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This Christmas a New King?: Trump, Messianism, and Political Theology

The annual Christmas message from the Republican National Committee (RNC) is the sort of thing of which most people, most of the time, are blissfully unaware. This year, however, the RNC’s Christmas message, authored by RNC Chair Reince Priebus and Co-Chari Sharon Day, garnered a great deal of attention because of one unusual passage:

Over two millennia ago, a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind. Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King.

Although many people read the statement as a harmless holiday greeting, many others read that second sentence in light of the recent election and upcoming inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Were Priebus and Day obliquely referring to Trump as a “new King”? If so, not only would this run counter to the United States’ republican traditions, but it would be a sacrilegious attribution to Trump of Christ’s lordship.

Charitably reading the message, I think that this confusion was unintended and was simply the result of sloppy writing. The “new King” is the same as that celebrated by the three wise men, not a “new King” as of “this year,” as the awkward phrasing might suggest. I disagree, however, with RNC spokesman Sean Spicer that the accusation is “frankly offensive.” Even apart from the poor phrasing, it is easy to see how many found it difficult to read the message charitably.

Whereas in the past no one would worry about the RNC’s theology, fears about Trump’s illiberal or even authoritarian leanings made this year’s message raise eyebrows. More importantly, Trump himself has a penchant for making statements that for all the world seem outrageous but that can be plausibly interpreted in a non-controversial way, the most notable example perhaps being Trump’s comment about “Second Amendment people” preventing a President Hillary Clinton from nominating Supreme Court Justices. Likewise, as Trump’s tweets about nuclear weapons last week demonstrated, his staff can go to extraordinary efforts to explain away one of Trump’s shocking statements, only to have him release a new statement or tweet doubling down on the comment. As a wit noted on Twitter, one half-expected Trump to tweet on the day after Christmas that he was indeed our new king!

Defenders of the RNC’s message have claimed that the accusation that “new King” refers to Trump reflects the critics’ ignorance of Christian beliefs. Although this may be true in some cases, I think it is at least equally true that the insistence that of course the statement refers to Christ and Christ alone also demonstrates a lack of full understanding of Christian belief. After all, the Old and New Testaments and Christian history all testify to the human heart’s tendency to chase after Lords other than God and Kings other than Christ, even among believers themselves.

The RNC’s defenders ignore the history of caesaropapism in the Byzantine Empire and later in Russia, in which the monarch appealed to the authority of Christ in governing both church and state. A similar phenomenon occurred in the early medieval Frankish kingdoms, where the kings were at times considered the vicars of Christ on earth. In more recent history, one needs only look to the Confessing Church, those German Protestants who resisted the co-opting of their faith by the Nazi regime. In their Barmen Declaration they rejected the “false doctrine” that Christians could have “other lords” besides Christ, a proclamation made necessary by the religious claims made by their fellow Christians about Hitler and the Nazis. Christian history is also littered with prophets and revolutionaries who claimed to be Christ returned or new emissaries from God. It is simply bad theology to presume that Christians are immune from confusing Christ’s authority with earthly authority or that “King” always refers to Christ alone, even when the “k” is capitalized.

The accusation that the RNC’s critics are ignorant of Christian theology also overlooks the fact that many of Trump’s evangelical (and even some Catholic) supporters have been making semi-messianic claims about him for months. Perhaps most famously, former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann claimed that God had “raised up” Trump as the Republican’s nominee. More strikingly, however, a number of evangelicals took to comparing Trump to King Cyrus of Persia. In the Old Testament, King Cyrus defeated the Babylonians in battle and permitted the Jews to return to Israel from exile in Babylon, also decreeing that their Temple should be rebuilt, despite Cyrus being a Gentile. The book of Isaiah refers to Cyrus as God’s Anointed (mashiah in Hebrew, Christos in Greek) because he acts as God’s agent, as the savior of God’s people (Is. 45:1). The comparison of Trump to Cyrus is meant to explain how someone clearly outside the Christian fold in terms of personal behavior could nevertheless serve as God’s agent for restoring Christians and Christianity to their rightful place in American society (for example, by appointing conservative justices to the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges). Regardless of whether this is the appropriate biblical analogy for Trump, the fact remains that Trump is associated with royal, messianic imagery in the imagination of thousands of American Christians.

Just to be clear, my point here is not to insist that the RNC did after all mean to refer to Trump as the “new King.” Rather, it is to point out that both Christian history and the American religious imagination are permeated with messianic imagery and claims to Christ’s authority, and these facts are what make an otherwise innocuous, awkwardly-worded statement like this year’s RNC Christmas message noteworthy and potentially explosive.

Is the solution to avoid theological claims about politics altogether? Many noted that the RNC’s later clarification that “Christ is King” was also problematic, since it suggested one of our major political parties was making a theological claim at the expense of other religions. Whether or not it is appropriate for a political party to make claims about Christ’s Kingship, we should not let the lesson of this episode be that the RNC’s message was sloppy because it seemed to make a theological claim about American politics. Rather, the problem is that it appeared to be making a false theological claim about American politics. Our response as Christians should not be to isolate our insistence that Christ is King from the realm of politics. Rather, we ought to hold Trump, the Republican Party, and all politicians accountable to the demands of the King: serve the hungry and thirsty, heal the sick, welcome the foreigner (Mt. 25).

Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.

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