Earlier this week, the Christian Broadcasting Network’s chief political analyst teed up a question for White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.
“Does it kind of blow your mind that someone like Donald Trump, who is sitting in the Oval Office,” said CBN’s David Brody, “I know you can list the accomplishments, but at the same time just from a spiritual perspective, there are a lot of Christians who believe that for such a time as this …”
“For such a time as this” is the key phrase in that sentence. It’s a quotation from the Bible’s Book of Esther, in which an unlikely savior delivers the Jews from persecution.
Sanders picked up on Brody’s biblical implication and ran with it.
“I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times,” said Sanders, an evangelical Christian herself. “And I think he wanted Donald Trump to become president and that’s why he’s there.”
While Sanders’ statement may have raised secular Americans’ eyebrows, many white evangelicals likely agree with her. According to a 2017 survey by Public Religion Research Institute, more than half (57%) say God played a “major role” in the 2016 presidential election.
That view is particularly pronounced among charismatic and Pentecostal Christians, a subset of evangelicalism that puts special emphasis on prophecies, believing that God is omnipotent, immanent and extremely active. That is, all-powerful and present in all areas of existence.
The fullest accounting of this view comes in Stephen Strang’s book “God and Donald Trump,” in which the Pentecostal publisher writes that evangelicals had been praying for deliverance from an overbearing, hostile (and Democratic) federal government.
Trump, Strang says, was the answer to their prayers.
“Conservative Christians believed that if Hillary Clinton won this election it would be ‘game over’ for religious freedom,” he writes. “It was as if God had answered our prayers and the impossible had happened. We had a new president: one we believed God had raised up for such a time as this.”
Recognize that last phrase?
But if a majority of Trump’s white evangelical base believes that God wanted him to be president, many other Christians do not agree.
Less than half of non-white Protestants (47%) and fewer than a quarter of white mainline Protestants (21%) and Catholics (22%) say God played a major role in the 2016 election, according to the PRRI survey.
To some extent, the question of God’s role in the 2016 election is impossible to answer. After all, who among us can claim to know the mind of God?
Still, it’s worth unpacking some of the spiritual ideas underpinning Sanders’ statement and understanding why some other Christians have such a big problem with them.
What God wants
Ekemini Uwan, a public theologian and a co-host of the podcast “Truth’s Table,” says Trump’s election was not exactly an answer to her prayers.
“It was a dark day,” said Uwan. “I cried a lot and couldn’t get out of bed.”
A graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, Uwan was named last year by the evangelical magazine Christianity Today as one of 10 “theologians we’re excited about.”
Uwan took issue with Sanders’ comments, calling them “arrogant and misguided.”
Still, Uwan is a firm believer in the sovereignty of God, the idea that God is supremely in control of the entire universe, from the smallest atoms to American politics.
“We can’t say that it’s not God’s will for Donald Trump to be president, because he is the president,” said Uwan.
But Uwan draws a distinction between God’s sovereignty and God’s approval. That is, what God allows to happen is not the same thing as what God wants to happen.
To illustrate her point, Uwan cited the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers.
Jealous of Joseph, his brothers sell him into slavery. God didn’t condone that act but brought the story to a just conclusion by raising Joseph to an important post in Egypt. There, he helped the Hebrew people, including his penitent brothers, to survive.
“We can’t say that God wanted Joseph to be sold into slavery,” Uwan said. “But we know that he brought a bad situation to a good end. How does that apply to something from today like children being separated from their parents at the southern border? We don’t know. That’s the tension of living by faith and not by sight. We want clear cut answers, but see through a glass darkly, as Scripture says.”
‘Handle with care’
Of course, other Christians can also cite Scripture to support the idea that God did intend for Trump to be elected.
After Sanders received backlash for her comments this week, conservative Christian commentator Erick Erickson tweeted that her critics “lack a basic understanding of Scripture.”
Specifically, Erickson cited Daniel 2:21, which says that God “changes the times and seasons; He removes kings and establishes them.” Erickson also quoted from Romans 13:1, saying, “The authorities that exist have been established by God.”
That passage from Romans, which former Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited last year to defend the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal immigration on the southern border, is one of the most divisive – and controversial – in Scripture.
Many Christians believe that it counsels believers to obey secular authorities, particularly the government. But it’s also been cited by Nazi sympathizers and apartheid enforcers, slave owners and loyalists opposed to the American Revolution.
“That’s a hard passage,” said Michael Rea, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. “Romans 13 needs to be handled with care.”
If you read Romans 13 to imply that God “wanted” or established Trump in office, Rea says, then it also implies the same about every other world leader, including those whose views and policies do not align with evangelicals’ agendas.
And Romans says nothing about whether God is happy with the ruler and pleased with his policies, nor whether Christians should legally and peacefully resist the rulers and policies they disagree with.
“So what Romans 13 might invite us to do is just ask what God might be doing with some particular leader,” Rea said. “In the case of Trump, I am tempted to say God might have been working to discredit the forces in evangelicalism that contributed so much to his being elected.”
Politics aside, there’s one more reason to be skeptical, or at least extremely cautious, about claiming to know what God wants, Christian scholars said this week. It hinges on the enduring question of why innocent people suffer, the answer to which has eluded theologians and philosophers for centuries.
In other words, why would God intervene in an American election, while refraining to relieve suffering elsewhere?
That would have been a good follow-up question for Sarah Sanders, if only the Christian Broadcasting Network had asked.