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Calling Trump ‘the chosen one’ is a political act — not a theological statement

Claims about God’s plans for the United States often morph into justifications for wrongdoing

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry leads a prayer during a Cabinet meeting at the White House last month. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry incited controversy recently by saying he believes Donald Trump has been sent by God as “the chosen one” — selected “to rule and judge over us on this planet and our government.” As a historian of American evangelicalism, I see this for the problematic claim that it is, but I also view it in historical perspective.

Perry’s statement about a divinely ordained presidency follows a long tradition of evangelical Christians who consider the commander in chief to have been “sent by God.” It was said of presidents as politically diverse as Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Roosevelt “infused his own simple, literal faith so powerfully into the spirit of the American public that many believed he had been sent by God,” historian Christine Wicker has observed. Now Perry and many other evangelical Christians are attaching that distinction to Trump, who is the least of these presidents and certainly the least “Christian,” in terms of character, stated conviction and outward behavior.

Former ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley made similar comments about Trump’s presidency in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network last month. When asked by the network’s chief politics strategist, David Brody, what God’s intent was in installing Trump in office, Haley responded by saying that his presidency showed that “everything happens for a reason. … I think God sometimes places people for lessons and sometimes places people for change.”

Haley’s and Perry’s comments show emphatically that Trump has raised anew some important theological questions about God’s providential role in the election of U.S. presidents, and the notion of divine “chosenness.”

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While skepticism about such assertions is understandable, there is some biblical basis for the claim of “chosenness” with regard to certain leaders or peoples. Judeo-Christian history and scripture are replete with stories of those who have been commissioned by God to fulfill some divinely purposeful work for the sake of a particular people or humankind in general. One thinks of Moses, who on Mount Sinai heard the voice of Yahweh calling him to lead the Hebrew people out of the bondage of Egypt. The Hebrew people, in turn, structured a narrative of their own chosenness — drawing on, for example, Deuteronomy 7:6. “The Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.” This is the foundation upon which many evangelical Christians also accept that Jews are the “chosen people” and link their own eschatological fortunes to them.

In less widely reported remarks, Perry added a bipartisan gloss to his claim, also stating President Barack Obama was chosen by God in a particular moment to lead the country. “I’m a big believer that the God of our Universe is still very active in the details of the day-to-day lives of government,” Perry said. “You know, Barack Obama doesn’t get to be the president of the United States without being ordained by God.”

This is the central theological tension that both Perry and Haley evoke. On the one hand, they believe in God’s special involvement regarding the choice for president. On the other, they espouse a notion that everything that happens is by definition a part of God’s plan (including who becomes president). Akin to (but not exactly the same as) the doctrine of “predestination,” this view holds that, where events on Earth are concerned, only God’s will matters. Human desires and action are inconsequential. Everything happens according to plan; the fate of the nation — the world — is already sealed.

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Protestant, Catholic, Judaic and Islamic theologians have debated this idea for centuries, often marshaling it to help explain the seeming randomness of world events. There’s nothing intrinsically partisan about that theology, but in practice, the neutral version tends to bleed into arguments about “chosenness” that serve to bolster one’s own cultural dominance and politics in the name of one’s religion.

The United States, in particular, has historically promoted its own notion of fated “chosenness” at the expense of other people. The 17th-century Puritan leader John Winthrop prophesied that the new nation would be a “city upon a hill” — meaning that, as a model for the rest of the world, it had special responsibilities. Winthrop stressed that sense of American uniqueness to urge the highest standards of conduct.

But that noble impulse morphed relatively quickly into justifications for subduing the land for God’s purposes. Driving native peoples from their land and robbing them of their culture became acceptable because their expulsion helped the chosen nation achieve its divinely sanctioned destiny. Slavery, too, was, at worst, a “necessary evil” on the path of building God’s chosen nation. The claims of fated “chosenness” therefore led to stolen land, cultural erasure and the loss of countless lives.

Conservative commentators have stressed the neutral form of the “chosenness” argument to dismiss liberal concern over Perry’s statements. In the Federalist, for example, Caroline D’Agati called criticism of Perry “mostly media distortion with a thinly veiled contempt for Christianity.” But while recognizing that many Christians believe God plays a role in all human affairs, it would also be a mistake to overlook the political work Perry’s and Haley’s words were meant to perform. Perry clearly aimed to divide: His formulation implied that those who failed to vote for Trump, or who now reject the idea that he was divinely handpicked in some sense, fall outside the circle of divine approval. They are political enemies and religious “others.”

Perry was therefore making yet another dog whistle to the current administration’s base, whose most stalwart members include white evangelical Christians. They not only believe that Trump in particular was chosen; they desperately need to believe that this is so, because they know their very survival, in political terms, depends on that belief. If he’s not “the chosen one,” they have truly lost — given how closely they have embraced him yet how far he departs from every imaginable Christian value.

It is in this light that we should understand Perry’s claim, despite the bipartisan window dressing. That Perry was not making a benign statement about “God’s plan” becomes clear when one considers the second part of his claim — that God sent Trump “to rule and judge over us on this planet and our government.” I doubt Perry would assert this about Obama, and it is not, at heart, a biblically based claim. For a Christian, it is God who rules and judges, even if rulers are owed deference. Perry made a strong, nationalist claim for the special purpose of the United States — the distorted version of Winthrop’s vision to be advanced through the admittedly “imperfect” vessel of Donald Trump. Trump is the flawed “chosen one” of a chosen nation. God’s will be done.

Is it theologically justifiable to say that God prefers some candidates over others? I do not know. I am sure, though, that human beings do play a role in the election of a president, as the world is fundamentally shaped by human action. To think otherwise outsources our moral responsibility to work diligently for the greater good of all humanity. Indeed, to throw up our hands and assume that bad leaders must not be rejected because their existence implies divine approval positions us to repeat, and relive, the very worst episodes of human history.