Donald Trump and the Divine Right of Kings, Part 1

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Donald Trump and the Divine Right of Kings, Part 1

Donald Trump’s relationship with evangelicalism has been fascinating. On the one hand, they’ve formed arguably his largest support base,[1] hailing him as a hero “raised up by God”[2] to combat the “evils” of secularism, homosexuality, PC culture, immigration, and other perceived threats to American Christianity.[3] On the other hand, Christianity’s savior doesn’t seem to be particularly Christian himself. He has always demonstrated a near-total lack of a moral code, as Mark Galli brilliantly elucidated in his Christianity Today article.[4] Furthermore, Trump seems to have no conception of what Christianity actually teaches and even less of an idea of what the Bible says. His attempts at “playing” Christian have ranged from the amusing[5] to the deeply disturbing.[6]

Yet, despite this, Trump’s support among evangelicals remains strong,[7] which raises the question of how do evangelicals reconcile a committed belief to his divine ordination with his apparent lack of Christianity? While the answer’s form varies from person to person, the common idea in most, if not all evangelical defenses of Trump is an appeal to the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, or Presidents, in this case.

The Divine Right of Kings ideology is as old as monarchies, although few today use this term when justifying Donald Trump. This complex ideology that ranges from simple divine approval to absolutism in which the king is totally above the law.[8] The most basic distillation of the idea is that “the authority of kings is derived from God directly, and hence was not derived from their people,” even if the king was elected.[9] The logical result of this theory is that kings are thus only accountable to God, not the people.[10] This does not mean that God will approve everything a king does but it does mean that only God can judge the king; the people are to obey the king, even if he is a bad king.[11] Nor does it mean that the king is technically above the law. However, since the king is authorized by God to make the law, they can make it however they wish.[12]

The relevance of this theory regarding Trump is the next logical conclusion: if God is the one who grants authority to kings, or presidents, if it is only to God that kings, or presidents, are accountable, and if kings, or presidents, are to be obeyed as a moral duty, then it must follow that kings, or presidents, that come to power must be God’s choice and therefore have his approval. Since Trump was surprisingly elected president, he must be God’s choice, a fact made even easier for evangelicals by Trump’s support of similar policies.

Theologically, the backing for this doctrine primarily comes from Romans 13:1-7, which clearly states that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”[13] Another passage cited as proof of God’s ordination of Trump is Daniel 2:21, which says that “He (God) changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding.”[14] When confronted with Trump’s apparent lack of Christianity, the rebuttal is to point out that God used non-believing kings such as Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, and Ahasuerus.[15] Belief and morality is not, apparently, important to be God’s “Chosen One.”

Despite the introduction, the question for this article is not about Trump himself. Rather, it is this argument, the Divine Right of Presidents, if you will, that I wish to examine. Is it biblically valid? Does election mean that God has chosen a particular candidate as his servant? To answer this, I am going to examine the two passages mentioned above in the context of the biblical history of God and kings. In the end, it will be argued that in fact, there is no Divine Right of Presidents and that leadership of any kind is not inherently a sign of God’s approval.

God’s Sovereignty Does Not Mean God’s Approval: Daniel 2:21 and Romans 13:1-7

Daniel 2:21 is the primary verse used to bolster the Divine Right’s argument, reading, “He (God) changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding.” As straightforward as this may seem, the question must be asked, is God “setting up kings” the same as God approving them?

Well, no. This verse is in the context of Daniel’s famous statue comprised of different metals representing a succession of world powers before God sets up his eternal kingdom. The key contrast is temporary (human) vs eternal (God). Rather than an endorsement of human authority, this verse is an indictment of it: all kings, presidents, governments, and any other human-run institution is flawed and doomed to fail, much like the seasons. Only God’s kingdom is good and therefore it is the only eternal kingdom. All other kings, or presidents, are like temp workers; here for now but quickly discarded as they inevitably turn bad.

If Daniel appeared like a Divine Right’s statement, Romans 13:1-7 looks like a manifesto. The text literally says, “those (in power) that exist have been instituted by God” and “those who resist will incur (God’s) judgment” and “he is a servant of God” and “one must be in subjection.” God appoints leaders and we are obligated to obey them, according to Paul.[16] Case closed.

Well, no. A moment’s thought reveals terrifying logical implications. To apply this passage as Divine Right’s logic wants, it must then apply to all kings. That means Barak Obama was every bit God’s servant as Donald Trump, despite radically different ideologies. Not only that, but every despotic tyrant in history has also had God’s blessing.[17] This alone ought to invalidate the Divine Right’s logic.

Or does it? A sticking point is that Paul wrote this under the rule of a despotic tyrant, Nero,[18] who would less than a decade from this begin a savage persecution of Christians, starting with lopping off Paul’s head. And yet, Paul instructed the Roman Christians to obey him. Is Paul saying that Nero was God’s chosen one?

Well, no. Verse 3 highlights the fundamental reason for obedience: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval.”[19] Paul’s entire instruction assumes that doing “good” will meet with approval.

But who defines “good”? The Apostles in Acts make this point abundantly clear: God, not man, defines “good.”[20] Where there is conflict, like say requiring people to venerate the emperor, God’s “good” is the one to be followed against the authorities. Being king, or president does not grant one the right to determine “good” and ultimately, it is “good” that must be obeyed, not the king.

So why not just say that? We must remember that Paul is writing to a specific geopolitical situation, one quite different from our own. Paul’s addressees lived in an autocratic state where none but the emperor and those the emperor permitted had power.[21] The average person, even the average citizen like Paul had almost nothing in the way of power. None of them had a say in who became emperor or who the emperor gave authority to or what the laws were or anything else. At any moment, they could, and many were, be grabbed off the street and have their heads cut off simply because Nero had indigestion.

This total powerlessness was their reality and this instruction fits in well with Paul’s instruction to other powerless people, such as wives, children, and slaves.[22] While his instruction to submit and obey might make our modern sensibilities cringe, especially in regards to slavery, Paul is being a “political realist,” which meant “living within the political system even if that meant living to a large extent in the terms laid down by that system.”[23]

Paul isn’t so much affirming Nero as God’s servant as informing his readers that there isn’t some savior coming to create a perfect Christian utopia, a “Christendom” if you will, until Christ’s 2nd Coming. In other words, no king or president is God’s special servant. Instead, by God’s design, we are always going to be living under someone else’s authority and God isn’t upsetting that cabbage cart any time soon.[24]

Instead, we are to make the most of what we’ve got, where we’ve got it.[25] Nor does this give us license to do whatever we wish since we are really God’s subjects, not our nations. As Peter clarifies, when persecution comes, and it will, it better be for something good, like refusing to venerate the emperor, and not something silly, like murder.[26]

Concluding Remarks

Does the Divine Right of Kings have a biblical warrant? The answer is no. If anything, an examination of the two primary texts on which this doctrine stands, the opposite truth is revealed: God does not rely on kings or presidents for his will. God is going to accomplish his work with or, as is the case most often, without them. They are frankly unimportant to his plans.

For the Christian, this does not give us license to ignore leadership nor the laws in place. It does not give us permission to go 50 in a school zone and then complain about persecution when we get our driver’s license revoked. God expects us to make the best of our situation here and now, instead of worrying about what our particular nation will look like. That nation, whatever it is, is not God’s nation.

Read part 2 of this series.

______

Notes.

[1] Jessica Martínez and Gregory A. Smith, How the Faithful Voted: a Preliminary 2016 Analysis (Pew Research Center, 9 November 2016); available from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/how-the-faithful-voted-a-preliminary-2016-analysis/.

[2] Deena Zaru, Michele Bachmann: ‘God Raised Up’ Trump to be GOP Nominee (CNN, 31 August 2016); available from https://www.cnn.com/2016/08/31/politics/michele-bachmann-donald-trump-god-raised-up/index.html.

[3] David A. Graham, Jeff Sessions Explains Why Christians Support Trump (The Atlantic, 30 June 2020); available from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/why-christians-support-trump/613669/.

[4] Mark Galli, Trump Should Be Removed from Office (Christianity Today, 19 December 2019); available from https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/december-web-only/trump-should-be-removed-from-office.html.

[5] Jeremy Diamond, Donald Trump Courts Evangelicals, Misquotes Bible (CNN, 18 January 2016); available from https://www.cnn.com/2016/01/18/politics/donald-trump-liberty-two-corinthians/index.html.

[6] Matthew Teague, ‘He Wears the Armor of God’: Evangelicals Hail Trump’s Church Photo Op (The Guardian, 3 June 2020); available from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/03/donald-trump-church-photo-op-evangelicals.

[7] Michael Lipka and Gregory A. Smith, White Evangelical Approval of Trump Slips, but Eight-in-Ten Say They Would Vote for Him (Pew Research Center, 1 July 2020); available from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/07/01/white-evangelical-approval-of-trump-slips-but-eight-in-ten-say-they-would-vote-for-him/.

[8] See the contrasting interpretations of Stuart England by Glenn Burgess, “The Divine Right of Kings Reconsidered,” The English Historical Review 107.425 (1992). In favor of absolutism, Johann P. Sommerville, “English and European Political Ideas in the Early Seventeenth Century: Revisionism and the Case of Absolutism,” Journal of British Studies 35.2 (1996). Divine Absolutism is the most extreme version of Divine Rights and most scholars separate it from Divine Rights.

[9] Burgess, “The Divine Right of Kings Reconsidered,” 841.

[10] D. Alan Orr, “‘God’s hangman’: James VI, the Divine Right of Kings, and the Devil,” Journal of the Society for Reformation Studies 18.2 (2016): 148.

[11] Frances Exum, “Lope’s King Pedro: The Divine Right of Kings vs. the Right of Resistance,” Hispania 57.3 (1974): 430.

[12] Burgess, “The Divine Right of Kings Reconsidered,” 847.

[13] David Roark, Is President Trump Chosen by God? (The Dallas Morning News, 26 January 2020); available from https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2020/01/26/is-president-trump-chosen-by-god/. Cf Thomas Morton’s 1639 sermon, Burgess, “The Divine Right of Kings Reconsidered,” 858.

[14] Daniel Burke, Does God Really Want Donald Trump to be President? (CNN, 1 February 2019); available from https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/01/us/sanders-trump-god/index.html.

[15] Roark.

[16] Cf Titus 3:1 and 1 Pet 2:13

[17] Paul Prather, If God Ordained Trump as President, He Must Have Ordained Obama, Too (Lexington Herald Leader, 19 February 2019); available from https://www.kentucky.com/living/religion/paul-prather/article226453595.html.

[18] Robert H. Mounce, Romans (NAC 27; Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 25. This is assuming a mid-late 50s date for Romans.

[19] Emphasis added. This core belief that being a good person is in harmony with the state is echoed in the obedience commands also in Titus 3:1 and 1 Peter 2:13.

[20] Acts 4:19; 5:29

[21] This is a dramatic, yet accurate enough oversimplification of a very complex political reality.

[22] Eph 5:22-6:9; Col 3:18-4:1

[23] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16 (WBC 38B; Waco, TX; Dallas; Nashville: Word, 1988), 773.

[24] Enjoy some fire flakes if you caught that reference.

[25] This does not mean, of course, staying in toxic, oppressive, or abusive situations. As Paul instructs, if you can, get out; see 1 Cor 7:21.

[26] 1 Peter 4:15

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About the author

Jonathan Gardner

Jonathan Gardner is a PhD student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School studying archaeology and ancient Near Eastern backgrounds to the Old Testament. Writing is one of his big two passions, along with travel, so he happily contributes to Compass while maintaining his own blog on theology, godlikesus.wordpress.com. Have a question about the historical backgrounds of the Bible or Biblical archaeology? Email Jonathan at [email protected] and he would be happy to answer your questions.