sin. That is, a person is regarded as a messiah because that person is a great sinner. The more sin he commits the more he affirms his followers’ opinion of him as God-sent. Sin, even in the form of murder on Fifth Avenue, is the godly passport to redemption.
This theory of redemption through sin, according to Gershom Scholem, found its canonical moment when Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676) emerged as a celebrity Messiah in 1666. About one-third to half of the Jewish population in the world in the seventeenth century believed that Zevi was their Messiah. He taught that his believers could attain salvation through bold acts of sin, such as deliberately and blatantly disobeying the Mosaic code of holiness. Zevi who was married three times argued that ritualistic observances, holiness code, dietary laws, fasting, and maintenance of sexual boundaries were no longer necessary—in fact, that they have been abrogated—by the coming of the messianic time. His followers promoted sexual orgies, incest, and other forms of licentious behaviors to drive home the point that the Messiah decides the exception to holiness code. They believed that all existing codes, norm, taboos, and laws have to be transgressed to attain and prove their insertion into the messianic era.
Zevi even drove his theory of redemption by sin to the extreme by converting to Islam. The self-proclaimed Jewish Messiah became an apostate, a Muslim. Even at this, some of his followers still believed he was doing the will of God and unfolding the plan of his messiahship. They theologized that by his conversion to Islam, he was symbolically going down into hell, to the most sinful places to repair the world, to gather up the scattered divine sparks of Yahweh. At the end, it turned out that Zevi’s eclecticism was mental illness. He was a sick man, wracked by bipolar personality disorder, and incredible mood swings.
One of the early enablers of Zevi was Nathan of Gaza. Nathan travelled around Europe in 1665 announcing to Jews that he had found the long-awaited Messiah. Nathan became his prophet and revered him as the holy Messiah. Nathan nudged the charismatic Zevi to believe in himself as the Messiah. Today, we know many evangelical and pentecostal pastors who act as Nathans to Trump. These pastors also prophesized to their followers that Trump was the chosen one by God for America for such a time as this. Like the followers of Zevi, the evangelicals who follow Trump believe that the salvation of America must go through the path of sin—that is, the reversal of the accepted norms and laws of this country. Now that the political Messiah is here, they reason, we can accept antinomianism. What were prohibited political behaviors are now permitted, and what were permitted are now prohibited. So, all the strange acts of Trump and the twisting and turning of evangelicals’ moral system to accommodate his excesses and support his presidency are considered as part of the project of repairing the “hellish” American world. Indeed, if anyone is in the Trumpian messianic time, he or she is a renewed Christian. The old pluralistic democratic norms have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Sin is the new holiness. Apathy toward the poor and the marginalized is now celebrated as Christian compassion.
There are, at least, four lessons we can draw for contemporary America as the theology of Messiah Zevi supplants that of Jesus Christ. First, Trump supporters will not abandon him in the 2020 presidential election. They believe they are doing the will of God, and the theology that God uses sinners to accomplish His purpose now means divine purpose will be fulfilled through the president’s sins.
Second, even if Trump loses the election (votes are still being counted and there will likely be legal challenges), it would not be the end of Trumpism. About 100 years after the death of Zevi, one Kabbalist Jacob Franka rose to say he was the reincarnation of Zevi and took his ideas to further ridiculous extremes. There will be many more Trumps in the years ahead and evangelicals will once again fall in line.
Third, for them, Trump’s political success is not about a man getting to the Oval office. It is the enthronement of a particular political theology at the commanding heights of evangelical social imaginary. The logic of the political ethics of evangelicals that Trump makes legible for our time can be read from 2 Corinthians 5:21. To them, God has made otherwise sinless evangelicals to become sinners—by supporting Trump—but their self-sacrifice will ultimately lead to the US once again becoming God’s righteous nation. Those who are familiar with the Bible will recognize in this description of evangelical political ethics something about Jesus the Messiah. The evangelicalism founded on Yeshua messiahship and which also pursued political messiahship for decades has now produced adherents who consider themselves messiahs willing to die for America. So, when Trump stood before the Washington church, Bible in raised right hand, presenting himself as a persecuted messiah, his act resonated with them because he symbolized the deep psyche of American evangelicals. He was not only a sign of the distorted evangelical political imaginary, but he was also participating in its power. In this disorderly theo-ethical imagination, he is also perceived as the Katechon, the godly power restraining sin in America.
Finally, Americans need to learn from the seventeenth-century Jewish Rabbis who vehemently opposed the pseudo doctrines of Zevi and his disciples. America needs her gallant souls, liberal and conservatives, who can turn this nation away from the political theology of redemption through sin. America’s redemption or greatness cannot be through the sin of trampling democratic ethos and common decency. That path only leads further down into chaos and moral breakdown. The true path, and which Jesus himself would recognize, is one that fights all the evils that thwart human flourishing.