Back in 1987, I begged my parents to take me to see the just-released Leonard Part 6 at the movies. They reluctantly agreed. Less than 15 minutes in, it was clear even to me that they’d wasted their money. This movie was a crime against cinema, probably even a crime against humanity. When it was over, I had two options. Option A: I could admit the movie was a septic turd and bear the shame of having wanted to see it so badly, or Option B: I could double down and convince myself that the movie was actually good, that Bill Cosby’s performance was ‘inspired’ and ‘nuanced’ – and just maybe convince my parents through the strength of my own conviction.
I think there’s something similar occurring between certain American Christians and President Trump. It’s no secret that their votes were instrumental in ushering him into the White House. During the recent election campaign, many were uncomfortable with Trump’s egomania and obvious moral deficiencies, but felt that their hands were forced. They had to stop Hilary Clinton – Democrat nominee and commander of the armies of darkness – from grabbing power. Beyond that, they needed to secure one or more Supreme Court seats, in order to guard against the insidious agendas of the gays and the feminists and the gay feminists. And though they didn’t like it, they were willing to endure the potential consequences of a Trump presidency in order to accomplish these ends.
However, rather than now shaking their heads at President Trump’s contentious behaviour, misguided personnel appointments, bizarre accusations, persistent confirmation bias and erratic political posturing on domestic and foreign fronts, they’ve become some of his staunchest defenders. They’ve excused and even applauded the administration’s continual arrogant blustering, faltering and ineffectual attempts at executive action and governance, efforts to reward the powerful and target the vulnerable, and impulsive responses to overseas events.
But I’m not entirely convinced that these favourable assessments of Donald Trump’s presidency and effusive support for him are genuine and heartfelt. When people make an unsettling decision, they need to believe it was the right one. So, you could say that their defence of President Trump is, in some sense, self defence, straining to convince themselves, and possibly others, that their votes were justified.
A Duty of Loyalty?
True to form, the Christian Right’s ‘top guys’ stand ready to furnish a handy list of scriptural proof texts to reassure the rank and file that supporting Mr. Trump is, in fact, their duty before God. The gold standard of these passages is I Peter 2.13-17:
For the Lord’s sake, accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right…Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.
(We have to give them credit for rediscovering this passage in 2017, because apparently, it went missing for the last eight years.)
But let’s look more closely at the passage from I Peter. The phrase, ‘[A]ccept the authority of every human institution’ is the subject of much debate from translators and biblical interpreters. Importantly for us, though, the word translated ‘accept the authority’, Ὑποτάγητε (hypotagete), simply means to recognise and be subject to the governing powers. Notice the word ‘loyalty’ (Πίστις – pistis) isn’t found here. Christian writers had that word at their disposal. In fact, they used it a lot (it’s the word we often translate as ‘faith’ or ‘trust’) – but they reserved their loyalty for Jesus.
The early Christians were certainly not loyal to or supportive of the emperor or the imperial system, nor were they instructed to be. Actually, they regularly committed acts of treason by the rules of the day: refusing to pay homage to or sacrifice to the emperor and scandalously proclaiming that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (meaning that Caesar was not). It’s no wonder people accused them of all manner of evil and persecuted them for their disloyalty.
Returned to their proper context (‘proof texting’ has a knack for ripping passages out of context), these verses from I Peter form part of a larger teaching on Christian suffering. Peter is really saying, ‘Yes, you are being persecuted as “evildoers” by people who don’t know any better. But don’t make it easy for them; live honourably, follow the laws, accept the authorities. If you act wickedly, don’t be surprised if you’re punished for it. But if you suffer despite living righteously, remember Jesus, who suffered in the same way.’
The Power of Your Choice
Applied to the current situation, the scriptures don’t command blind loyalty and support for the president. Unlike Christians in the Roman empire, we’re legally permitted to publicly dispute the administration’s policies and actions.
And I think the president’s Christian voters are the perfect people to challenge him! If you’re one of those voters, please don’t feel the need to justify either President Trump or yourself. Whether we agree on them or not, you had your reasons for casting your vote. That vote gives you more privilege than others to hold the Trump administration to account. You can question him on his statements, orders and decisions, especially when you have doubts and concerns about their ramifications.
Yes, accept that the president is in a position of authority – but not one beyond scrutiny. Yes, pray for the president – but pray too for the discernment to know when his actions veer away from what followers of Jesus know to be right. Yes, acknowledge the president if and when he speaks and behaves with dignity and governs wisely – but reserve your praise for those moments.
Yes, you chose four years of President Trump – but that doesn’t mean you have to enjoy the show.
- Feature Image: Seal of the President of the United States (Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15527)
- Leonard Part 6 theatrical poster (Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12456018)
- Bust of Nero, Pushkin Museum, Moscow (By shakko – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3272925)