Living in God’s image: Despotism or republican democracy?
William Johnson Everett
September 1, 2020
Many Christians have been baffled and bewildered by the steady support of America’s white evangelicals for Donald Trump. His lies, adulteries, attacks on journalists, judges, elected officials and ordinary citizens do not affect this support. Neither do his bigoted attacks on Mexican immigrants and Muslims or his brutal policies at America’s southern border weaken his evangelical support. Many have tried to understand why so many evangelicals do not see the acute contradiction between these actions and the teachings of Jesus and the apostolic writings of Paul, James, and Peter, not to mention two thousand years of Christian teachings. The recently released collection of essays edited by Ronald J. Sider, “The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump” (Wipf and Stock), brings together many of these perspectives. Many critics have concluded that Trump’s evangelicals are either willfully blind or ethical hypocrites. They are acting in ethical bad faith—a hypocrisy constantly attacked by Jesus himself—simply to serve their racial prejudice, their sense of economic loss, and their feelings of victimization by America’s dominant elites. In this view, the reasons for their support of Trump are sociological, economic, or political.
However, maybe the problem may not be a matter of ethics as of worship, a problem in theology itself rather than the social sciences. It may well be a problem arising from the very image of God evangelicals hold in common with many other Christians. Perhaps devotion to Trump is not an endorsement of his ethics but of his ability to embody the image of the God many Christians celebrate every Sunday in worship as well as in their personal prayer life. The connection we need to be exploring is what kind of political order is fostered by our fundamental God images, symbols and rituals. How do our basic images of God legitimate or critique our institutions of governance? As novel as the so-called “populist” assault on government may seem, perhaps it is rooted in governance symbols that have been central to Christian traditions for two millennia.
What is the image of God presented in Christian worship that might underlie this evangelical connection to Trump? One does not have to read very far in the Bible to find in the book of Genesis a God who creates reality with His very words. It is not merely an alternative reality but reality itself. It is a God who punishes with a terrible and sometimes seemingly arbitrary force. It is also a God who, because He is all-powerful, can and does break the laws of nature to offer miraculous help and succor to those who please Him or simply to manifest His power. It is a God who singles out a particular people, elevating them above all others to praise His name. It is a God who is jealous of His people, demanding their undivided loyalty and praise.
The connection we need to be exploring is what kind of political order is fostered by our fundamental God images, symbols and rituals. How do our basic images of God legitimate or critique our institutions of governance?
In this God, the sole power underlying the universe, all authority is gathered into one undivided source. It is “God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth,” as the Nicene Creed states. It is the Pater Potestas of ancient Roman law. Monarchies and empires from the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century to King James I in the seventeenth have sought to anchor their monarchical rule in the divine image itself. It is also the image that has legitimated the rule of fathers over their households for millennia. It is the father-ruler the Greeks called a despot. The despot controlled everything in the household—women, children, slaves, animals, and goods of any kind. That this image of the all-powerful father could justify altruistic love as well as cruel punishment springs from the belief that God is free to create reality, law, and the universe as He pleases. So great is his jealous claim to people’s praise that He would have his son executed to satisfy his own honor, as held in the doctrine of substitutionary atonement so strongly held in evangelical circles.
This image of the all-powerful father has also been a halo for great male preachers who have brought the Word of God to evangelical churches over the past two centuries. The revival anchored in the charismatic power of the (male) preacher has become a powerful form shared not only by rock band superstars but by Trump himself, who has anchored his presidency in a continuing revival some observers see as a cult of devoted believers insulated from any reality not created by his word. In submitting to the control of the all-powerful One people feel they can control their own lives and those subordinated to them. They gain a sense of domination by submitting their lives to one who dominates them.
The pervasive presence of these images of all-powerful rule in Christian worship has schooled Christians over the centuries to live out this relationship to a heavenly despot in every sector of their life—family, economy, and political governance. It is against this historic alliance between throne and altar in Europe that the American revolutionaries created a constitutional republic that would be severed from this historic root of monarchical legitimation. Governance would be founded on a reason that places scientific law rather than divine will at the foundation of our public loyalties. Only a radical separation between traditional Christian worship and Constitutional order could prevent the return of the religiously inspired despotism they feared.
Thomas Jefferson’s “separation” between religion and government was necessary in order to protect the fledgling experiment in divided sovereignty (the three branches of government), rule “under the law,” the resolution of conflict through reasoned persuasion, and governance through legally constrained, impersonal offices accountable to “the People.” Under that separation, the churches came to see their monarchical symbolism as a purely personal and otherworldly matter separate from the political world, where it has shaped family and personal life as well as private businesses for the past two centuries. It has been a governing image for plantations and corporations alike. Appeal to the heavenly, all-powerful father has permeated the folk piety of petitionary prayer, the search for forgiveness in the face of God’s wrath, the belief that someone is “in control” of a chaotic world, and longing for a perfect world yet to come beyond this world of sin, loss, and destruction. In all these forms of piety God is the despot in our head and relationships as well as in our house of worship.
We must face more squarely the task of refashioning a conception of God and worship that is engaged in a positive as well as prophetic relationship with the democratic, constitutional, and republican journey which has inspired people around the world for the past two hundred years.
In the separated, non-established churches that aligned with the American experiment in republican governance the personal ethic of following Jesus came to replace the elaborate teachings of natural law, church hierarchy, and casuistries developed by an institutional church supported by state power characteristic of the Europe they had left behind. The personal fear of and devotion to the despotic God of the Bible, with a vivid sense of divine retribution as well as divine providence, could undergird lives of honesty, charity, public service, and self-sacrifice that energized much of public life in the fledgling democracy. Only a people who feared hell and hoped for heaven could discipline their passions to serve the common good of the republic. But the despot in the soul also slowed the advance of women’s equality in home and public. It also led to a crusading sense about warfare, including the removal of America’s original inhabitants, a retributive conception of criminal justice, and an exploitative “dominion” over the non-human world.
Both the individualistic ethic of following Jesus, which has often fostered enormous works of self-sacrificial charity, and the worship of a despotic God were nurtured in the churches of the new American republic. However, the deep thrust of biblical religion to create a consistent “kingdom” embracing all sectors of life has always burst out of the bonds of separation established in this republic of Enlightenment reason and secularity. America would be a new Israel fashioned in the mold of Davidic messianism. Most of the time this compelling vision has led to utopian religious experiments, whether among the Shakers and Owenites or the Latter-day Saints. With evangelical support of Donald Trump, it has now reached out to capture the governmental institutions themselves. We need to recognize how this institutional vision of a unified religio-governmental culture and a theological image of God as all-powerful monarch is driving the devotion to Trump apart from an ethical analysis of his public or private life. And it is this image that is rehearsed regularly in both evangelical and other Christian churches. It is also at the core of much of the devotion in the other great religious streams descended from ancient Semitic religion.
While there are many other social, economic, and geo-political factors driving the present turn to despotic governance, we need to recognize that as a religious matter we face not so much a struggle between true and false disciples of Jesus as we do a conflict between the dominant conception of God at the heart of Christian worship and the claims of a constitutional, democratic republic. What we do with this historic pattern of worship is the problem before us. We may have reached the end of the Enlightenment doctrine of “separation” and “non-establishment” that sequestered Christian worship safely away from the function of governmental legitimation. We must face more squarely the task of refashioning a conception of God and worship that is engaged in a positive as well as prophetic relationship with the democratic, constitutional, and republican journey which has inspired people around the world for the past two hundred years.
Christians need to watch their ethics and walk the narrow path that follows the higher calling in Jesus’s teachings. But we also have to watch how we worship, taking care that our patterns of worship are not undermining the republican orders and democratic participation that have claimed our hard-won loyalties over the past two centuries.
While it is a daunting challenge to wean ourselves from the vision of God and the forms of worship fostered in the Western church for the past 1500 years, the materials are at hand for this refashioning of our worship life. The image of God as retributive and merciful despot is not the only one in our biblical and Christian history. The “I Am” at the heart of Moses’s mission to liberate the ancient Hebrews has always been a door to a different conception of the Holy. The image of Wisdom that underlies the presence of God in the Way taught in the Torah as well as the Wisdom books of the Old Testament and the Johannine literature of the New Testament also offers conceptions we can draw on. The whole of Biblical tradition that sees us in covenantal partnership with the divine also offers vistas of a different understanding of our life together as well as our life eternal. And, indeed, out of the covenantal tradition came the root legitimation for constitutionalism itself.
For Christians, the conception of God as Trinity can also be a very fruitful starting point. The Trinity has often appeared in worship in its monarchical and patriarchal form, something that is clutched in deep devotion not only by evangelicals but by many other Christians, especially in churches formed within a monarchical culture. In popular imagination the Trinity formed a pyramid of hierarchical rule from the Father to the Son, assisted by the feminine Spirit. However, there are many other ways to understand the Trinity: as “dance” (Richard Rohr), as process of becoming (process theologians like John Cobb), as dynamic of creativity (Charles Hartshorne), as agential-organic (Sally McFague), and as atomic existence itself. In various ways, they can support a conception of differentiated governmental authority, of spirited participation in governing power by individual citizens, of law anchored in the depths of God’s being rather than God’s arbitrary will.
Christians can also take seriously the root conception of “God’s Word” that is at the heart of so much Evangelical and wider Christian worship. Rather than reinforcing the belief that the words of the preacher (or charismatic politician) create our reality, we can recover the original meaning of “Word of God” in the Gospels as indicating the reality of Christ, both the principle of creation and of redemption (John 1). If the “Word” is the personal creative presence of God, we might begin to refashion worship not merely as hearing the preacher but rehearsing, in symbolic forms, the Christ presence in forgiveness, service, healing, compassion, and resurrected living. Worship would bring people together in many lateral relationships of communication and mutual care rather than obedience to the single voice of the charismatic speaker.
Yes, Christians need to watch their ethics and walk the narrow path that follows the higher calling in Jesus’s teachings. But we also have to watch how we worship, taking care that our patterns of worship are not undermining the republican orders and democratic participation that have claimed our hard-won loyalties over the past two centuries. We need to ask ourselves what image of God animates our worship—its words, format, order, music, and architecture— and what form of political order this worship legitimates. While we need to continually expand the participation of groups and persons long excluded from the public, we also must ask what kind of authoritative public order people are to be liberated for, what kind of public life we are called to participate in. This is a deeply theological matter. Our response to it is dramatized in worship each week, whether we are conscious of it or not. It is a fundamental way we engage our culture in critique as well as celebration. It is a doorway not only into understanding what is dividing political orders around the world but also into ways we might revitalize the constitutional order so many of us cherish.
William Johnson Everett is Herbert Gezork Professor of Christian Social Ethics, Emeritus, at Andover Newton Seminary at Yale. He is the author of the recently reprinted book God’s Federal Republic: Reconstructing our Governing Symbol (Wipf and Stock, 2019).