On October 5, 2019, Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw troops from Syria, despite his critics’ protests that he would be leaving the United States’ Kurdish allies in the region vulnerable to Turkish hostilities. The bipartisan crowd of dissenters includes Pat Robertson: televangelist, media mogul, former Republican nominee, and Southern Baptist minister known for his conservative evangelical ideology. In a statement on his show, The 700 Club, Robertson declared:
“The president, who allowed Khashoggi to be cut in pieces without any repercussions whatsoever, is now allowing the Christians and the Kurds to be massacred by the Turks. And I believe — and I want to say this with great solemnity — the President of the United States is in danger of losing the mandate of heaven if he permits this to happen.”
Unpacking this entire statement and the possibility that Trump could lose his evangelical base should be explored; however, the last part of that statement caught my attention. That last phrase, “mandate of heaven,” is a surprising reference (and perhaps an unintentional one) to an ancient Chinese school of thought that emerged in the Zhou dynasty. According to the teaching, the ruler of China claimed legitimacy to the throne with approval from the gods, which was obtained by moral behavior and obedience to the will of heaven. If the ruler’s actions displeased the gods, natural disaster or famine would follow as divine retribution. While I am not ready to agree with Rev. Patterson that Trump has had the moral approval of the heavens thus far, the idea parallels our Puritan origins and has implications for our modern American views of leadership.
The divinization of rulership has existed in ancient Egypt, Maya, Rome, China, and England. Even though the idea of a “mandate of heaven” sprang from ancient China, Pat Robertson’s comment seems to be inspired by the Puritan concept of predetermination or God’s consecrated elect. To give a quick rundown of AP US History, Puritanism arose as a subsect of the Anglican Church. They desired to “purify” the Anglican Church of all Roman Catholic remnants. John Calvin, a Genevan theologian, advanced the idea of “predestination,” in which God has predetermined the salvation of a select righteous group of people. Thus, in Calvin’s model of society, membership in churches is “…limited to the ‘visibly godly,’” meaning those men and women who [had] lead sober and upright lives.” If someone was a part of God’s elect, that person would act like they were part of the elect. Predestination holds the Puritan believers to the same level of moral righteousness as the mandate of heaven.
Our Founding Fathers firmly established that the American experiment would not be a theocracy, but an egalitarian republic that espouses the virtues of religious freedom. Our First Amendment rights are designed to protect that freedom to worship whatever gods we choose without governmental infringement. So, the President is selected by choice of the people, not the will of a heavenly being. In Federalist 10, Madison remarks, “A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points… have, in turn, divided mankind into parties… and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.” In short, religious tensions cannot be alleviated because they are based on an ideological difference. Americans may be able to compromise on issues such as tax breaks, but not on God’s promises. As soon as partisan disagreements trespass the morally ambiguous area of faith and worship, the arguments become more personal; just look at the Sunni and Shia conflicts in the Middle East.
Pat Robertson’s comment brings in the concept of divine rule to the United States from the age of the Puritan colonists. If a section of our population sees the president’s elected position as an indication of God’s will, the president’s policy will become divinely sanctified. In Trump’s case, his xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic comments may be equated to God’s word that cannot be compromised. Presidential policy agendas would become akin to scripture and the opposing party’s logical deliberation would have no role in determining legislative action.
When asked about this phenomenon of Trump’s consecrated rule, presidential historian Timothy Naftali explained, “What these political lieutenants are saying to the faithful is that, ‘You have no choice; God has told you how you must vote…. By bringing the sacred into politics, they are actually imposing a view onto his followers and depriving them of a freedom of choice.” This concept gives enormous power to the word of conservative media moguls like Pat Robertson. Many evangelicals will look to their word to interpret God’s will; if they point to a particular candidate as indication of divine preference, the religious body of voters will be deprived of political deliberation. In turn, the people’s opinion dictates the legislature’s decisions. Representatives are responsible for representing their constituents’ voices in Congress, and held accountable by elections. If the people saw the president as infallible under divine law, the legislature would be unable to act with power against the executive, or else they would risk losing votes. The president could no longer be held accountable by the people or the legislature, so the separate powers of the government would lose their ability to check the president. Divine right instills absolute power into the government.
I should voice a disclaimer: at this point in American development, there is virtually no chance of a theological revolution within the United States. Still, when I hear these comments from people like Pat Robertson, I find it interesting to consider the extreme hypothetical scenarios of a divine ruler (particularly when the comment is addressed to, arguably, one of the most impious presidents in American history). Puritanism is usually examined in the lens of the political impact on our democratic society; perhaps that same vision of America as God’s elect nation is held by some members of the population. In fact, many politicians such as Ronald Raegan have invoked the Puritanical image of America as a “city upon a hill.” However, the statement is usually intended to incite patriotic feelings within the nation, not a fierce religious debate over the presidency. Whatever the hypotheticals may be, Trump’s evangelical base has faltered in their steadfast allegiance since the report of Trump’s decisions concerning Syria. After Pat Robertson’s comment, other evangelicals stepped forward to condemn Trump’s actions. “President Trump has committed an egregious act of betrayal,” conservative Christian radio host Erick Erickson tweeted on October 9, which was quickly retweeted by fellow conservative evangelicals. A split seems to be rising within Trump’s strongest base, which may spell out his downfall. With the impeachment inquiry underway, and evangelicals losing faith in the president’s “divine word,” Trump may truly be in danger of losing the mandate of heaven.
Categories: Domestic Affairs