Many religious people, as well as nonreligious ones, continue to be perplexed by President Donald Trump’s popularity among members of the religious right.
The president regularly receives more than a 75 percent favorable rating from white evangelicals despite his thousands of documented lies and his appalling personal and public behavior. Some of the biggest names in Evangelical Christianity make excuses for him. When the Stormy Daniels story broke, for example, Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council said evangelicals would gladly give Trump a “mulligan” (golf lingo for a “do over” after a bad shot).
That makes many of us scratch our heads. How can so many Christians support someone who evidences such unremitting, unChristian behavior? After all, Jesus taught people to love God and to love their neighbors. He preached the Beatitudes, which turned worldly values upside down. He gave us the Golden Rule to guide our words and actions. What gives? Bad theology? Cognitive dissonance? Gullibility? Hypocrisy? Cynicism?
Hold those questions for a moment because the religious right has come up with a novel explanation from the Bible. In 598/ 596 BCE, Nebuchadrezzar and his Babylonian armies sacked Jerusalem and deported its residents. While in exile our spiritual ancestors hoped and prayed that someday they would return home.
That homecoming came in 538 BCE when Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon and repatriated exiles. Cyrus was a hero for those returning home. Isaiah 45:1, written as the Babylonian Exile was ending, calls him “messiah” or “anointed one.” How could a foreigner, someone who did not believe in Israel’s God, receive such exalted status?
Here’s some context. The Babylonian empire’s modus operandi for defeated peoples was ruthless. Habakkuk 1:6-11 reveals just how brutal it was. Cyrus, on the other hand, took an opposite approach when he conquered people. He believed that the best way to maintain control of his vast empire was to treat people well and let them worship as they wished. So, Cyrus repatriated exiled peoples, including our Jewish ancestors. He even funded the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple (as he did for Sumer, Akkad, and other victims of Babylon’s harsh imperial policies). The Bible interprets Cyrus’s benevolent rule as God acting in history through a non-believer. Cyrus was God’s vessel for restoration, even if he didn’t know it.
Now we’re ready to examine the spurious connection between Cyrus the Great and President Trump. Some members of the religious right have recently called President Trump a modern-day Cyrus, that is, God’s anointed one to do what they consider God’s work.
Samuel Goldman, director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University and writing in the New York Times, says leading Evangelicals rationalize their support of Trump because they think he embodies Cyrus. If Cyrus, a foreigner, a goi, a nonbeliever could do God’s work it seems plausible to support a President even if he evidences little or no Christian faith. It matters little what the President says or does, only that he does God’s will as they see it.
The comparison, however, is bad history and terrible theology. John Fea, a professor of Evangelical history at Messiah College in Harrisburg, Penn., calls the Cyrus/ Trump comparison a “theopolitical version of money laundering, taking Scripture to … clean [up] your candidate.”
President Trump is, in fact, the antithesis of Cyrus.The real Cyrus was an effective leader who ran his empire with a steady, stable hand. He was generous with his power and money. He was a strong defender of religious tolerance and freedom.
Most Christians, of course, do not see President Trump as a reincarnated Cyrus. “Trump as Cyrus” is a convenient religio-political invention from the religious right. The idea gained traction about the time the United States moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It has also become popular among ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. Last year, one group issued a commemorative coin with Cyrus and Trump imprinted on it. You can buy one, if you want, at eBay.
To be blunt, “Trump as Cyrus” takes Biblical history and turns it upside down and inside out. It allows rogue Christians to religiously justify their support of a man who cozies up with bloody dictators like Kim Jong-un and separates refugee children from their parents. Trump as Cyrus is a gossamer gospel that allows the religious right to give President Trump multiple mulligans and do-overs for his immoral behavior.
Lastly, exalting Trump as a new Cyrus takes the focus off the real Gospel and its implications for us. God’s vessels of grace and goodness show forth what Jesus said and did; the way he lived his life; and how his victory over death and diminishment gives courage to live “on earth as in heaven.” That’s what matters to most Christians. So they look to Jesus to guide them, especially in such pivotal texts as the Beatitudes, the Golden Rule, and Parables such as the Good Samaritan.
Be wary about phony Cyrus-like claims. In Jeremiah 18, the prophet uses a potter working clay as his sermon illustration. The potter is God and the clay that the potter is working is Israel. When the clay vessel was acceptable to the potter, he’d keep it. When it wasn’t, the potter would smash it.
The point is clear. Not everybody is a vessel for God’s grace. The way the clay turns out on the wheel determines what the potter will do with it. So be careful where you put your trust. Like ancient Israel, when it disappointed God, it was smashed.