On Inauguration Day I posted an open letter to Donald Trump that, essentially, called him to be a president for all Americans and to stand for justice and equality. To my surprise, this post generated a lot of strong response. Some people (even people who voted for Trump) thought it was a balanced, fair piece. Others reacted with anger, and some with vitriol. As I sorted through the less-than-favorable reviews, I noticed a pattern. There was one line, in particular, to which most people had a strong reaction:
I don’t think God made you president. I think it was actually the Rust Belt that made you president.
To be honest, when I originally wrote this letter, that was just a throw away line. I never imagined that it would create any kind of controversy. Yet, several people were indignant that I would suggest that God did not, in fact, make Donald Trump our 45th president. After having multiple conversations about what I meant by this, and listening to the pastoral instinct I’ve developed over the past couple decades, I want to explain my thinking on this. So, here goes.
I do not believe God made Donald Trump our president.
And this isn’t just an “anti-Trump” sentiment.
I also don’t believe God made Barack Obama our president, twice.
Nor do I think God hand selected Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter…
you see where this is going.
How can I believe such a thing?
Simply put, I believe human beings are free agents.
We have the ability to choose, to decide.
We make choices everyday that are all on us: what we wear, what we eat for lunch, who we marry, what we name our kids, how fast we drive…you get the picture.
Actually, for me, the idea that God is hand selecting world leaders is troubling.
First, I assume the same people who believe God picked Trump don’t believe God picked Obama. And the people who think God chose Obama don’t think God chose Bush. Right? But you can’t have it both ways. God either elected them both, or God didn’t elect either of them. Unless we think that sometimes God loses? Further, if God is picking world leaders, then what about Hitler or Stalin? Did God choose them, too? If so, God has made some really bad decisions that led to millions upon millions of people being oppressed and unjustly killed.
Or, does God only choose the US president? That seems a bit arrogant of us, right? That out of almost 200 countries in the world, God only chooses the leader of the United States? That can’t be right.
Second, the idea that God picks our president can lead to a dangerous and unfaithful conflation with the actions of the US and our leader to be the very actions of God. This is important: before the year 313 (with the conversion of Constantine and the issuing of the Edict of Milan, which made Christianity legal) the idea that God and empire were on the same side was foreign to the Christian tradition. Jesus came advocating the Kingdom of God, the values of which are expressed in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) as, among other things, pursuing peace through nonviolence and compassion. The early Christians recognized that even the best kind of worldly empire fell way short of the values of the Kingdom of God. Christ, crucified and raised, is Lord; Caesar with all his power, wealth, and influence, is not. Not then, not now, not ever.
Simply put, no president, even the best of them, can lead a worldly empire to be the Kingdom of God. The realities demanded by both the empires of the world and the Kingdom of God are in conflict in deep ways. Sadly, beginning in 313, and continuing in 380 (with the Edict of Thessalonica, which made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire), Christians have, at times, cared more about political power and influence than we have advancing the Kingdom of God.
Empires make their enemies bleed.
The Kingdom is exemplified in Jesus bleeding for his.
Empires are about the accumulation and concentration of wealth and power.
The Kingdom ethic is demonstrated with a towel and basin.
Empires are organized around protecting power.
The Kingdom is about sharing and being empowered to partner with God in the world.
Empires are about self-preservation and their own interests.
The Kingdom is about giving oneself away in service and compassion.
The writer of 1 Peter reminds us that those of us who follow Jesus are a “a peculiar people.” Our values should not align exactly with those of the empires of this world. This is the danger of assuming the US president is God’s “man” or “woman.” When we assume God chose the president, we then might be willing to go along with and defend anything they do as being the will of God, no matter how counter to God’s will and way it might be.
All presidents will do some good things.
And all presidents will do some less than good things.
We can celebrate the good. We must critique the less than good.
Critiquing the misuse of power, by the way, isn’t being judgmental. It’s evaluating the fruit on the tree. Jesus did such things. So did the Hebrew prophets. To call the Powers that Be to act justly is the most Christian/Jesusy thing you can do.
So, how does the president get elected?
We vote and the Electoral College elects.
I assume God would prefer the candidate who will act most justly and compassionately, but I also believe that you and I have free will. We are not pawns on God’s cosmic chess board. We are free agents, making our own choices and living with the consequences of those choices. Of course God invites us, even woos us toward the best choices, but God is Love and love demands freedom.
If you’re a parent you know this intrinsically. When your kids get a bit older, they tend to stop wanting to hug you and kiss you all the time. It’s not cool to do such things. If you chase them, hold them down, and make them hug you and say, “I love you,” does that really feel genuine? Of course not! But those rare moments when they, on their own accord and from their own volition, come up to you with a hug and “I love you,” that’s just the best thing. Ever. Right?
Love demands freedom. Freedom to embrace, and freedom to resist. Freedom to move toward, and freedom to move away. If God is going around subverting our freedom, then God can’t really be Love.
Yet our scriptures teach that God is, in fact Love, which means that God gives us the freedom to choose. Some choices are good and some choices aren’t, but they are still our choices.
How we choose, whether it’s our presidential vote or how we treat our friends, neighbors, and enemies, is extremely important and 100% totally our responsibility. Will we choose well, opening ourselves to joining God in the ongoing work of healing and repairing the world? That is the question.
What are your thoughts? Feel free to join this conversation in the comments below.
Be well, friends!