Some avowedly pious men and women have, of late, explained their support of President Donald Trump by citing the example of King David, a sinner whom the Lord used for his purposes, and whose faults—crimes, even—were redeemed by the good he did. According to this line of thinking advanced by politicians, activists, and even clerics of different hues, Trump may have wandered far from the straight path, but he is nonetheless doing God’s work.
One of the president’s Cabinet secretaries recently averred on Fox News that the president is, as some claim, the chosen one. “God uses imperfect people through history. King David wasn’t perfect,” Rick Perry said, before relating that he’d told the president that he embodies “God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet in our government.” All kinds of people invoke scripture to support their argument. But this claim bears examination premised not on impatience with faith but rather profound respect for the Book of Books.
The Bible describes many bad men, or men with bad characteristics, working the Almighty’s will on Earth, albeit usually as scourges bringing devastation to a sinning people. But let us take this one at face value: Is Trump plausibly understood as a latter-day King David?
The differences are striking. David volunteered to do unequal battle with Goliath, and went on to a spectacular military career, greeted on his return from the front by women dancing with timbrels and lutes, crying, “Saul has struck down his thousands and David his tens of thousands!” Trump, by contrast, is most emphatically not a war hero. David spared the mad King Saul, who sought his life. When Saul and his son, David’s friend Jonathan, perished in battle with the Philistines, he keened over their loss in a haunting lament. It is difficult to imagine Trump having the same instincts, let alone eloquence, in an analogous case.
But much more profoundly and seriously, the equation of David and Trump betrays a terrible misreading of the Bible. The Book of Samuel and the Book of Psalms attributed to David reveal him to be an exceptionally complex figure, and not just a (forgivably) bad guy who does good things at divine direction, or at least by divine intent. He is, after all, the sweet singer of Israel, whose religious poems even now echo several times a day in the ears and hearts of the devout. And those psalms show a man as utterly different from the American president as a person can be.
David often portrays himself as wracked with guilt and fear:
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am wretched.
Heal me, for my limbs are stricken …
I weary in my sighing.
I make my bed swim every night, with my tears I water my couch.
The psalms attributed to David appeal to the Rock of Ages, portraying their author as bereft, vulnerable, outcast, and in mortal peril. Contrast this with a man who always describes himself as the greatest, the smartest, and the most capable, who preens about his wealth and his health, and who despises tears in himself and in others.
Nor does God (or man, for that matter) simply disregard David’s sins or dismiss them as peccadilloes that might perhaps merit private punishment but no public reaction. David lusted after Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, the Book of Samuel relates. He arranged to have her husband, Uriah the Hittite, placed in the front of a desperate attack. He died, and the king carried off the widow. Not quite murder, perhaps, but a foul and tricky deed.
In the next chapter, Nathan the prophet stormed into the royal palace, and told the startled David a story about a rich man who has stolen a poor man’s ewe. When David expressed indignation at the villain of the tale, Nathan thundered at him, “You are the man!” And then followed David’s doom, intoned in the name of the God of Israel:
“And so now, the sword shall not swerve from your house evermore, seeing as you have despised Me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.” Thus says the Lord, “I am about to raise up evil against you from your own house, and I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your fellow man, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it in secret but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun.”
David confessed and repented, but the doom came nonetheless. His son Absalom revolted against him, he was chased from his throne (which he recovered after much hardship); he was humiliated by his inferiors; and he ends his days in the midst of another son’s revolt, decrepit and apparently impotent. David’s sin was not only a private sin, and it did not receive a merely private punishment. Nor did he alone suffer: His humiliation included a revolt that turned his kingdom upside down, and led to waves of political murders even after his death. Apparently, the Ancient of Days was not willing to let bygones be bygones.
Those who invoke scripture to bolster the 45th president would do well to contemplate Nathan, the outraged herald of a piercing truth, rather than the sinner David. In the Hebrew Bible—and that, after all, is the text being invoked—the role of religious leaders is not to disregard sin but to denounce it. Take pervasive falsehood, for example:
And each man tricks his fellow, and truth they do not speak.
They have taught their tongue to speak lies, they are worn out from wrongdoing.
Your dwelling is in the midst of deceit.
And so, Jeremiah says, “For these shall I not reckon with them, said the Lord, from a nation like this shall I not be avenged?”
It is upon the powerful who oppress the defenseless—the widow, the orphan, and above all the stranger—that the Hebrew prophets pour out their rage. Their proper focus is on the misdeeds of kings and priests, not on making excuses for them, and they tell the elites of Jerusalem that it is their callousness toward the weak and defenseless, their lust for wealth, and their lies that will lead to the destruction of their city. And formal piety of the kind displayed by the president’s religious apologists cannot redeem such offenses, for God declares: “I hate, I spurn your festivals, and smell no fragrance in your convocations.”
At its core, the David comparison is, in fact, sacrilegious. “Cursed be the man who trusts in humans, and makes mortal flesh his strong arm,” Jeremiah declares in the name of the Lord. The worship of power or of wealth is an affront, in the eyes of the Bible, to the Master of the Universe. It is a perversion of scripture to use it to celebrate a king, or indeed, a president, and particularly one whose character is flawed beyond repair.
What the David analogizers are unintentionally showing us is how swiftly religion used to serve the ends of politics becomes twisted and corrupted. We see this corruption of religion in its more monstrous forms in places like the Islamic Republic of Iran, but in a small way, it is felt in the United States today by preachers who celebrate unrepentant sinners.
It was part of the genius of the Founders of the United States that they understood that by acknowledging religion yet prohibiting its establishment, they were enhancing its moral power. When the faithful draw on their belief to help us see evil for what it is, to mobilize our consciences and steel our hearts to fight against it, they make their country stronger. When they use it to excuse or, worse, glorify their political patrons, they are, as it were, building altars on the high places to baal, and bringing the souls of their followers that much closer to the fires of Moloch.
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