There has been a lot of discussion over the past week of Rick Perry’s claim that President Trump is God’s “chosen one” to be president. Obscure points of Christian theology have spilled over into mainstream media, and political commentators have felt obliged to weigh in on doctrines of predestination and election. The two most common talking positions seem to be shaping up as “God has nothing to do with politics” and “Of course God chose our president; get over it.” But the analysis has focused primarily on politics, and I think reflecting on the theology may be more helpful. In particular, what the Bible says about God’s involvement in selecting leadership may be useful for adding the nuance lacking in the public discussion, and may serve as a useful reminder of what Advent is about.
First, some clear outer bounds. On the one hand, the Bible explicitly presents God as involved in politics in some very specific ways. When the people of Israel demanded a king (an act which God characterized as their rejecting him as their king), they cast lots to determine who the king would be, and the prophet Samuel explicitly presents this as God’s choice of Saul (1 Sam. 8:7; 10:20-24; cf. 12:13). When Saul disobeyed God, the Lord rejected Saul and chose David instead (1 Sam. 15:26-28; 16:1, 8-12). David presents the succession of his son Solomon as chosen by God (1 Chr. 28:5). Nor is it only Israelite kings whom the Lord has chosen for leadership roles: in the prophecy of Isaiah, God refers to the Persian king Cyrus as his “shepherd” and his “anointed one” to rebuild Jerusalem, even though the king is repeatedly called out for not acknowledging the Lord (Isa. 44:28; 45:1, 4-5, 13). The earlier Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had a dream about the succession of empires after him, and the prophet Daniel’s interpretation emphasizes that God gave Nebuchadnezzar his authority (Dan. 2:37-38), a point which is underscored in the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness by an angelic watcher who declared, “the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Dan. 4:32). Nor is this merely an Old Testament idea: the apostle Paul referred to the evil Roman Empire when he wrote, “The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Rom. 13:1, a passage to which we will return). God has been very involved in politics.
But just as obviously, Donald Trump is not the Savior. The Messianic hope of the Old Testament was in a descendant of King David whom God would raise up to rule his people (Jer. 23:5; 30:9). This is the Servant whom the Lord refers to as “my Chosen One” in Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa. 42:1; 43:10; 49:1-7; cf. Ps. 89:3). When Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, he foretold “a kingdom that will never be destroyed” (Dan. 2:44), which Daniel later refers to as the kingdom of the Most High (Dan. 7:27). Jesus is the King of the Jews, whose kingdom shall have no end (cf. Isa. 9:6-7), and who acknowledged to Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). This is why the apostle Paul, himself a Roman citizen in human terms, could write, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). The word for a substitute Messiah in Greek is “Antichrist.” Any attempt to substitute Donald Trump for Jesus makes this president into an Antichrist, and must be resisted by all true Christians.
Within those bounds, there is some room for disagreement, but not at the expense of biblical principles. Romans 13 has been much discussed in the last few years, especially the line “the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves” (13:2, CSB). It should be remembered that this was written with reference to a Roman emperor who shortly thereafter executed Christians in Rome, including (according to early Christian tradition) Paul himself. Clearly Paul was not arguing that Christians must support an evil government to the point of endangering their souls! It also needs to be stated that whatever resistance (NIV translated “rebellion”) is being prohibited here was equally prohibited under President Obama. We live in a participatory and deliberative democratic republic in which citizens are encouraged to vote for their leaders; voting for someone other than the incumbent president is not prohibited resistance. Criticizing the president, if done fairly, is not prohibited resistance, nor indeed is following the Constitutionally-outlined procedure of impeachment. Assassination clearly is prohibited resistance, as is any attempt to overthrow the government system. Christians hold a range of different views on the morality of civil disobedience. But in any case, Romans 13 cannot be used in a partisan manner, to support the government only when your preferred party happens to be in power; it is equally binding regardless of how good (or how evil!) the government happens to be.
Might there be a sense in which President Trump is God’s “chosen one” for a particular purpose? Rick Perry, who called President Trump this in an interview a week ago, acknowledged that he thought President Obama was also God’s “chosen one” for his term, in which case there is nothing to distinguish theologically this presidency from its predecessors. But to many of President Trump’s ardent supporters, the president is in a particular sense “God’s chosen one.” The Bible does allows us neither to confirm this nor to rule it out; it never mentions Donald Trump by name, and does not seem to contain any clear prophecy of his rule. But even if God has hand-picked Donald Trump for a particular purpose, that purpose is both temporary and inscrutable. Even if the Lord chose Donald Trump, the purpose for which he chose him may already be completed, and therefore these theological considerations – even if true – may have precisely zero impact on the outcome of impeachment deliberations or voters’ decisions in 2020.
Or the Lord’s purpose with President Trump may well be chastisement rather than reward, just as the Lord chose Assyria and Babylon as ungodly powers to punish his chosen people for their unfaithfulness (Isa. 10:5-7, 12; Hab. 1:6, 12-13). The sustained (white American) Christian support for the most mendacious president in American history reveals the bankruptcy of these supporters’ alleged commitment to truth. In this presidency, it seems we are forced to choose between truth and power, and Christians must always choose truth, whatever that might cost in terms of lost political power. America itself is not an indispensable portion of God’s redemption story (though the Church is), and the Lord may have chosen Donald Trump for the purpose of humbling America’s pride and weakening our country (as he is very effectively doing). God said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isa. 55:8). If God has chosen Donald Trump for a particular purpose, he has not chosen to reveal it. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29).
In brief, God is certainly involved in politics and has chosen Donald Trump to be president in the same way – using the American political system – as he chosen Barack Obama before him. Therefore biblical appeals to obedience to government apply in the same way to President Trump as to President Obama, and cannot be used for partisan politics. Whether the Lord has chosen Donald Trump for a particular purpose at this time is inscrutable, but it has no necessary political implications regarding impeachment or the 2020 election because that purpose may already be complete, or the purpose is perhaps just as likely to be chastisement for America’s pride as to be “making America great again.”
As the season of Advent begins today, Christians need to view politics through the lens of our story of salvation. God chose the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be his people, and God chose David to be their king, “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). Yet these were incomplete, for the Lord promised a greater King “to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness” (Dan. 9:24). “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious” (Isa. 11:10). These are only a few of the glorious promises fulfilled by Jesus, the real King, and whose coming we Christians commemorate during Advent. Yet the Son of God became a human, not in his proper power and glory, not commanding the obeisance of all creation, but to a poor family, far away from their own homes, under a cloud of scandalous suspicion. And he grew up and proclaimed that God’s Kingdom has come near (Mark 1:15), which gained him some ephemeral applause, but also condemnation to death by the religious and political authorities of his day. Anyone who expects power and authority to be the allies of God’s plan of redemption has forgotten the plot. And yet, death could not hold him, and he triumphantly rose from the dead to inaugurate the end of time, in which we now live. Yet he ascended, and now we Christians await his second coming, when “he shall come to judge the living and the dead,” as the Creed says, and his promise will finally be fulfilled, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5, NASB).
In the context of Advent, God is working out his plan of redemption, and we Christians pray as our Lord Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). This kingdom “is not of this world,” and our hope cannot be in the kingdoms of this world, or in any political structure or conjunction of earthly power. Our hope instead must be in the God whom we trust, who is working even in our broken politics, in our fractured societies, in our messy families, and in our unloving hearts. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen, come Lord Jesus!