Why Do Christians Continue to Support Donald Trump?

Why Do Christians Continue to Support Donald Trump? January 21, 2024

An old Bible on top of a torn and tattered American flag
Image credit: created with AI on 1/20/2024

Democrats are banking on the hope that the country would not take back a defeated president who inspired a violent mob to help him keep power and has been charged with more felonies than Al Capone.

There was a time when such a line would have been unnecessary, even laughable, as part of a news story from a reputable news source. But there I was this past Wednesday, reading those very words in the New York Times.

Strange days we’ve been living in over the past decade. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty tired of the word “unprecedented.”

Remember way back when?

Remember way back when Joe Biden’s presidential hopes ended in 1987 because he had been using quotations without attribution? Now we have a front-running candidate who seems almost incapable of telling the truth.

Remember way back when Richard Nixon resigned because he gave the okay for people to break into a room at the Watergate Hotel, presumably to get a better idea of the Democrats’ election strategy? Now we have a front-running candidate who literally incited a mob to attack the U.S. Capitol to try to keep power after losing an election. And this came after being impeached not once but twice during a single four-year term.

Remember way back when Gary Hart’s presidential campaign was derailed when it was discovered he had been having an affair with Donna Rice? We now have a front-running candidate who has been found civilly liable for a sexual assault and guilty of using campaign funds to pay for the silence of a porn star.

With whom he had had a sexual encounter.

While married to his third wife.

Whom he had started dating.

While married to his second wife.

With whom he had had an affair.

While married to his first wife.

Remember way back when the Republican Party labeled itself the party of family values and of law and order?

Welp. Here we are.

Christian support

Donald Trump, who last week won the Iowa Republican Caucuses by a country mile, is somehow poised to become the Republican nominee for president. Again. He’s undergoing four different legal trials involving multiple felonies, most of which are for actions he allegedly took while he was president the first time, and yet there he is, somehow. Again.

Donald Trump is the Monsieur Thenardier of the Les Miserables that is U.S. politics.

What’s truly mind-boggling to me is the number of Christians who support him. The mental gymnastics necessary to not only defend Trump but to support his bid to become president again is just dizzying.

How in the world does such a thing happen?

From what I’ve seen, there have been two primary responses from (mostly) evangelical Christians who support Trump:

  • The example of Cyrus the Great of Persia
  • Romans 13:1-7

I don’t find either argument compelling in the least, but here’s how they break down:

Cyrus the Great

First, Cyrus the Great. He’s mentioned in Ezra 1:1-4 and is known for freeing Israel from captivity in Babylon. A little bit of background to add context: in 587 BCE, Israel was overrun by the kingdom of Babylon, its people were captured, and they were sent into exile. They remained there until 538 BCE when the Persians defeated the Babylonians.

(A quick side note: Babylon was located in modern-day Iraq and Persia in modern-day Iran. When we see stuff in the news about them, remember that’s an ethnic rivalry that goes back literally thousands of years.)

This is where we get to Cyrus the Great. He was king when Persia defeated Babylon, and he was the one who decided to allow the exiled Israelites to return home. As a Persian, he knew nothing of the Israelite God YHWH, and yet the passage from Ezra makes it quite clear that he understood himself as a vessel of God’s work and God’s will. In fact, he encouraged Israel to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem after they returned home, as it had been destroyed by the Babylonians.

Evangelical Christians see Donald Trump as a modern-day Cyrus the Great.

Present-day Cyrus?

Their view is something like this: he’s a relative outsider to the church, but he is friendly to the church. Instead of the godless heathen who held the presidency before him (even though Obama was UCC, quoted Scripture, and cited the Sermon on the Mount as one of the foundations for his ethics), Trump actually cares about the church. He is their ally in the religious culture wars who among other things brought Christmas back (even though it never left), moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (in support of their idea of the end times), appointed three Supreme Court justices who ultimately overturned Roe vs. Wade, and so on (eww, after writing all of that I feel like I need to go take a shower to clean off the slime).

He’s an imperfect vessel, but he’s doing a God’s will nonetheless. (Again, eww.)

That’s the theory, at least.

Keep that in mind as we look at the second Biblical passage evangelical Christians use to defend Trump: Romans 13:1-7 (the one about obeying your leaders because it was God who put them in power).

An easily abused passage

As you can probably imagine, this passage has been abused countless times over the centuries to try to justify some pretty awful stuff. As is often the case, however, those who have done so have made it say what they want it to say by using the passage completely divorced from any context.

Our first clue that these verses have been misused comes by looking at what’s written both before and after them (which is an excellent thing to do when looking at any Biblical passage, by the way). Paul has been writing about internal church affairs—how the people of this community relate to each other. And after verse 7, he continues to do so. It just makes no sense for him to plop this little bit about obeying the government right in the middle of all of it.

Unless he wasn’t writing about obeying the government.

Paul was writing to the church in Rome—a church which, at that time, had not yet divorced itself from Jewish worship or belief. Believers understood Jesus as the Messiah for whom they had all been waiting but otherwise would have seen themselves as observant Jews. A faction had begun to get too full of themselves and think of themselves as better than the “non-Christian” Jews. Romans chapters 10, 11, and 12 address this issue from many different angles, as do chapters 13 and 14.

So what’s going on here?

Playing nicely in the sandbox

Try reading Romans 13:1-7 with the assumption that when Paul writes of those in authority, he’s referring to the synagogue authorities. It might help if you just do a quick scan of the preceding couple of chapters first—or at least the little paragraph headings. Suddenly, this passage doesn’t seem so out of place anymore.

(You may be wondering what the bit about paying taxes has to do with the synagogue. At the time, there was what was known as a “Temple Tax,” which was sent to Jerusalem to assist with the upkeep of the temple.)

“Play nice with your fellow Jews in the synagogue. And play nice with each other. Just because you believe Jesus was the messiah doesn’t mean you don’t have to obey the laws and rules of the synagogue, and it doesn’t mean you’re exempt from the consequences of doing so. Acting like a jerk and then yelling ‘you’re not my real dad!’ when you get in trouble isn’t going to fly.”

Back to the present day.

The major problem with reading Romans 13:1-7 as though it was speaking of a civil government is that it can legitimize any sort of horrible actions by a horrible dictatorship. After all, if God put them in that position, then who are you to question God’s decisions?

The more authoritarian the leadership is, the more weight this argument holds.

And there you have the conservative Christian church’s Romans 13 argument for Donald Trump. He was an imperfect man who was chosen by God to do God’s will. Because he was chosen by God, we are not to undermine or disobey but to give proper honor.

This is why the “stolen election” lie worked so well with Trump’s followers back in 2020, and why it persists. God had chosen him to be in the White House, and he still had work left to do, so anything suggesting that he hadn’t been re-elected was “fake news.” Since the election had obviously been stolen from God’s instrument, Trump’s supporters felt that they were justified in trying to undo what they saw as a sin against God’s chosen. So it was with a clear conscience that they supported Trump when he told false and easily disproven stories about election fraud, when he strong-armed state officials to change vote tallies, or when his team chose a slate of fake electors to muddy the Electoral College waters.

And when Trump directed an angry crowd to march to the Capitol during the Electoral College vote tally, when he stood by and watched as they injured over 130 police officers while overrunning barricades to storm inside, when the mob chanted “Hang Mike Pence” and erected a gallows outside, it was all justified because they were doing God’s work in attempting to keep the leader God had chosen in power.

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it until my dying breath: theology has consequences. It matters how we approach, study, and draw conclusions from the Bible. It matters how we have systematized our thoughts about who God is and how God works.

I’m often accused by those on the Christian Right of not taking the Bible seriously, usually because I have the audacity to consider things like original language, to study historical and literary context, and to use Christ as a lens through which to see the rest of Scripture.

But it’s okay. I sleep well at night knowing that my understanding of the Bible doesn’t help me justify supporting a man who more than anyone else in U.S. history, has threatened to tear apart the very fabric of American democracy.

About Matt Schur
After graduating with a B.A. in English from Truman State and an M.A. in Systematic Theology from Luther Seminary, Matt Schur spent years wandering in a vocational wilderness before finally discovering his calling— assisting and advocating for the marginalized and vulnerable. He currently lives out that call as a case manager and housing specialist for people experiencing homelessness. He also serves an ELCA campus ministry part-time as its music director and pianist, and has published two books of progressive Christian poetry: “Cross Sections” (2021) and “Imperfectly Perfect” (2023). His writing has been featured in “Valiant Scribe Literary Journal,” “Unlikely Stories,” and “Cathexis Northwest Press.” You can read more about the author here.

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