An enduring fascination of the Trump moment is the ostensibly unflappable pillar of Evangelical support that helped put him in office. For well-documented reasons it hardly bears repeating that Trump is a most unlikely Evangelical hero.
The prevailing narrative, with some justification, attributes the impetus behind this support to concerns over Supreme Court nominations and the protection of religious freedoms. But these two issues alone hardly explain the theopolitical logic operative in Trump’s steadfast Evangelical support.
For the purposes of probing the possible theopolitical logic that facilitates Evangelical support for Trump, beyond the epiphenomena of the Supreme Court and religious freedom, I propose to examine Calvin’s political theology on the hypothesis that this might illuminate the matter. This exercise does not pretend to divine what Calvin himself might have thought about the Trump Presidency.
What follows is very much the author’s own analysis and application of Calvin’s theopolitical vision to circumstances unknown to Calvin. The ambition is no greater than suggesting a lens through which a possible theopolitical logic might be discerned in Evangelical support for Trump.
Needless to say, not all Evangelicals support Trump and some erstwhile supporters have already recanted. It also goes without saying that not all Evangelicals are Calvinists. Moreover, I make no presumption that those Trump-supporting Evangelicals who are deeply influenced by Calvin’s theology arrived at that decision after scrutinizing book IV, chapter 20, “On Civil Government” of the Institutes—the text examined in this post.
Calvin, however, is an important and revered figure for many Evangelicals, in which case it seems eminently reasonable to posit that his political thought might bear some enduring influence over contemporary Evangelical political theology, and therefore that it might speak in some way to Evangelical support for Trump.
Finally, what follows is an exercise in applied historical political theology for explanatory purposes only. To this end I approach both Calvin and Evangelical support for Trump from a neutral perspective, to the extent to which a neutral perspective on any topic is humanly possible. With that aperitif digested, let us proceed to the meal.
Calvin believed that humans are subject to two kinds of government. There is the “the kingdom of Christ,” which “is situated in the soul…and relates to eternal life,” and there is the “civil government,” which relates to “civil justice and the regulation of external conduct” (Institutes, IV, 20.1).
Calvin was clear that, although these two governments are not at “variance” with one another, they are nevertheless “things very different and remote from each other” (20.1–2). He went so far as to describe it as a “Jewish folly…to seek and include the kingdom of Christ under the elements of this world” (20.1)
An important rationale for making this sharp distinction was the danger that Calvin perceived in both the radical reformation and the Catholic establishment of conflating these two distinct governments. To Calvin’s mind, Anabaptist anarchism subordinated the civil government to a naïve confidence in Christian perfection under the kingdom of Christ on earth, while the Catholic establishment had a tendency to reduce the kingdom of Christ to the civil government, producing “flatterers of princes” who “extol…their power beyond all just bounds” (20.1).
Calvin believed that the most one could hope to witness of the kingdom of Christ during “this mortal and transitory life” was “some preludes of the heavenly kingdom” and “some prelibations of immortal and incorruptible blessedness” (20.2). Civil government therefore remained the pressing tangible political concern for Christians.
Civil government represents a divine order established and upheld by God. Its purpose and function is to “cherish and support the external worship of God,” “preserve the pure doctrine of religion,” “defend the constitution of the Church,” “regulate our lives in a manner requisite for the society of men,” “form our manners to civil justice,” “promote our concord with each other” and “establish general peace and tranquility” (20.2). In short, civil government is about piety, peace and justice. Undergirding this conception of government was Calvin’s keen perception of the threat posed by sin to human co-existence:
For since the insolence of the wicked is so great, and their iniquity so obstinate, that it can scarcely be restrained by all the severity of the laws, what may we expect they would do if they found themselves at liberty to perpetuate crimes with impunity whose outrages even the arm of power cannot altogether prevent?” (20.2).
The idea that human depravity justifies the existence of political order and the exercise of political authority has deep roots in Protestant political thought. Paul Ramsey, for instance, in Basic Christian Ethics argued that “in relations among men in larger groups, political democracy may be given compelling justification only if some reference be made to the problem of restraining and remedying sin” (330). Calvin understood Christian piety to be integral to the establishment of social peace and justice. Indeed, he elevated Christian piety as the most important end of government: “no government can be happily constituted unless its first object be the promotion of piety” (20.9).
In keeping with the prevailing Christian attitudes of his day, and drawing on a well-established Catholic exegetical tradition retained by magisterial reformers, Calvin believed that civil magistrates receive “their command from God…[and]…are invested with his authority and are altogether his representatives, and act as his vicegerents” (20.4).
Ideally, a ruler so vested with God’s authority ought to reflect the image of the creator in their rule: “it behooves them to watch with all care, earnestness, and diligence, that in their administration they may exhibit to men an image, as it were, of the providence, care, goodness, benevolence, and justice of God” (20.6). The qualities befitting a Christian magistrate include, according to Calvin, “an ardent pursuit of integrity, prudence, clemency, moderation, and innocence” (20.6).
However, Calvin thought all magistrates, irrespective of character, were owed obedience, respect and honor by dint of the divine origin of their appointment and the divine authority vested in their office:
…a man of the worst character, and most undeserving of all honor, who holds the sovereign power, really possesses that eminent and Divine authority which the Lord has given by his word to the ministers of his justice and judgment; and, therefore…he ought to be regarded by his subjects, as far as pertains to public obedience, with the same reverence and esteem which they would show to the best of kings, if such a one were granted to them” (20.25)
In part, this idea is premised on a distinction Calvin made between the dignity of the office of magistrate and the character of its occupant:
I am not speaking of the persons as if the mask of dignity ought to palliate or excuse folly, ignorance, or cruelty, and conduct the most nefarious and flagitious, and so to acquire for vices the praise due to virtues; but I affirm that the station itself is worthy of honor and reverence, so that, whoever our governors are, they ought to possess our esteem and veneration on account of the office which they fill” (20.22)
It also stems from the notion that God at times exercises his wrath against nations and peoples through their rulers for the purposes of their admonishment or punishment: “for sometimes he raises up some of his servants as public avengers” (20.30). Calvin offered but one caveat to this general rule of obedience. In the event that a ruler commanded something against God, then the Christian subject was not obligated to comply in respect of that command (20.32).
On the basis of this foray into Calvin’s political theology one can readily begin to see how a contemporary Evangelical might construe their support for Trump as finding justification in Calvin’s political theology. An Evangelical might point to Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, for instance, with his strong record of defending religious rights, along with Trump’s executive order promoting free speech and religious liberty, as evidence that Trump is, in some sense and to some extent, promoting Christian piety in America.
A critic, of course, might counter that these actions fall far short of what Calvin understood as Christian piety and the civil government’s role in promoting it. But Evangelicals could retort that in the context of the United States, where the choice in 2016 was that between a Trump presidency or a Clinton presidency, they backed the candidate most likely to promote Christian piety as they conceive it.
Many Evangelicals evidently feel that Trump has already vindicated their support. It is also bears consideration that many Evangelicals feared, rightly or wrongly, that a Clinton presidency would have led to the regression of Christian piety in America, making the choice rather clear cut.
Evangelicals might further point to Trump’s stance on Islam and immigration, again rightly or wrongly, as promoting peace and stability in America. Moreover, they might point to Gorsuch as evidence that Trump is fulfilling his duty to promote justice. The point is this: within the relative possibilities and constraints of the contemporary American political context, an Evangelical might form the view that Trump is fulfilling the divine mandate of government, on a Calvinist interpretation, to an extent that warrants their ongoing support.
That said, the available evidence impels one to the conclusion that Trump falls well short of the ideal character of a Christian magistrate as envisioned by Calvin. Moreover, while Calvin ultimately recommends submission to magistrates of poor character, he does not instruct silence with regard to poor character, nor the celebration of poor character. The extent to which Trump’s evangelical supporters have achieved an appropriate balance, within a Calvinist framework, between esteem for the office of president and reprobation of the character of the occupant is an open question.
In any event, while Trump ought to reflect the image of God, particularly as one who professes Christian faith, the character flaws he manifests in both his personal and public life do not disqualify him from exercising God’s authority, according to Calvin’s understanding of civil government.
Notwithstanding the shrillest rhetoric of Trump’s critics, he is no Nebuchadnezzar, the quintessential tyrant Calvin cited as evidence that God raises up servants to exact his wrath. Trump no doubt looks more like a David to evangelical supporters given his sympathetic disposition towards Evangelical concerns about Christian piety and the Christian character of America.
But given even a Nebuchadnezzar can exercise God’s authority and command obedience and respect, it is not difficult to see how an evangelical influenced by Calvin could bring him or herself to support a latter-day David.
One of the hallmarks of Calvin’s political theology that seems find resonance in contemporary American Evangelical political theology is a type of pragmatic political realism. The sharp distinction Calvin draws between the heavenly kingdom of Christ and the earthly civil government, his belief that the primary purpose of government is to restrain and remedy human wickedness, and his understanding that sometimes God exercises his authority through oppression, leaves little room for the type of Utopianism often on display in other parts of the Christian theopolitical tradition, not to mention a host of secular political philosophies.
The fallen nature of humanity means that perfection must await the coming reign of Christ. As a corollary, it also necessitates certain compromises during our earthly pilgrimage on the way to “our true country” (20.2). This can be seen in Calvin’s support for the necessary evils, in appropriate circumstances, of capital punishment, war, and the occasional tyrant.
Within this Calvinist theopolitical framework Evangelical support for Trump begins to look less like a pact with the Devil and more like a prudent and pragmatic choice consistent with the divine ends of government in light of the possibilities and constraints dictated by human nature and the realities of the current American political context.