In the process of choosing who should be the next president of the United States, each individual voter must decide what is most important to him or her. For some, the most important factor will be how much a candidate is committed to addressing problems in the area of civil rights, such as restrictions on voter access and the policing of African-American neighborhoods. For some, the most pressing issue of 2016 will be what should be done to address income inequality. For some, the only issue will be the legality and availability of abortions. This is especially true in light of the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who president Barack Obama will surely replace with someone who does not wish to overturn Roe v. Wade (1973). For some, the main factor will be a candidate’s view on the role of the United States in the wider world. Are we to remain an active player on the international stage? Should we draw back and not get involved in the kinds of foreign entanglements our first president, George Washington, warned of in his farewell address in 1796? For some, the main concern will be the nation’s borders and the status of undocumented immigrants. The available options run the gamut from a path to citizenship all the way to mass deportations and building a wall on the Mexican-American border. For some, the possibility of setting a new historical precedent will be of paramount importance. In 2016, it might be possible to elect the first female president, the first Latino president, or the first Jewish president. Finally, for a sizable portion of the Republican electorate, the most important deciding factor will be the religious convictions of a candidate and his or her willingness to govern accordingly. It is the considerations of this particular group that we will examine in this edition of the History Rhyme. We will look at the arguments that are being presented for the available candidates and then turn our gaze to the past to look for any possible correlations between the piety (or lack thereof) of a president and his (so far) effectiveness in office.
In the months, weeks, and days leading up the Iowa Caucuses, the people of the Hawkeye state were barraged with a steady volley of filers, billboards, robocalls, and commercials stating that one particular Republican or another was the most “godly” choice for America. The top recipients of such lofty praise were Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Dr. Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz. Although evangelical voters are not the only group in the Iowa Republican Party, they are a sizable and enthusiastic one – comprising 64% of 2016 caucus attendees. With such a crowded field of candidates seeking the conservative Christian vote, the endorsements of influential leaders such as radio talk show host Steve Deace, political activist Bob Vander Plaats (who was featured in an earlier History Rhyme – “The Will of the People”), and Representative Steve King, were highly treasured. In the end, all three men endorsed Ted Cruz and their support most likely played a role in the Texas senator’s victory on February 1, 2016.
Despite all of the weighty endorsement Ted Cruz received in Iowa, CNN’s Iowa Caucus exit polling showed that Cruz only received 34% of the evangelical vote. Gaining a plurality instead of a majority of this group’s votes should not be surprising in such a crowded field. The next highest vote total among evangelical candidate was for Ben Carson with only 12%. The striking result of this poll was that Dr. Carson received only the fourth highest percentage from conservative Christians. The second (225) and third (21%) most popular candidates with evangelicals were Donald Trump and Marco Rubio. While Senator Rubio emphasizes his religious convictions and does get some credit for that, this one-time Tea Party darling is considered more of a mainstream Republican choice now. Trump has demonstrated that he does not have a thorough knowledge of the bible but that does not seem to matter with some evangelicals. In fact, he won the evangelical vote in South Carolina. What is gong on?
If the twentieth-century American social psychologist Leon Festinger (1919-89) were still alive today, he would describe the fascinating rise in support of Donald Trump as a prime case of cognitive dissonance. This phenomenon, which Merriam-Webster defines as “psychological conflict resulting from simultaneously held incongruous beliefs and attitudes,” helps us to at least understand what is going on. However, it does not helps us to divine how those caught up in it are rationalizing their choices. One of the most interesting explanations this History Rhymer has encountered is that God sometimes uses ungodly men to help his people. In November 2015, Christian speaker and teacher Lance Wallnau deemed Donald Trump to be just such a man. In a video message to Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, Wallnau stated that “God has given this man an anointing for the mantle of government in the United States and he will prosper.” The basis for this belief is Isaiah 45:1, which Wallnau says will predict who will be the 45th president:
“This is what the Lord says to his anointed,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor,
to open doors before him
so that gates will not be shut.”
For those who are not familiar with this verse of prophesy or its significance in the bible, let me offer a quick summary. Isaiah’s prophecy predicted that God would bring forth a pagan ruler who would help the Jewish people in their hour of greatest need. According to biblical scholars, this occurred 150 years later when Cyrus the Great (who ruled the Achaemenid Empire but is sometimes labeled simply as a “Persian” king) defeated the Babylonian empire around 539 BC. Among those who were suddenly under Cyrus’ rule were the Jewish people, who the Babylonians sent into exile after they defeated Judea in 586 BC. In the book of Ezra, Cyrus later actively supported the efforts of Ezra and Zerubbabel to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem by using the royal treasury to pay for building expenses. The temple had been in ruins since the sacking of Jerusalem. This had caused an existential crisis for the Jewish people since they were directed by God to offer sacrifices at the temple (in the seventeenth chapter of Leviticus).
Whether or not Donald Trump is being used by God to help evangelical Americans is a topic that none will be able to answer definitively. In any case, this blog is not about predicting the future or making theological judgments. It is all about looking at the present through the lens of the past. With that in mind, this month’s History Rhyme will take a brief look at how the United States has fared at times when it had especially religious leaders and how it did when its leaders were not especially religious. According to David Masci, who is a senior writer and editor focusing on religion at the Pew Research Center, almost all presidents of the United States have been avowed Christians. The largest number of presidents (11) were self-avowed Episcopalians. Yet, four of these – George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Tyler – were most likely actually Diests who did not believe in an active God. Instead, these men saw God as a cosmic clock maker who set the universe in motion and then left it alone. This is in direct opposition to the picture of God actively hearing and responding to prayers – even prayers for a particular candidate winning an election. Another sizable group of presidents (John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Filmore, and William Howard Taft) were Unitarians who denied the existence of the Trinity. This would certainly be seen as heretical to modern conservative Christians.
What is especially interesting in Mr. Masci’s list of presidential religious affiliation is that two presidents had no Christian affiliations – Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Although Jefferson referred to a “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln made references to God on several occasions, it would be a stretch to say that either of these men’s views on religious would satisfy a modern evangelical voter’s desire for a godly leader. Yet, these two men are always listed at the pinnacle of what we consider great American presidents. Perhaps these two men would also be seen by Lance Wallnau as having had the “Cyrus anointing” and thus were great in spite of their lack of overt piety.
While all but two presidents avowed a Christian affiliation, we know that not all of these men were equally religious. Some, like Andrew Jackson, were far from the epitome of Christian kindness. However, there have been a few who have been generally regarded as particularly devoted men. For the sake of this article, I will use a short list created by J. J. Feinauer of the Deseret News of who he felt were the most religious – James Garfield, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush. Since James Garfield’s term in office was especially brief due to his assassination, we cannot say if his great piety would have helped him to be a great ruler or not. As far as the other two, their times in office were far from stellar. Carter came into office trying to demonstrate a humility and honesty that was in stark contrast to the behavior displayed by president Richard Nixon and his associates. Yet, his presidency is generally regarded as a failure (although he has been called a great ex-president by the New York Times in 2015).
Bush was another president why was not shy about how his Christian views affected his presidency and the justness of this actions but whose time in office was not one of the smoothest in the nation’s history. This is not to say that these men were the worst presidents ever. However, they certainly were not the most successful. Perhaps this was due to the times in which they ruled. Perhaps it was due to the interaction between their faith and the choices they had to make to rule. It is most likely that the intersection of many such factors played roles. I will leave the final decision on the cause of each man’s success or failure to you.
Should a person vote with their heart, or their head, or perhaps even their soul? These are questions that have to be left up to each individual voter. Should an evangelical voter choose a candidate that best matches their personal religious convictions or should they accept someone who may be more of a modern Cyrus who seems to have the best chance to defeat political enemies? Looking at the past, we can see that great Christian piety does not necessarily lead to great leadership. Then again, deficiencies in moral character (e.g. the paranoia of Richard Nixon or the extreme racism of Woodrow Wilson) can have their own drawbacks too. Which way will America go and what will be the result of that choice? Will we have a modern-day president Cyrus taking the oath of office on Friday, January 20, 2017? We shall see and let future historians decide the wisdom and repercussions of such a choice.