Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His most recent novel is “The Damascus Road,” a novel about St. Paul. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinions at CNN.
Rick Perry, as well as being energy secretary, is also a bit of a self-styled theologian, as we saw on Fox News this past weekend. He told viewers that President Trump was installed in the Oval Office by God. Perry said he was a “big believer” that the Lord involves himself in the “details of the day-to-day lives of government,” having picked Obama, too.
Mr. Perry says he told Trump to his face that he was “the chosen one.”
This notion has been going around the administration like a strange virus. Trump’s former press secretary, Sarah Sanders, saw God’s hand in picking Trump, as did Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was asked by a Christian Broadcasting Network interviewer: “Could it be that President Trump right now has been sort of raised for such a time as this, just like Queen Esther, to help save the Jewish people from the Iranian menace?” Pompeo’s reply: “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible.” Really? And Trump sits in the White House because God is worried about the Ayatollah?
This may sound, to many, if not most, people a bit crazy. But evangelical Christians generally believe that God intervenes in the world on a daily basis, deciding, for example, who wins the football game on Saturday, who falls off the bike and who doesn’t, or who gets elected to public offices and who must go home and sulk. (My father was a Baptist minster, so this kind of thinking is familiar.)
Let’s follow Perry’s logic here. God made the world, and he’s watching carefully, picking and choosing favorites, punishing those who don’t pay attention. It’s a very Old Testament sort of God who would act like this.
In this way of thinking, the same God who put, say, despots in power, for reasons not knowable to us, also put Trump in power, for reasons equally unknown. Putin and Trump, Obama and Netanyahu, even the Ayatollah, are presumably the “chosen ones,” depending, it seems, where your loyalties lie. So one just bombards heaven with prayers, asking for God to land on your side, not theirs.
According to a recent Pew study, there’s indeed a lot of praying going on, with over half the nation praying daily. That’s a staggering figure, and it amazes even me, a Christian myself who prays at least once – and often several times – a day. Although I’m not expecting God to mess with the world on my behalf, not literally.
But let’s consider Perry and Mr. Trump: it goes without saying that Trump would seem a peculiar choice on God’s part, given that he hasn’t shown much inclination to revere the meek, to help the poor, to withhold judgment against his enemies. Jesus, you may recall, asks us to curb our anger, not even to hold a grudge. He tells us not to store up treasures on earth, and declares one cannot serve two masters, God and money. In everything, we should treat others as we wish ourselves to be treated. Does this remind you of …Trump?
These are just the most obvious teachings of Jesus, and presumably God would want someone in the White House who exemplifies his ideals if he were in the business of choosing this one over that.
In pursuit of this Perry offered an escape hatch in his comments, saying that God has used “individuals who aren’t perfect all through history.” This is a core argument in evangelical support for Trump. He’s a useful instrument for them to accomplish their goals, even though they don’t endorse his personality flaws and sins. It is a self-serving and, in the end, self-destructive approach, and one that is bound in time to alienate many in the evangelical ranks, especially the younger devout, many of whom seem to be turning away from Trump.
Perry elaborated in colorful detail: “King David wasn’t perfect. Saul wasn’t perfect. Solomon wasn’t perfect. And I actually gave the President a little one-pager on those Old Testament kings about a month ago.”
Certainly mainstream Christians like myself find the dodge that Perry describes appalling as an argument, believing that a President should at least display some minimal level of decency and a respect for Christian values.
So what is God, according to Perry, doing? Putting a range of types in power, some ghastly, others inspired? Should there not be some genuine humility in leaders, a sense that they recognize their own limitations? Should they not admit – and not repeat – their failings? Make penance? Wouldn’t a proper religious view of providence expect this? “Humility,” as T. S. Eliot once said, “is endless.”
At bottom here is that fundamental question posed by Rick Perry’s “theology.” Does God intervene in day-to-day human activities?
A few questions follow naturally from this. Is prayer really intended to be about persuading God to do us a political favor? Did the Creator just create the world and leave us to it?
I don’t have any easy answers, and it worries me to see evangelicals who do. There is a deep mystery here that precludes the arrogance implied in Rick Perry’s stance. We just don’t know what the Divine has in mind.
We know about answered prayers, of course: Thanksgiving, for example, is about this knowledge. But the painful reality of unanswered prayers remains. Was God not listening above the Nazi concentration camps as Hitler brought death and disaster? How about above the prison camps where hundreds of thousands of Uighurs are being held in China today? Does God turn away from the cancer wards each day? Was God not paying attention in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, where hundreds of thousands of civilians have died violently in recent years?
It is presumptuous to imagine a God who picks favorites and sometimes punishes people for no good reason. God is, as the theologian Paul Tillich put it nicely, “the ground of being.” He is before and after, all around us, our sustainer. We came into being because of God, who is love, who is the Word (as in logos, the marvelous Greek word used at the beginning of the Gospel of John, where it means something like “complete understanding”).
In my experience, a deep relationship with God is the most important thing in life, and prayer is the heightened activity of the heart and mind in deep listening mode. And this has nothing whatsoever to do with picking the occupant of the White House – unless, in the case of Mr. Trump – God is testing us for reasons we can’t really understand.