Since the release of Donald Trump’s sexually violent comments about women surfaced two weeks ago, the conservative Christians who have been among his most reliable supporters have been struggling with what to do. Many of them long ago bought into a Hillary Clinton who is “the devil”—some literally believing that she is satanic. They’ve constructed “a woman who stands against everything they believe in,” according to an email that Family Research Council leader Tony Perkins sent to supporters last week encouraging them to vote for Trump. Some are backing third party candidates, which has given Independent Evan McMullin a possible opening in Utah, where Mormons were among the early defectors from the GOP. Others are arguing that Hillary Clinton, despite being pro-choice, will actually do more to reduce abortion than Trump. Others are continuing to defend Trump as choice for conservative Christians by turning to some troubling uses of Scripture.
We’re voting for a president, not a Sunday school teacher, complain Religious Right supporters about critics who call the Religious Right hypocritical for throwing its support behind a pornography-promoting, philandering, gambling magnate. (They mostly ignore his racism and anti-Semitism, though some of them are quiet or active supporters of these kinds of bigotry.) Instead, they are voting for the viable candidate who claims to support the key points of their agenda: the appointment of conservative Supreme Court Justices, the curtailment of abortion rights, the promotion of “religious liberty” laws that will permit religiously-inspired discrimination against LGBT people.
All of these hopes, of course, rest on the premise that President Trump would either keep his promises or be sufficiently competent as a leader to see them implemented. Given his temperament, history, and skill set, this is unlikely.
And even if he did, none of these promises would necessarily result in the outcomes conservative Christians want. As much as folks try to whip up voter anxiety that if the political opponent wins we’ll be stuck with justices who will ruin the nation, Supreme Court Justices are remarkably independent. For example, Chief Justice Roberts, appointed by George W. Bush, wrote the decision that upheld the constitutionality of Obamacare. Our abortion rates are at about their lowest levels since Roe, though higher than pre-Roe, and, as in other nations, harsher abortion laws (which are mostly implemented at the state, not federal, level) haven’t prevented abortions—better birth control has. In states that have seen tightened restrictions, such as Texas, illegal abortion is increasing. In other words, the law doesn’t have as much impact on actual abortion as conservative Christians might assume. And in terms of gay rights—the battle was largely won prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefull. By the time the Court recognized the legal right of same-sex couples to marry, the majority of Americans already supported that right. Those in the minority on the issue deserve to have their right to disagree protected, and it has been in cases that have found their way to court so far.
In short, Trump isn’t likely to keep these promises and even if he does, they aren’t likely to dictate the future of the Supreme Court, reduce abortion, or protect religious freedom. (Indeed, Trump’s attacks on and threats against Muslims are a violation of the principle of religious freedom that should make conservative Christians, especially Baptists, shudder.) So why do they stick with him?
Conservative Christians have been invoking Biblical narratives to explain how they can vote for a candidate whose entire life has been—and promises to continue to be—in violation of their ethical standards. Unsurprisingly, Jerry Falwell Jr. made the comparison to King David, a comparison that has been critiqued widely by Christian and Jewish voices, such as Rabbi David Wolpe. When king, David made huge mistakes, culminating in the callow murder of a faithful military leader after David, probably figuring that “[w]hen you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Whatever you want,” impregnated the man’s wife. But even conservatives aren’t buying that argument Trump is a David; he story didn’t begin with a calling by God to fight for his people, and he shows no sign of true remorse for his repeated exploitation of those weaker. Indeed, these are points of pride for him. When confronted by the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel with his sins, David recognized them and accepted the consequences. Trump has never asked God for forgiveness, and he will not be rebuked or corrected by the consequences of his actions, which include violence and terrorism.
The prophet Nathan tells King David a parable about a rich man who steals the only little lamb of a poor man, a man who loved the lamb so much that “it shared his food, drank from his cup, and even slept in his arms.” What should happen to to the rich man? David is moved by the story and announces, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die!” Then Nathan reveals to David his own sin in murdering Uriah in order to steal his wife: “You are the man!” Clearly not an “Alpha Male” in the world of Donald Trump.
Nathan and David by Peter F. Rothermel.
In the same way, Trump is no Samson, the hero of Judges 13-16 who carelessly traded away his strength and, as a result, wound up as a circus act. In arguing that Trump is God’s candidate, Grandstand News argues that we might be treating Trump as a clown but, just as God used Samson’s buffoonery to knock down the pillars of the arena where he was on display, killing all those laughing at him, so, too, might God use Trump to lay to waste all of God’s enemies. The argument that God will use Trump to kill Democrats (which, to be fair, Grandstand News doesn’t say explicitly but just implies) makes Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” sound like the Gettysburg Address. But here are conservative Christians, making it, again ignoring Samson’s backstory—that he was dedicated to God before birth and gifted by God with supernatural strength. If Samson erred in his faith by cavorting with Delilah, he at least had a faith in which to be grounded. Trump has none. Voting for him with the hope that his foolishness will destroy the country is a sign of the sick cynicism that drives too many conservative Christian voters.
Samson loses his strength after his affair with Delilah and is captured by enemy Philistines. They blind him and force him to grind meal. Biblical historian Donald Trump’s verdict? Total loser!
Samson Grinding Grain in Chains after being Blinded and Imprisoned by the Philistines in Gaza.Undated print.
Some in the Religious Right, originating, it seems, with charismatic Christians, are calling for a comparison to King Cyrus, referenced in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1-6; Isaiah 44:28 and 45:1,13; Daniel 1:21, 6:28, and 10:1; and (for Eastern Orthodox Christians) 1 Esdras 2. In the widely-read and influential Charisma magazine, Lance Wallnau explains “Why I Believe Trump is the Prophesied President,” rooting his argument in the story of Cyrus.
Don’t remember Cyrus? It’s probably because he’s not a hero of the Jewish or Christian faith per se, though the Persian king is a hero to them. According to (my very simple retelling of) the narrative the Hebrew Bible, the nation of Israel cycled through a series of shorter- (Saul, Ishbaal) and longer-term (David, Solomon) kings before splitting into northern and southern kingdoms. The northern kingdom is eventually conquered by Assyria, resulting in the exile of the people, and 135 or so years later, in 587 or 586 BCE, the southern kingdom is taken by Babylon. Times are bad for the people who had had such high hopes in Saul, David, and Solomon.
Then, in 539, King Cyrus the Great saves the day. The Persian king allowed more than 40,0000 Jewish people to return to their homeland, led by with religious to establish a theocratic state, still tied politically to Persia and without its own king. Though Cyrus is hailed for advancing human rights dramatically, his purpose wasn’t entirely altruistic—Cyrus wanted someone to develop the area and send resources back to the Persian empire. But one consequence was the rebuilding of the temple and a reawakening of the faith, including the development of a more exclusive faith—one that, for example, prohibited intermarriage.
Cyrus is like Trump in that both are outsiders to the people they claim to save. Cyrus wasn’t a Jew, and Trump isn’t a Christian. In fact, Cyrus didn’t save the Jews because he cared about Jews, exactly, just like Trump doesn’t care about Christians. The salvation Cyrus delivered was a side effect of his desire to expand his own power. The glory that Trump promises Christian voters—the glory that only he can restore to them, he says—isn’t a result of his love for them or for God; it’s their reward for giving him power.
Cyrus meets an untimely end. According to one version of the story, told in Herodotus’s Histories, Cyrus sought to expand his empire into Central Asia by marrying Queen Tomyris. When she refused his offer, he tried to take her kingdom by force–and trickery. He set up a camp of his weakest soldiers and a lot of wine, which was unfamiliar to the Empress’s forces. After her men slaughtered his, they got drunk–and that’s when Cyrus sent in his more competent soldiers to kill them. The Empress’s son, a military leader, survived the battle but killed himself from the shame of the loss. Seeking revenge, Empress Tomyris leads troops into battle herself against Cyrus. Her forces defeat his, and she searches for his dead body on the battlefield. When she finds it, she slices off his head and puts it into a wineskin of blood, declaring, “I warned you I would quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall.” Donald Trump accuses this battle of being “rigged.”
Head of Cyrus Brought to Queen Tomyri by Peter Paul Rubens
Conservative Christians leaders are clear-eyed about his. He’s the one who will best promote our interests, says Perkins. Jerry Falwell, Jr. gives a thumbs-up to Trump’s campaign in front of a framed copy of Playboy that has Trump on its cover and says not to worry about Trump’s ideas about sexuality because he’ll give us Justices who defend traditional sexual values. They’re on board with Trump because they hope he’ll be their King Cyrus.
Authoritarianism appears to be a strong predictor of support for Trump, whose vision for America looks a tad fascist, and conservative Christians are prone to authoritarianism, including in childrearing and in their vision of God.
If conservative Christians are digging through their Old Testaments looking for models of leadership, they might remember that God never wanted to give the people a king. The early nation of Israel used a system of judges—including a woman!—who were appointed to leadership. But some of the people looked to their neighbors, who had hereditary kings, instead of judges and were jealous. A king meant consolidated power, national strength that they could see embodied in a symbol for the nation. A king means a bloodline and national identity that can be traced through blood, with those without the right “blood” subjected to injustices ranging from second-class citizenship to genocide. They approach Samuel, their last judge, who shares with them God’s warning about kings: they reign over you, forcing your children to fight senseless wars and to support those wars with their labor; they “take the best” of your efforts and property, even going so far as to enslave you. Samuel warns in 1 Samuel 8:18: “When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
Deborah was the only woman judged named in the Hebrew Scriptures. “A nasty woman!” according to Donald Trump.
Deborah’s Song of Triumph by Gustav Doré
Not surprisingly, things didn’t go well with a king. Cyrus may have eventually “saved” them, but it was from a problem that originated with their desire for authoritarianism. And it wasn’t for their own good but for his.
The troubling question isn’t whether Trump is a David (no), a Samson (no), or a Cyrus (no). It’s why so many religious conservatives want a king.