In the early hours of Aug. 21, President Trump approvingly tweeted the words of Christian convert and radio host Wayne Allyn Root. The tweet compared Trump to “the King of Israel” and described him as being akin to “the second coming of God.” It went on to criticize “American Jews” who don’t like and support Trump.
As a number of commentators have noted, the tweets are wildly anti-Semitic: By definition, Jews don’t recognize Jesus as God or the Messiah. Expecting them to jump on board with the notion that Trump is “like Jesus” or “the Second Coming” is truly offensive. But anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism aside, this statement and Trump’s approval of it displays a mind-boggling ignorance of Christian theology that borders on blasphemy.
This isn’t the first time that Trump has been compared to a biblical hero. Pro-Trump Christians have been using the “King David” defense to excuse the president’s personal shortcomings for years. According to the Bible, David was chosen by God to lead his people. His elect status continues even though David had lusted after Bathsheba, seduced her, and engineered her husband Uriah’s death when she became pregnant. Despite it all, however, David remained chosen and was a man “after God’s own heart.” A sinner—but a powerful, divinely ordained sinner.
The shocking thing about this reading is that the strategy works: The David defense has seen Trump through no shortage of scandals, from the Stormy Daniels affair, to accusations of sexual assault, to his crude attacks on his opponents. In 2016, GOP donor Foster Friess said, “throughout history, God has harnessed imperfect people to fulfill his perfect will.” Pro-Trump Christians already have a framework through which to view and, if necessary, ignore Trump’s behavior.
But saying that Trump is like King David is very different from proclaiming that he is like Jesus. Jesus is, according to Christian theology, without sin. Roman Catholics believe that the Virgin Mary conceived without sin in order to preserve Jesus’ sinlessness and divinity. This isn’t to say that comparisons with Jesus don’t get made in common parlance—they do—but when this happens it is ordinarily a reference to someone’s work with the poor or their surprising humility. To suggest that Trump, a serial adulterer who is quick to anger and unable to admit mistakes, is anything like Jesus is frankly laughable. Clearly, the comparison being made here is not between their personalities but their power.
Honestly, that is much worse.
At various points in history monarchs (not democratically elected officials) have tried to ground their position in divinely endowed power. The title “Son of God,” which today we generally associate with Jesus, was used by Roman emperors to describe their relationship to their predecessors. The Emperor Augustus, for example, styled himself as the Son of the Divine Julius Caesar and pushed this message out to the people on coins, statues, and as part of state-supported emperor worship. Bolstering the divine status of one’s predecessor was a means of gaining and cementing one’s own power and status.
In the early modern period, a number of European monarchs claimed that they had the “divine right” to rule and that their actions and decisions stood above criticism because they were supported by God. In a speech to the British Parliament in 1601, James I claimed that kings are “God’s lieutenants on earth and sit upon God’s throne.” The theory of Divine Right developed in various ways, with many arguing that it prohibited revolution, even against unjust kings. For some, as Ellen McClure has argued in Sunspots and the Sun King, the interpretation of what this meant was softer; the king was a “filter” through which power passed to his subjects.
French and English kings who asserted their Divine Right to reign, however, were not claiming to have messianic status for themselves.
In tweeting that he might be the Second Coming, Trump is making a bolder claim and deliberately manipulating religious hopes and expectations. It’s not ignorantly done, either. When asked about the ongoing trade war with China, Trump stretched out his arms, gazed heavenward, and announced, “I am the chosen one.”
The statement was (we hope) a joke about how it has fallen to him, of all U.S. presidents, to solve the “China problem.” But the rhetoric of chosen-ness and special-ness is intrinsic both to his own personal brand and to a particular strain of Christian evangelical thought. A 2018 documentary called The Trump Prophecy argued that Trump’s election was an act of God.
Whether or not this is a cynical attempt to gain political support from a religious right that already associates communism with theism, or a mere attempt at humor, Trump is nevertheless suggesting that he is the Messiah. Promoting himself from “instrument of God” to Messiah may prove to be a mistake. Clearly, nothing about the New Testament descriptions of the Messiah’s return lines up with Trump’s personal biography. Not only did Trump fail to arrive on clouds as Jesus said he would (Mark 14:62), Trump is by every possible biblical definition a sinner (if a repentant one).
Trump manifestly is not the Messiah. He’s at best a King David. The problem for conservatives is that there is a strong Christian tradition that identifies those who claim to speak for Christ as “false prophets” and even “anti-Christs” (1 John 2:18).
Here Trump may be playing with fire: Incorrectly identifying oneself as the messiah is not only blasphemy, it suggests that one is in league with malevolent forces.