Several times this week, I’ve seen Facebook posts or shared articles asserting that God chose Donald Trump as our president and implying that challenging Trump either on policy or character goes against God’s plan for the USA. In 2000 and 2004, I saw similar articles describing the divine anointing of George W. Bush as the USA president and asserting that opposition to “W” would be opposition to God. I’ve seen this mantra recited from conservative Christian leaders as well. Ironically, these messages were absent when Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton were running for president or during Barack Obama’s presidency. Whenever I see such post, I often respond, if I have a relationship to the person who’s responsible for the post, “does this mean that God chose Barack Obama to be president as well?” That seems to stop the conversation.
I believe identifying any president, including the presidency of Donald Trump, with God’s ordination is theologically as well as constitutionally problematic in a democratic nation.
Let me start with theology. Historically, Christian theologians have held one of two contrasting positions, albeit with various nuances. On the one hand, many theologians in the Augustinian-Calvinist tradition assert that divine providence is directly or indirectly responsible for everything that occurs from the fall of a leaf to an airplane crash. Our salvation is fully in the hands of God, who determines, at least in the Calvinist tradition, both the saved and damned. In relationship the Sovereign God, we have absolutely no role in our salvation. This view is problematic theologically, ethically, and politically. God appears to have no preferences ethically speaking and stands for what is, the current status quo, rather than what could be. God ordained, from this perspective, Hitler, Stalin, Assad, Kim, and Mao as well as Donald Trump and George W. Bush. God pushes the levers in the voting booth, we are mere instruments in God’s inscrutable plan. Yet, ironically, those who deny human agency in choosing a president, use a great deal of human agency to vilify those who oppose Trump and spent a lot of energy denigrating the presidency of Barack Obama, who according to their perspective must have been duly ordained by God. Yes, Trump is president, but what if God’s plan is Biden, Sanders, Warren, or Harris? Could we be going against God’s plan in supporting Trump for a second term?
On the other hand, the Pelagian-Arminian-Wesleyan-Process tradition – and I view Pelagius in a positive light – sees the world in terms of call and response. God calls to everyone, but the response – positive or negative – is in our hands. Grace is prior and embraces all, but grace awakens and purifies rather than denies human freedom. We live in a multi-factorial universe in which God’s will is one of many factors determining each event. Accordingly, the election of a president may involve divine action, but it also involves chance events, political opponents, the involvement of foreign powers, the quality of candidate’s campaign, financial resources, the political environment, the gullibility as well as wisdom of the populace, the actions of other public servants such as Jim Comey, as well as the weather on election day. From this perspective, God is no more responsible for the election of Trump or any other presidents than God is responsible for the occurrence of cancer, school shootings, or natural disasters. Every event, including the election of a president, is the result of many factors rather than just one, whether divine or human. This theology leads to a more democratic
and constitutional approach to government and challenges us to be actors and also to critique our leaders and their policies when they go against our understanding of God’s vision for humankind and the world.
Theologically, the divine ordination of rulers is often identified in practice with the status quo, authoritarianism, persecution of opponents, and absolution of any evil committed by political leaders. It places the present and future in God’s hands entirely, discouraging prophetic critique, political challenge, and higher aspirations toward a “more perfect” union.
The multi-factorial approach to divine-human relationships encourages, in contrast, acceptance of diverse positions, political challenge, and give and take between differing parties, based on the realities of human limitation and the diversity in how persons respond to God’s call. A multi-factorial approach to divine-human relationships and causation is more conducive to tolerance and
democracy that the coercive, deterministic, authoritarian vision of God.
Finally, to assume the divine election of presidents encourages passivity and obedience and suggests that God has already decided the outcome so why bother to get involved, except ironically to increase our power or wealth! Like the literal doctrine of the second coming, the divine ordination of rulers robs us of agency, when we need it most. God doesn’t need puppets, and our planetary survival and the survival of millions depends on our actions as well as God’s.
To leave the presidency in human as well as divine hands challenges us to be responsible agents, to question all authority, to discontentment with the status quo and injustice, and to aspire for a better world regardless of who is elected or serves as the USA president.
I am content knowing that God has not chosen the next president or her predecessor. This means that I can work with God to seek a more perfect union, advocate for public policies that reflect my understanding of God’s vision in a pluralistic society, and recognize even as advocate for particular candidates and policies that I “see in mirror dimly” and, accordingly, must not conflate my vision with God’s but always aspire for more wisdom, compassion, and insight.
(FN: Often cited, Romans 13:1 does not refer to a specific leader, but to government in general. Political leaders are part of the ordering of the community, but are, by definition, ambiguous, creating positive order but also imperfect in goal and execution. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” This has to be seen in light of the whole library of scripture, including the critiques of governments by the prophets and the critique of Roman rulers found throughout Revelation. Scripture notes that God anoints certain rulers, David and Cyrus, but remains silent on the majority of rulers.)
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over 50 books, including “One World: The Lord’s Prayer from a Process Perspective,” “Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure,” and “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims.”