Trumpvangelicals in the Lion’s Den
Trump’s evangelical advisers are like modern-day Daniels, but without the courage.
The biblical book of Daniel tells the story of Jewish captivity in Babylon. Daniel, a Jew, becomes an adviser to King Nebuchadnezzar after the king recognized Daniel to be a man of wisdom blessed by God. The book describes the tension Daniel and other Jews faced in Babylon as they were challenged to remain true to their faith while serving various kings of Babylon. In chapter 3, for instance, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to worship a golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar. (Spoiler: God saves them.)
When evangelical leaders were first invited to join Trump’s board of religious advisers, I often heard the analogy of Daniel mentioned. Like Daniel, the reasoning went, they should not turn away requests to advise “the king.”
I’m often critical of evangelical leaders associating with Trump, but I’ll admit, this is their best argument. And maybe these evangelicals leaders could have convinced me they were right—if only they behaved more like Daniel.
Chapter 6 of Daniel is one of the Bible’s most-told stories. Babylon is now under the rule of King Darius. Daniel has gained a reputation as an honorable man who remains true to his faith. When he is given additional authority, other Babylonian governors become jealous and set a trap for him. But the only way to trap him is to use his devotion to God against him: “We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God” (verse 5). So they convince Darius to decree that everyone must pray only to him for 30 days, knowing that Daniel will refuse. For his punishment, Daniel is thrown in a lion’s den. (Spoiler: God saves him.)
The “lion’s den” metaphor now often refers to having resolve and courage. For Christians in particular, it’s also used in defense of disobeying government authority. While the Apostle Paul commands us to obey government authority (Romans 13:1), Daniel counterbalances that. When government commands us to disobey God, we must disobey the government and accept the punishment, the book of Daniel teaches.
For example, in California and Nevada, churches sued over quarantine restrictions for worship services. The Supreme Court sided with the state in both cases. In response, California Pastor Tony Suarez, who works for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and is on Trump’s evangelical advisory board, tweeted:
I’ll go to jail before I’ll stop singing to my God!
This just turned into our Daniel chapter six moment.
California has just banned singing/chanting in houses of worship.
— Tony Suarez (@revtonysuarez) July 3, 2020
In Suarez’s view, faithfulness to God is tied to singing in worship, thus the California law must be disobeyed. Most Christians would agree with the principle Suarez is using (though many would question whether helping spread a deadly virus is the place to make that stand).
The civil rights movement often made reference to Daniel. In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” for instance, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved.” King and others in the civil rights movement often followed the example of Daniel in disobeying unjust laws and accepting the punishment.
If Trump’s evangelical advisers want to evoke Daniel as their model, they should model Daniel’s behavior. This would mean three things.
1. They wouldn’t use their position for personal benefit.
In chapter 1, when Nebuchadnezzar first enlists Daniel in his court, Daniel refuses to “defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine.” Daniel understands that he could serve the king but must remain separate from the king to maintain faith and loyalty to God. In accepting the king’s rations, his faith would’ve been in danger of becoming corrupted.
Trump’s evangelical advisers often use their positions for personal benefit. Not only have they literally accepted the king’s rations, attending several White House banquets over the years, they advertise their position, eagerly tweeting photos of themselves with the king to enhance their fame.
2. They would defend truth.
A devoted truth-teller, Daniel didn’t shy away from delivering bad news to the kings he advised. They asked Daniel to interpret their dreams and the literal writing on the wall. It was always bad news but Daniel gave it to them straight.
By contrast, Trump’s evangelical advisers rarely condemn his mistruths and immoral policies, and in some cases defend them.
When news broke that Trump paid hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels, evangelist Franklin Graham said in a January 2018 CNN interview, it “happened 11, 12, 13, 14 years ago . . . that was before he was in office.” But Trump signed the hush money checks and lied about it while in office, the interviewer pointed out. Graham continued to defend Trump, however, noting that Trump denied the payoff. “I think God put him there. . . . And I think the president has changed quite a bit in the last 11 years . . . and I think there’s a maturing of the president,” Graham added. Less than four months later, when evidence of the payoff became public, Trump admitted he had paid Daniels. Even after Trump was caught in a lie, Graham continued to defend him, despite the fact that Trump had made Graham look foolish. In an interview the next day, Graham argued, “Stormy Daniels and so forth is nobody’s business.”
Dr. Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and executive editor of the Christian Post, where I used to work, condemned Trump’s policy of separating migrant children from their families, but wouldn’t criticize Trump by name for implementing the policy. In a June 20, 2018 op-ed, he pointed his finger at Congress and referenced the “government’s policy” but wouldn’t condemn the person responsible for the policy. His only mention of Trump was to say “I am delighted that President Trump has taken executive action to rectify this policy.” So much for speaking truth to power.
3. They would publicly defend God’s word.
Daniel could have quietly opposed the king’s edict in chapter 6. Instead, he prayed in front of a window “open toward Jerusalem” (verse 10), knowing that the punishment would be the lion’s den.
I’ve been told by insiders that Trump’s evangelical advisers challenge him privately. I’m sure Trump is fine with that, as long as they don’t do it publicly. There are only a few examples of his advisers publicly condemning his actions.
On the June 1 incident at Lafayette Square, Trump defiled the Bible by having protesters tear-gassed for a partisan photo op with God’s word. He claims to be a protector of Christianity, but a priest was forcibly removed from the church grounds ahead of his sacrilegious act.
This could have been a Daniel moment for Trump’s evangelical advisers, but most were quiet about it. Some actually praised it. Here’s the reaction of Johnnie Moore, founder of a PR firm that represents many evangelical leaders and one of the Trump evangelical advisory board’s main organizers:
I will never forget seeing @POTUS @realDonaldTrump slowly & in-total-command walk from the @WhiteHouse across Lafayette Square to St. John's Church defying those who aim to derail our national healing by spreading fear, hate & anarchy. After just saying, "I will keep you safe." https://t.co/sH8jLg5pnz
— Rev. Johnnie Moore ن (@JohnnieM) June 1, 2020
Moore would have us believe that Trump, emerging from his bunker and walking across the street surrounded by police and military protection, is the one who demonstrated courage, rather than the people who were tear-gassed for peacefully protesting racism. (There were rioters among the protesters, but most were peaceful, video shows.)
Pastor Jack Graham claimed Trump “demonstrated solidarity with people of faith.” Trump’s evangelical advisers should have stood in solidarity with the protesters condemning racism, not our race-baiter-in-chief.
Proximity to political power has always presented a dangerous temptation for the church. A desire for prestige and worldly victories can easily supersede the Gospel’s call for selfless devotion to the spiritual and physical needs of others. Daniel shows us it can be done, but you must be willing to be thrown to the lions.