Neither the Bible nor Christian tradition supports a prominent Baptist pastor’s assertion that God has specifically ordained Donald Trump to “take out” the North Korean regime. And it’s especially important for orthodox and conservative Christians to be very clear on this point.
First Baptist Church of Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress, an outspoken Donald Trump supporter and a cable-news commentator, has excited attention with his claims, in an interview with the Washington Post, about the Lord’s plans for Trump and dictator Kim Jong-un:
When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-un. I’m heartened to see that our president — contrary to what we’ve seen with past administrations who have taken, at best, a sheepish stance toward dictators and oppressors — will not tolerate any threat against the American people. When President Trump draws a red line, he will not erase it, move it, or back away from it. Thank God for a president who is serious about protecting our country.
Jeffress is citing Romans 13’s admonition that a ruler “beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Christianity has relied upon this scripture, and others, to understand that legitimate government, with its police and military functions, is approved by God for providing public order and protecting from external threat. The Just War tradition across centuries has built upon this understanding by providing counsel on when warfare is justified.
It’s safe to say, contra Jeffress, that no serious segment of Christian tradition has understood Romans 13 to specifically sanction blanket authority for any particular ruler of any nation to “use whatever means necessary . . . to stop evil” anywhere in the world. The Just War tradition, among other conditions, typically calls for lethal force as a last resort.
Whether or when to wage war is not typically a dogmatically theological question. It entails prudential judgments, primarily by lay people, especially persons in civil authority. It’s not a question settled by the institutional church or by members of the clergy. In recent decades, violations of this understanding of vocation have usually come from reflexively anti-war clergy who, if not pacifist, are virtually so, and who can find no war that meets their high standard of imagined perfection.
More unusual, especially in America, are clergy who explicitly support making war. In one case, five prominent Evangelicals, several of them clergy, issued a rare implied endorsement for war: In a a 2002 letter to President George W. Bush they declared that the president’s “stated policies” toward Iraq’s Saddam Hussein were justified by Christian Just War teaching. Signers included Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, prison ministry leader Charles Colson, and prominent Florida pastor James Kennedy. The letter did not lean on Romans 13 but cited seven stipulations associated with Just War theory, and it did not offer Jeffress’s sweeping carte blanche to “take out” evil.
Predictably, most critiques of Jeffress’s declaration have come from secular or liberal, pacifist Christian voices, implying that Jeffress represents orthodox and conservative Christianity. Johnnie Moore, another prominent Evangelical Trump supporter who since Jeffress’s announcement has tweeted his prayers for “peace, not war & — with trepidation — for our leaders to know for sure if the latter becomes required for the former.”
Jeffress’s bellicose North Korea pronouncement perhaps represents two tendencies in American Evangelicalism. One is an assumption that clergy have a vocation for routine political matters, including candidate endorsements and policy advice. Most of Christian tradition assumes otherwise, and most clergy act accordingly — with restraint. The other is a tendency make political decisions based on spiritual absolutes. If God is believed to have ordained a specific person for office, then opposition to that person is opposition to God, and good Christians must give full support for the duration, adorned with plenty of scripture quotations.
Most of Christianity, in its political theology, understands that sinful, finite humanity, even at its best, can approach most political decision-making only with modesty, not certitude. And even the best policies, especially when involving military force, must be expected to have negative unintended consequences.
Christian responses to public-policy challenges of today, whether Jeffress’s bellicosity or the anti-Americanism and reflexive pacifism of the religious Left, often don’t exemplify a sense of judicious responsibility.
Christian traditions about political theology and the limits of dogmatic application of theology to statecraft are not surviving very well in American Christianity, where denominational traditions have largely collapsed. Jeffress is a Southern Baptist, but he is the pastor of a megachurch that, not uncommonly in today’s Evangelicalism, could appear to many as nondenominational and built around his personality.
In contrast, Mainline Protestantism, before shifting hard left and imploding, often offered judicious and even stately pronouncements about public issues. Future secretary of state John Foster Dulles, a Presbyterian layman, helped craft the Federal Council of Churches’ responses to the U.S. atomic strike on Hiroshima, which they tacitly approved, while counseling “self-restraint and a sense of responsibility,” which “increases our moral authority in the world.”
Christian responses to public-policy challenges of today, whether Jeffress’s bellicosity or the anti-Americanism and reflexive pacifism of the religious Left, often don’t exemplify a sense of judicious responsibility. Let’s hope that this failure will inspire a revival of the old, more stately traditions for a future greatly in need of temperate counsel.
— Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and the editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy.