HONOLULU, February 11, 2017 – Much like the Weimar Republic at the peak of her decline, the United States of America in recent years has seen the rise of political cult-of-personality campaigns and elected leadership.
As hyperinflation stripped the value out of Germany’s money, political activists and self-appointed prophets began to arise in the Weimar Republic, with people whispering rumors of “Der Heiland” – The Savior – as each new personality promised an escape from the collapsing walls of their imploding nation. When Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for president emerged victorious amidst the Wall Street meltdown, his progressive rhetoric drew massive crowds of teary-eyed supporters who called him “The One” and chanted his name as waves of emotional electricity flowed from Obama’s mouth to their hearts.
Evangelical Republicans were certain this was none other than the manifestation of the Antichrist, for how could so many people give supplication to a political personality? After all, Republicans voted for Sen. John McCain as their party’s choice for president, but they didn’t anoint him as their messiah. Republicans covered their mouths in shock as Fox News footage showed hundreds of thousands of Americans bleating “Obama, Obama, Obama!” and cut to one-on-one testimonials of supporters praising the new president (in advance) for having a new house, college bills paid off, and a healing upon the land.
Republicans who struggled to connect average Americans with McCain’s quirky personality and combative style jealously compared Obama rallies to the Nuremberg Rallies, citing the same emotional responses and worship-like obeisance offered by crowds. President Obama may have won the White House, but by no means did he win the hearts of Republican voters. And while Republicans never actually said that Obama “wasn’t my president” we were constantly reminded that “rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” and the military and police were constantly encouraged to remember their “oath” was to the Constitution, not to the president.
We spent the last eight years telling Americans that President Obama was a false prophet and America needed to “wake up” – and rightfully so – but why is it under the presidency of Donald J. Trump, Republicans seem to be acting like Obama supporters?
Mixing faith with politics
It would appear the Democrats had their “prophet” to America and now, the Republicans, have theirs in the form of President Trump. If evangelicals disregard for a moment the caution of Romans 3:4, apparently President Trump is the modern day Cyrus, sent by God to deliver the faithful in America. Nevermind the AltRight’s belief that Trump is a “god emperor” – Christian conservatives are convinced that Trump is a kind of savior sent by God.
There’s a few intellectual and theological problems with approaching U.S. politics in this manner. To begin, if God, who is sovereign over the affairs of men, allowed Trump to be America’s president because of a divine plan, we would also have to assume that the same God allowed Obama to be in office before him as part of that same plan. Charles Spurgeon preached on 1 Kings 12:24 – “this thing is from me” – and reminded believers that it was impossible to exclude God from any event, big or small, good or (seemingly) bad.
“Blessed is that man to whom there exists nothing in which he cannot see the presence of God,” said Spurgeon, “It makes this whole world a grand sphere when God is seen everywhere in it from the deepest mine to the remotest star. The earth is a wretched dark dungeon if once the light of the presence and the working of God be taken away from it. Notice also, dear friends, that God is in the events which are produced by the sin and the stupidity of men.”
If, somehow, the President of the United States is God’s representative to the world, then evangelicals should be prepared to fully accept the requisite possibility that Obama, who was elected against all odds, was also God’s representative – a thought that rightfully should have evangelicals quaking with horror. After all, the same Romans 13:4 used to improperly justify “getting onboard” with the Trump Administration is the same Scripture that would appear to issue a blanket declaration that all government officials are “God’s servant for your good … an agent of retribution to the wrongdoer.”
America’s founders, who had escaped centuries of cult-of-personality leadership and bloody monarchs who claimed to be divinely installed, wisely engineered separation of church and state into the Constitution not out of blasphemy for God but out of concern that an easily manipulated public would begin to view the government as “gods” appointed over them. Patrick Henry famously said “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government, lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.”
That U.S. political personalities have become the central focus of American lives and interests – with people arguing on television over who offended and who should apologize to whom, or defriending neighbors and close relatives on social media over support or lack of support for their favorite politician – shows not a move of God but a devolution of American conscience and values. Americans were never meant to worship or defer to their public servants as if they were gods.
The difference between the Bible’s historical era and the present-day
Romans 13 instructs people to pay taxes (a verse I don’t hear many Republican Christians preaching, let alone adding an “amen” to) over and above commanding individuals to be subject to governing authorities, for “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (v.13:1).
When the author of Romans 13, the Apostle Paul, was flogged in Acts 22, Paul – who himself was fully aware of the torture and death Jesus of Nazereth had endured – did not blindly submit himself to abuse but in fact boldly said to his own abusers, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” (v.22:25) which immediately forced an injunction upon the situation.
Paul was aware of the laws that concerned Roman citizens, and being a scholar of the law, understood the separation between power and authority. Power is the ability to do something, authority is the proper exercise of power, and he knew that he could not be scourged just because a political power so willed it.
In the United States, with regards to earthly authority, the Constitution has delegated authority to three co-equal branches of federal government and reserved authority for the States and the People. The same Romans 13 which commands individuals to submit to the “authority” of the now-defunct Ancient Rome is the same Romans 13 which constrains in the case of our United States, our politicians to the limits of their authority. The Bible has always been about obeying covenants, heavenly and terrestrial alike, and in America, our political covenant called the Constitution does not make the President of the United States a god to be revered and served at every whim.
Could President Trump be a modern day Cyrus, God’s “anointed” to the nations? Here’s the theological problem with that. When Isaiah prophesied to the nations, three things had not occurred – first, Jesus had not been sent to the Cross to die for the sins of mankind; second, the Holy Spirit had not yet been released to believers; and third, the Law and curse was in full effect for everyone.
In the Old Testament, law and punishment for violation of the law was God’s single recourse for controlling the spread of sin. As Jesus had not yet been revealed except by prophecy, the whole point of law was to make people recognize that righteousness was impossible as no one can ever obey the law. No one was “born again” in the Old Testament, so the Holy Spirit did not permanently dwell in the hearts of believers to regenerate and direct them to the truth. Israel and Judah were also given temporary kings “anointed” as their leaders as prophetic foreshadowing of the true King to be later revealed to them in Jesus, but their “anointed” were likewise flawed individuals to force the two kingdoms to recognize that like the law, creation awaited the fulfillment of a better promise through the One who was to come.
John the Baptist, who was a type of Elijah and forerunner to Christ, when he saw Jesus said “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). The only “anointed” now that Jesus has been revealed is The Anointed, The Christ, Jesus Himself. Those of us who believe in Jesus are “sons of oil” (Zechariah 4:14) for “Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:11), but it is inappropriate for believers to refer to any earthly leader as “God’s anointed” because Jesus has made all forms of authority subject to His power.
Cyrus was the past, Jesus is our present and future, the Alpha and the Omega. Why seek Cyrus when Jesus is already here? The truth makes all prior things obsolete.
“Sir, as you were, sir!”
When Israel went into captivity, God commanded Israel to submit to Nebuchadnezzar’s rule, going so far as to say in Jeremiah 27:6 that He would even make the wild animals subject to him. A funny thing happened though in the third chapter of Daniel when Nebuchadnezzar, “God’s anointed” decided to erect a gold statue of himself in a supreme act of narcissism – the Holy Spirit moved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to rebel against him and refuse to worship the human king.
Even “if” God has placed a person in a political office, we are by no means required to add our amen and supplication to everything they do. Romans 13 authority is respect for proper authority, not color of authority. And when a human leader or their followers begins to put themselves in the place of God, it is the job of every so-called evangelical to evangelize Christ crucified, not candidates elected.
The problem with modern day conservatives is that they are, by nature, conformists. They automatically assume a badge grants unlimited power, a uniform bestows unlimited respect, and an executive seal – when our man is behind it – demands unlimited submission. That’s not authority, that’s stupidity.
In the military, recruits who have taken an oath to obey the commander in chief and the officers appointed over them are trained by drill instructors who teach them to march and follow orders. Occasionally, they are tested and given improper drill commands to see if they will develop the habit of anticipating and blindly obeying commands rather than listening and paying close attention to detail. When an improper command is given, the correct response is not to obey, but rather to shout with reverent inflection, “Sir, as you were, sir!”
Republicans should learn the same example. We respect government, but we should never forget that our system has checks and balances for a reason. Donald J. Trump is the president, but the People and the States are also the ones the Constitution makes him accountable to. We do America, the Constitution, and “Jesus” no favors by worshipping any political personality and blindly approving of everything they do, however ridiculous. And whenever the president’s personality steps out of professional limits, we owe it to ourselves to refuse to bow before this narcissism and boldly declare, “Sir, as you were sir.”
Make all the Facebook and Instagram memes you want explaining why Trump is “my president.” Not a problem. Donald J. Trump is the President of the United States. He is not, however, my messiah.