With the carcass of conventional political wisdom quietly rotting on the garbage heap of history following the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, political analysis finds itself in a state of flummox.
Commentators, pundits and soothsayers from the entire political spectrum are groping in the dark in a vain effort to find a handle, any handle, on which to come to terms with the beguiling currents of change evidently occurring in Western civilization. No one is in any doubt that a political revolution is underway. It’s just that at this stage no one can point with any certainty to its causes, let alone its obscure destination.
The conventional wisdoms of Christian political theology will be no less challenged by the ructions of this as yet unnamed contemporary political revolution than those of their secular counterparts. The fact, for example, that a majority of evangelical voters (and many other Christians) cast their ballot for the “unelectable” Trump begs some interesting questions for political theologians.
This has nothing to do with Trump’s personal moral indiscretions. With David and Solomon as models of God-ordained kingship, Trump’s personal behavior does not prima facie disbar him from doing God’s work in the eyes of many Christian voters. Nor is it particularly surprising that evangelicals stuck with the Republican Party. A majority evangelical vote for Clinton, after all, would have been a revolution in and of itself.
The question relates to what it says about American Christianity that so many Christians threw in their lot with the insurgent and revolutionary forces washing over the West. The Christian vote for Trump cannot simply be put down to animosity towards Clinton or grudging loyalty to the GOP, given a substantial number of Christians backed Trump during the primaries and many more supported him during the general election with apparent alacrity.
One iconic image in particular captures the Christian enthusiasm for Trump better than any other. This was the image of a woman holding a placard at a Trump campaign rally with the slogan: “Thank You, Lord Jesus, For President Trump.”
It would be imprudent to suggest that a simple slogan held by one woman at a Trump rally could encapsulate the sentiment of the millions of Christian voters who helped see Trump to victory. And we are under no such illusion. Our interest is the implicit political theology that underpins the slogan, in the belief that an analysis of it can help illuminate one important aspect of Christian support for Trump.
At first glance, the slogan will no doubt strike Christian members of that increasing magnet of opprobrium “the elite” as hopelessly naïve or even inane. The image unsurprisingly met with disdain on that contemporary vehicle of scorn the web forum, where one indicative post said: “suddenly I can taste dinner from last night.” But it would be unwise, particularly in the context of what appears to be inter alia a global anti-elite rebellion, to disdain such a notion on account of its lack of ostensible theological sophistication.
There are some important and interesting theopolitical assumptions underpinning the idea that Jesus might have ordained, or perhaps facilitated, the Trump Presidency. We will call this notion “apostolic political theology”. We mean “apostolic” in the Greek sense of apostolos i.e., someone sent for a specific purpose or mission. An “apostolic political theology” is founded on the notion that God, or in this case Jesus (the two often perform separate, albeit complementary, roles in much Protestant political theology) sends, or raises up, specific political leaders at specific times and in specific places for specific purposes.
While there is no suggestion that “apostolic political theology” is representative of all American Christianity, it does nevertheless strike this external observer of the drama of American politics as characteristically American.
“Apostolic political theology” has a more plausible theological basis than some might care to acknowledge. The New Testament teaches that political authority comes from God. The most famous such passage is found in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, in which he suggests that the “governing authorities…that exist have been instituted by God” (13:1) (NRSV).
In John’s gospel, Jesus tells Pilot: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11) (NRSV). In the Old Testament we are presented with instances of specific rulers being used to perform God’s purposes. In 1 Kings 11:14, for instance, we find “Then the Lord raised up an adversary against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite” (NRSV). Proverbs 8:15 says that “By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just” (NRSV). Setting aside the question of Trump for the moment, the notion that God might raise up a specific ruler clearly has a sound theological foundation.
Indeed, the notion that all rulers receive their office from God has been the dominant view throughout Christian history, even if it is a source of contention today.
But the placard did not say: “Thank You, Lord Jesus, For Raising Up Just Rulers.” It said: “Thank You, Lord Jesus, For President Trump,” and it appeared during the campaign. It therefore seems to claim much more than the generic notion that “all authority comes from God.” Implicit in the slogan is the idea that it is possible for the Christian to discern God’s anointment of a particular candidate for political office. The operative word here is “candidate”. Calvin believed all magistrates, including the tyrant, owed their office to God, and that all rulers should be obeyed provided they did not “command anything against Him” (Institutes, 20.32).
But Calvin did not have to contend with the “discernment problem.” The “discernment problem” is our characterization of the crucial problem that bedevils an “apostolic political theology”. It is this: on what basis can the Christian reasonably and reliably discern that candidate x is God’s anointed candidate in the context of democratic elections? In Calvin’s day, of course, people did not get to choose their magistrates. Implicit in the notion that God anoints a specific candidate in a democratic election is the notion that other candidates are not duly anointed, making them presumably either enemies of God or obstacles to his purposes. The task of the Christian voter is thus to work out which of the candidates is God’s anointed (if any) lest an enemy of God be mistakenly chosen.
As an aside, it is worth noting that applying Calvin’s view of politics to contemporary America would require the Trump supporter to also wave a sign saying: “Thank You, Lord Jesus, For the last Eight Years of the Obama Presidency,” for all magistrates hold their position by the grace of God. Even a liberal tyrant, to extend Calvin’s logic, “possess[es] that sacred majesty with which he has invested lawful power” and “is raised up by him to punish the people for their iniquity” (Institutes, 20.25).
The central problematic for an “apostolic political theology” of the sort implicit in the slogan under discussio is the intractable difficulty of identifying an objective theological basis for making the discernment that Trump is God’s chosen candidate in this particular election at this particular time in this particular nation, the United States. To state the obvious, the Bible is silent about the United States of America, presidential elections and, of course, Donald Trump.
This is not to say that Trump might not be God’s anointed leader of America. It’s just very difficult to see how anyone could know this short of private prophecy. Nor is it to suggest that there might not be objective reasons that a Christian could find for voting for Trump rather than one of his opponents (primary and presidential), just that it is difficult to identify an objective theological reason that could lead to the conviction that Trump is God’s choice on this particular occasion.
At best, the Christian who holds to this brand of “apostolic” politics might look for a theological or moral criterion in Scripture that could serve as an objective basis for making such a discernment. The early evidence suggests that the issue of abortion was the determinative factor for a lot of evangelical support for Trump. But does a candidate’s position on abortion really bridge the “discernment problem”?
If we accept that a candidate’s stance on abortion, or any other single issue for that matter, is a sound Christian criterion upon which to make a faithful voting decision, does it necessarily follow that Trump is God’s man? He was not the only Republican nominee with a pro-life stance. Moreover, his history on the issue is less solid and consistent than some of the other candidates in that regard. The very notion that God’s approval or anointment of a candidate in a democratic election could be determined by that candidate’s campaign rhetoric on just one solitary issue of importance is highly questionable.
In reality, all voting decisions are unavoidably subjective given there is no guarantee how a person will act in office once elected, especially when the voter must make a decision amidst the beatifying and demonizing rhetoric of candidates’ supporters and opponents alike. So there is reason to be skeptical that a criterion could be identified and objectively applied which could satisfactorily resolve the “discernment problem”.
Let us be clear. The problem is not that voters must make subjective discernments about who to vote for. That is unavoidable. The issue is whether a subjective discernment is a suitable foundation for making the categorical claim that a particular candidate is anointed by God.
Furthermore, political history is awash with cautionary tales of false prophets and failed political messiahs. The hope German Christians earnestly invested in Adolf Hitler in the 1930s looks tragically absurd with the benefit of hindsight. But in reality, no one can be certain what they are purchasing when it comes to politics. Germany genuinely needed a savior at the time Hitler rose to power and he promised to make Germany great again.
In spite of what partisan political animals would have us believe, no US presidency is ever categorically good or bad, a mere success or failure. They are inevitably a frustrating mix of the two, with some enjoying more successes and others more failures. The office is occupied by mere mortals, after all, not gods.
So in addition to the absence of any obvious, uncontroversial or explicit theological or Scriptural warrant for discerning that Donald Trump was Jesus’ anointed candidate for the 2016 presidential race in the United States of America, what we know of political history provides ample reason to be cautious about the virtues of even attempting such a prediction. It is one thing to believe that God is the lord of history and that he has a greater or lesser providential role in politics.
One might even humbly venture a speculation about the hand of God post eventus. But given the inscrutable nature of political futures from the human perspective, it is another thing entirely to presume to be able to discern God’s purpose right down to identifying his anointed candidate in a presidential race. That is prophecy, not political analysis.
Whatever conclusion we draw about the “discernment problem” and the particular discernment made by many Christian voters in regard to a Trump presidency, there is a deeper question about the roots of America’s “apostolic political theology”. This very likely has something to do with the cherished ideal held by so many American Christians that America itself is an “apostolic” nation, a nation anointed to perform a special divine function or mission in global history.
Once one buys into the concept of America as an anointed, apostolic nation, the search for a presidential apostle becomes eminently more plausible, perhaps even necessary and urgent, in order to make God’s chosen nation great again.
Jonathan Cole is a research member of the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia.