Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 5, 2018
“Understanding Trump and Evangelicals”
2nd Samuel 11:26 – 12:13 – Common English Bible
When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband Uriah was dead, she mourned for her husband. 27 After the time of mourning was over, David sent for her and brought her back to his house. She became his wife and bore him a son.
But what David had done was evil in the Lord’s eyes.
12 So the Lord sent Nathan to David. When Nathan arrived he said, “There were two men in the same city, one rich, one poor. 2 The rich man had a lot of sheep and cattle, 3 but the poor man had nothing—just one small ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised that lamb, and it grew up with him and his children. It would eat from his food and drink from his cup—even sleep in his arms! It was like a daughter to him.
4 “Now a traveler came to visit the rich man, but he wasn’t willing to take anything from his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had arrived. Instead, he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the visitor.”
5 David got very angry at the man, and he said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the one who did this is demonic! 6 He must restore the ewe lamb seven times over because he did this and because he had no compassion.”
7 “You are that man!” Nathan told David. “This is what the Lord God of Israel says: I anointed you king over Israel and delivered you from Saul’s power. 8 I gave your master’s house to you and gave his wives into your embrace. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. If that was too little, I would have given even more. 9 Why have you despised the Lord’s word by doing what is evil in his eyes? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and taken his wife as your own. You used the Ammonites to kill him. 10 Because of that, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite as your own, the sword will never leave your own house.
11 “This is what the Lord says: I am making trouble come against you from inside your own family. Before your very eyes I will take your wives away and give them to your friend, and he will have sex with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did what you did secretly, but I will do what I am doing before all Israel in the light of day.”
13 “I’ve sinned against the Lord!” David said to Nathan.
How do evangelicals stick with Trump? I don’t mean it as a partisan question or even necessarily a judgment. Not even why, so much as how. I just need to know how to explain how theologians justify, not the election, but given everything that has happened since the election, how support has actually increased.
Social scientists offer a variety of explanations, such as a disciplined single-minded dedication to achieving a Supreme Court that will enact their favored policies. Some will suggest various theories about race and economics. But my interest is in the theologians, not the politicians. And I found the answers I needed. Answers that make sense.
King David is one answer. A deeply flawed individual who, despite Bathsheba-gate, yet even so, became one of the most beloved leaders of the people. They just had to stick with him. That’s one explanation.
But the one cited most often, and the one I found most persuasive, is that he is the new King Cyrus. Cyrus the Great, the Persian king, and therefore pagan, who allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem, ending their 70 years of exile in Babylon. He restored the people to their former glory and even helped them rebuild the Temple which lay in ruins. God used Cyrus the Great to restore the people. And God will use, or is using, Trump as a modern-day Cyrus to do the same thing. They shall be restored to their former days of glory.
Cyrus didn’t need to be perfect. There’s even a term for it. “Vessel theology.” What is important is not the vessel but what it carries. Cyrus was a vessel, even though he was a pagan. Just like, it’s explained, God chose Trump to be the president. And how can we question the wisdom of God?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explicitly made this comparison, even having minted a coin for the occasion of the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. It had the face of King Cyrus and Trump side by side. Upon the announcement and return of the US embassy to Jerusalem, the comparison was proven. And Trump fully embraced the connection and even sent greetings on the Persian New Year, complete with a quote from Cyrus the Great. A few days late, and ironically, it was a fake quote. But nonetheless, the linkage was made explicit.
I’m not saying I agree, I’ll say more later, but theologically, this holds together. It makes sense. I found it helpful in understanding. Trump returned the exiles to Jerusalem and shall end their exile in America.
Cyrus is a pretty obscure figure in the Bible, so if you’ve never heard of him, you’re in good company. He appears most extensively in the Book of Ezra, which is so obscure it doesn’t even appear in our 3-year lectionary. There are several mentions of Cyrus in the Book of Daniel, too, a book which has to do with remaining faithful during times of persecution.
Daniel is a fascinating sub-story in all of this and has even been used to explain Mike Pence’s role. It’s a stretch even by hard core evangelicals to say that Trump himself is an evangelical. He’s given a “mulligan” as a “baby Christian.” And that’s why Mike Pence is so important.
Daniel is an outsider in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court but has gained tremendous power by his proximity. He remains untainted and “shows how God’s people can survive in exile – even under the fist of the most despotic ruler – so long as one of their own tribe advocates on their behalf in the corridors of power.” Daniel used his position of proximity to establish protections for the Jews and secure appointments for his friends. I’m not sure Pence embraces this comparison, but he is consistent in expressing his belief that evangelicals face some of the worst persecution in our country. And need to be protected. When Trump’s a bully, at least he’s being their bully.
They are oppressed and in exile. That’s as important a key to understanding evangelicals and Trump as almost anything else. Arguably more than any other factor, the degree to which a Christian describes him or herself as oppressed reveals their willingness to stick with anything Trump does. In a 2017 survey, 57% of white evangelical respondents reported they face discrimination comparable to, or even higher than, Muslims.
Part of that is that they feel they are being displaced in their own country want it back, one reason so many are opposed to immigration, despite the biblical command to welcome the stranger and the foreigner. To treat an immigrant as a native-born citizen. But when Trump described Haiti and African nations as “bleep-hole” countries, defenders like the “boys will be boys” megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress agreed. “Right on target,” he said. Immigration, whether by refugees fleeing actual persecution or crossing illegally, only represents a further diminishment of their power. Why can’t we have more Norwegians?
They feel like victims. Is it true? It doesn’t matter. And I understand. Their beliefs are often met with derision. Ignorant, backward. They are not always represented well on TV or in the movies. The country is less and less “culturally-Christian.”
But sticking with Trump no matter what he says or does doesn’t help matters. Respected polling firm PRRI asked evangelicals in 2011 if they believed a politician who commits immoral acts in their private lives can still govern ethically. Only 30% agreed. 2011. When asked again in 2016, two weeks after the infamous Access Hollywood tape when Trump bragged about groping women, 72% of white evangelicals said a politician who committed immoral acts in their private lives can still govern ethically. 30% before Access Hollywood; 72% after.
And ever since, no reports of payoffs to porn stars and Playboy models, whether true or not, matter. While poll numbers soften occasionally among some people, support is stronger than ever among evangelicals. Now, that is, white evangelicals. African American, Latino, and Asian Americans, who make up 13% of evangelicals, want to make that clear. They’re not quite so onboard and they understand the dog-whistle of America’s greatness means to Make America White Again.
Evangelicals below age 50 are not buying it either. In fact, Baptist General News, not the New York Times, Baptist General News warns that “continuing evangelical support for a scandal-ridden president is undermining the conservative white church and could even spell the death of Christianity [among younger people] in the United States.” The country is already becoming less religious as the number of people identifying as “nones” increases. And why wouldn’t they? Something as basic and obvious as flip-flopping on the morality of public leaders makes Christianity look hypocritical. Younger evangelicals were appalled by kids in cages. They care about the environment. The majority support protections for LGBTQ people and even marriage equality.
There is another way to read the King Cyrus narrative. King Cyrus represents the end of exile, the return that makes the people Great Again after things fell apart under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar. What if it was the other way around and Trump is Nebuchadnezzar? He was a cruel man whose policies were brutal, but he was also considered a vessel of God. We can keep the vessel theology, but he was a means to punish the people for their lack of concern for widows and orphans. Prophets like Micah demanded, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Daniel told the king to “break away from your sins by doing what is right, and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor.” Instead “Nebuchadnezzar deported over 3,000 of the leading scholars, religious leaders, artisans, and political leaders. Sent them away, beginning the Babylonian exile.” Waves followed. Otherwise known as a refugee crisis. And then he boasted about his great Babylon.
Yet, according to scripture, this was part of God’s plan, too. To use Nebuchadnezzar, as horrible as he was, to teach justice and mercy to the people with whom God had grown weary. If we want to assign a biblical character to Trump, it could just as easily be Nebuchadnezzar; filling the role of a cruel and brutal leader, an autocrat wanna-be, who brings the church to the brink of exile or even extinction for the sins of this age, with the promise of a future Cyrus still to come. The Trump-Cyrus comparison may not be as flattering as some want it to be.
The comparison of King David and Trump is also short-lived. When Nathan confronted David in our text today regarding his affair with Bathsheba and the cover-up, David immediately confessed, “I have sinned against God.” He repented and changed his ways. In contrast, when asked in 2015 whether he’s ever asked God for forgiveness, Trump replied, "I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't." This at the same event as he described the sacrament of communion as some wine and a “little cracker.”
I feel like I understand a little more about how evangelicals, older, white evangelicals, stick with Trump. There are other factors, but theologically and biblically, this explains how they can remain loyal. And they have been richly rewarded. Temporarily, but at what cost to the future of Christianity in America. What does it do to your soul to admire a man who scores bigly on every one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Lust, greed, wrath, envy, pride. Sloth? But certainly gluttony. As David Horsey explains, not because of his affinity for Kentucky Fried Chicken, but his ravenous hunger for higher ratings and adoring crowds. He just can’t get enough.
As you heard, the story we read today ends at verse 13 with King David confessing, “I have sinned.” That’s where the lectionary ends. But the story doesn’t. In verse 14, Nathan then offers forgiveness. “The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” Confession and assurance of grace. The end. But curiously, that’s not the end either. Verse 14 continues, “Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you and Bathsheba shall die.” The next couple of paragraphs tell about how their child does in fact die, how remorseful David is, and how they later have a son named Solomon, who after David’s 40-year reign, becomes the next king of Israel, widely considered the wisest king ever. Though David was forgiven, the text shows, he did not escape the consequences of his actions.
Which makes me wonder… What will be the long-term consequences of our present day? I don’t want to speak for what others may face, but I do want to be able to say we spoke up, we acted out, and we refused to give up. Our country deserves better than this.
With the weight of all we carry, we could feel
Not just distressed by all of this, but crushed.
Not just perplexed by it, but despairing,
Not just forgotten but forsaken,
Not simply dumb-struck but destroyed.
We could choose to respond in that way. Stay at home, close the blinds, or we could come together, as we have and will continue to do, and pray to God, proclaiming, as Paul did:
We may feel distressed but we shall never be crushed
Perplexed by all of this, but never driven to despair
Forgotten but never forsaken
And struck down, struggling to hold on to our hopes and our will to keep resisting, but never destroyed.
May God make us strong and courageous in the pursuit of the world that Jesus taught, that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. For everyone.
 Daniel 4:27
 Richard R. Loesch, All the People in the Bible: An A-Z Guide to the Saints, Scoundrels, and Other Characters in Scripture, Eerdmans, 2008
 2nd Corinthians 4:18, cited in a sermon by Walter Bruggemann, May 25, 2014
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world