About a week ago, preacher Franklin Graham and U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry dropped bombshells that are causing me to write about something I would have never dreamed needed to be addressed in this country.
Mind you, they are not alone. Others of their ilk have been saying similar things over the last few years. Perry stated point blank that God has chosen Trump to carry out His plan. Graham stated that those opposed to Trump may be acting under demonic influence. I’m not making this up — just Google it.
Graham and Perry are, knowingly or not, displaying a belief in something that used to be called the Divine Right of Kings. What the heck is that and how the heck did it get brought back to life in America, of all places? The Divine Right of Kings was something that had its roots, to some degree, in the medieval period. Both Augustine and Aquinas affirmed the rule of emperors and kings was authenticated by God. However, it is crucially important to note they also said all secular rulers’ powers must be exercised in ways that were never counter to Christian teaching and morality — meaning the power of the Pope and the Church trumped (pardon the expression) the power of kings. There were two types of authority: sacred and secular, and the pre-Reformation Church taught and demonstrated that these two were often at odds with each other.
However, with the arrival of Martin Luther in Germany and then King Henry VIII in England, the two-pronged understanding of ultimate authority went out the window. Luther opened a window for the ruler of Saxony and in 1534, Henry VIII opened the door and rode the horse out of the barn, shutting down the Catholic Church in England and declaring himself the supreme head of the Church in England. By being king, he thereby held supreme secular and sacred authority. A little over 50 years later, King James I published his essay “The True Law of Free Monarchies,” in which the full-blown Divine Right of Kings theory/theology was presented: namely, the power of the king comes directly from God and is subject to no other figure of earthly authority.
To no small degree, the American Revolution was fought over this exact issue. A central point in the Declaration of Independence is rulers derive their authority from the people and not from God, and governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This bold statement was an explicit, and clearly understood, rejection of Divine Right and the right of the King of Great Britain to rule over the colonies. This was also one of the reasons why God is not mentioned in the Constitution and we were never to have a king (and his attendant Divine Right) under the laws of our new government.
Nonetheless ... here we are in 2019, and we find ourselves listening to Republican politicians and evangelical preachers proclaim our current president has received his ultimate authority, his Divine Right, directly from God — and to oppose him is tantamount to opposing the will of God. Do these politicians and preachers have absolutely no understanding of the most basic facts of American history? Have they never read our founding documents? (Scandalously, the answer is probably yes to both questions.)
To make matters even worse, these very same politicians and preachers are all the time calling themselves “true patriots.” This would be hilarious if it weren’t so profoundly tragic. Ignorance on this scale is the stuff the destruction of a nation is made of. As a former academic, I have to say a good deal of the blame for this has to be placed on the front steps of every Education Department of every college in America. They have played a major role, for the last 40 years, in encouraging our country’s primary and secondary education systems to become more and more focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and less and less focused on civics, social studies and history.
So here we are: We have now allowed our country to revert to believing in the Divine Right of Kings, something that was supposedly put to death by the American and French revolutions over 200 years ago. It sounds absurd, but this reversion has happened for a significant percentage of our population. The most important function of education in a democracy is to assure there is an informed electorate that understands their history. We don’t have that now and we’re paying a high price for the oversight.
There has been a human tendency, seen over thousands of years, to affirm heavenly authority for rulers. It was true in ancient Egypt, for example, and also during the formative centuries of Christianity, when the Roman emperors were declared to be “sons of god” and they received worship in temples. However, the simple fact is not everything our ancestors did was a good idea. Claiming that secular rulers rule from divine authority was a really bad idea. As a matter of fact, the early Christians refused to participate in the Roman Cult of the Emperor and a fair number of them were killed for it. All they had to do was offer a handful of grain at a temple, but thousands of them refused. It was a matter of principle.
I’m well aware that in Paul’s Letter to the Romans (13) he says, “Obey the rulers ... only God can give authority to anyone and He puts these rulers in their places of power.” But simplistic, literal, “inerrant” reading of a passage like this misses the whole point: Context is crucial. He was writing to early Christians who had to get along in society without getting themselves killed. Moreover, his advice here didn’t work: Shortly after, he wrote this letter the imperial government started killing Christians. In fact, they killed Paul himself — even though he was a Roman citizen.
Today’s evangelical fundamentalist voting block needs to remind itself that Jesus, Peter and Paul, and many early Christian martyrs were all killed by secular governmental authorities. The early Church, even after the reign of Constantine the Great, was respectful but always wary of secular government — for good reason. If American fundamentalists want to stay true to “the fundamentals” of Christianity, then they need to stay far away from claiming any form of Divine Right for any politician. Nothing is more un-Christian or more unpatriotic than that. Nothing.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.