It’s a typical morning segment on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, late in 2016. The controversial Access Hollywood tapes, on which then-candidate Donald Trump can be heard boasting about grabbing women by the genitals, have just been released.
Standing on a sunny street, reporter Chris Mitchell says, “Christians are divided about what to do on Donald Trump.”
Some want to abandon him, he says. Others want to stand with him. But others, he says, are wondering: Does Trump have a “biblical mandate” to become president?
Mitchell runs swiftly through the first two options, citing both a condemnation of Trump and an endorsement by Focus on the Family’s James Dobson. But it’s the third option — that God himself has chosen Trump to be president — that Mitchell focuses on.
Evangelical thinker Lance Wallnau then gives Mitchell his take: Trump is a “modern-day Cyrus,” an ancient Persian king chosen by God to “navigate in chaos.”
Mitchell notes that some evangelicals disagree but does not name or cite them. Instead, he cites the growing threat of China, Russia, and Iran, before Wallnau concludes, “America’s going to have a challenge either way. With Trump, I believe we have a Cyrus to navigate through the storm.”
The comparison comes up frequently in the evangelical world. Many evangelical speakers and media outlets compare Trump to Cyrus, a historical Persian king who, in the sixth century BCE, conquered Babylon and ended the Babylonian captivity, a period during which Israelites had been forcibly resettled in exile. This allowed Jews to return to the area now known as Israel and build a temple in Jerusalem. Cyrus is referenced most prominently in the Old Testament book of Isaiah, in which he appears as a figure of deliverance.
That comparison has become more and more explicit in the wake of Trump’s presidency. Last week, an Israeli organization, the Mikdash Educational Center, minted a commemorative “Temple Coin” depicting Trump and Cyrus side by side, in honor of Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. It was among the most brazen, public links between Trump and Cyrus; one that takes the years of subtext running through outlets like Christian Broadcasting Network and, quite literally, sealed the comparison.
Monday, however, an even higher-profile figure linked Trump and Cyrus. During his visit to Washington, DC, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu heavily implied Trump was Cyrus’s spiritual heir. Thanking Trump for moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, Netanyahu said, “We remember the proclamation of the great King Cyrus the Great — Persian King. Twenty-five hundred years ago, he proclaimed that the Jewish exiles in Babylon can come back and rebuild our temple in Jerusalem...And we remember how a few weeks ago, President Donald J. Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Mr. President, this will be remembered by our people throughout the ages.”
While Cyrus is not Jewish and does not worship the God of Israel, he is nevertheless portrayed in Isaiah as an instrument of God — an unwitting conduit through which God effects his divine plan for history. Cyrus is, therefore, the archetype of the unlikely “vessel”: someone God has chosen for an important historical purpose, despite not looking like — or having the religious character of — an obvious man of God.
For believers who subscribe to this account, Cyrus is a perfect historical antecedent to explain Trump’s presidency: a nonbeliever who nevertheless served as a vessel for divine interest.
For these leaders, the biblical account of Cyrus allows them to develop a “vessel theology” around Donald Trump, one that allows them to reconcile his personal history of womanizing and alleged sexual assault with what they see as his divinely ordained purpose to restore a Christian America.
“I think in some ways this is a kind of baptism of Donald Trump,” says John Fea, a professor of evangelical history at Messiah College in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “It’s the theopolitical version of money laundering, taking Scripture to … clean [up] your candidate.”
This framing allows for the creation of Trump as a viable evangelical candidate regardless of his personal beliefs or actions. It allows evangelical leaders, and to a lesser extent ordinary evangelicals, to provide a compelling narrative for their support for him that transcends the mere pragmatic fact that he is a Republican. Instead of having to justify their views of Trump’s controversial past, including reports of sexual misconduct and adultery, the evangelical establishment can say Trump’s presidency was arranged by God, and thus legitimize their support for him — a support that has begun to divide ordinary evangelicals and create a kind of “schism.”
Trump has capitalized on this idea of “vessel theology”
Numerous evangelical leaders have used the Trump-as-Cyrus comparison to explain how a leader who, while not (originally) religious, might nevertheless figure into a divine historical plan.
In December, Christian evangelical leader Mike Evans made the comparison while praising Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, another act with deep theological connotations. Before seeing Trump right after the announcement, Evans said, “the first word I'm going to say to him, 'Cyrus, you're Cyrus.’” He explained that Cyrus “was used as an instrument of God for deliverance in the Bible, and God has used this imperfect vessel, this flawed human being like you or I, this imperfect vessel, and he's using him in an incredible, amazing way to fulfill his plans and purposes.”
Likewise, last year, Creation Museum founder Ken Ham used the same rhetoric to explain how God had, in his view, brought Trump to power: “God is in total control,” Ham told the Deseret Daily News early last year. “He makes that very clear in the Bible where he tells us that he raises up kings and destroys kingdoms. He even calls a pagan king, Cyrus, his anointed, or his servant to do the things that he wants him to do.”
Adhering the Cyrus motif to an American president — and particularly using it to justify evangelical support of the Trump presidency — is unique.
Anbara Khalidi, a former research associate at University of Oxford’s Wadham College and an expert on American evangelical apocalyptic narratives, says she has not come across the Cyrus narrative in her previous study of evangelicals and politics. “I actually have personally never heard any of the Christian evangelicals I've researched refer to any politician as Cyrus,” she said in an email.
Often, she said, the end-times-conscious evangelical communities she researched in the pre-Trump era were far more reticent to make specific associations between biblical figures and present-day ones.
Khalidi said most evangelicals tend to be “pretty cautious” about associating individuals in history with biblical figures or prophecies. Rather, she says, many evangelicals traditionally speak more generally about “signs of the times” or indicators that the end, more broadly, may be at hand, without speaking specifically about linking modern politicians to given biblical prophecies or parallels.
However, Khalidi said, the Trump-Cyrus association has gained traction in recent years, especially among those “who have recognized its political expediency.” Furthermore, Trump seems to have been encouraged to publicly embrace these associations.
Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem late last year, for example, might have been seen as one such curated response, evoking the historical association between Cyrus and the liberation of the Jewish people as a kind of dog whistle to evangelical voters that he’s on their side.
Fea pointed out that among a certain subset of evangelicals, even innocuous details seem to be evidence of prophecy. The most famous biblical verse about Cyrus as God’s “anointed” is found in Isaiah 45 — and Trump is the 45th president. Wallnau made this connection explicit, telling the Christian Broadcasting Network that God spoke to him directly to tell him, "Isaiah 45 will be the 45th president ... Isaiah 45 is Cyrus.”
Andrew Whitehead, an assistant professor of sociology at Clemson University who focuses on the rise of Christian nationalism, agreed with Fea. “Christian nationalist rhetoric, defending America’s Christian heritage” — all these, he said, were common tropes throughout American history. “But what makes Trump interesting, a test as to the power of this Christian nationalist rhetoric, is that regardless of personal piety … his use of that rhetoric still resonated, and people still voted for him.” Trump managed to capture the evangelical imagination without being particularly evangelical — or, indeed, personally religious — himself.
The Cyrus narrative allows evangelicals to thread a difficult rhetorical needle. It allows them to see Trump as “their” candidate — a candidate who will effect God’s will that America become a truly Christian nation — without requiring Trump himself to manifest any Christian virtues. He is, like Cyrus, anointed by God and thus has divine legitimacy (Trump’s spiritual advisers, including evangelical figures Robert Jeffress and Paula White, have repeatedly hammered this point), but he has no obligation to live out Christian principles in his personal life.
According to Fea, this narrative works because it allows evangelicals to capitalize on Trump’s “strongman” persona — in practical terms, his ability to get votes — while allowing them to justify their support theologically and preserve their sense of Trump as a God-backed candidate.
Someone like Ted Cruz, Fea says, may initially have been a “purer candidate” as far as evangelicals were concerned. But when it became clear that Trump was performing better in the Republican primary, they shifted tactics. “They have to have some kind of biblical or theological or Christian reason ... for their support,” he says. But they also have to back a winner.
Fea describes evangelicals’ pivot as somewhat pragmatic. Major evangelical figures like the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins and Focus on the Family’s James Dobson endorsed Cruz before finally endorsing Trump once his nomination became an inevitability.
Trump’s rhetoric ties into and significantly expands on a robust historical tradition of language and thought about God, and a kind of “vessel theology,” in American political history.
Whitehead says the idea that God plays a divine role in politics is nothing new. When it comes to the presidency, narratives of divine intervention have been woven into American cultural discourse from the beginning of what Whitehead calls America's “civil religion,” which he describes as a fusion of political and religious imagery.
For example, after George Washington died, Whitehead said, “stories cropped up about his religiosity, about what a great man he was.”
“Great leaders [have been historically] identified with how God was using them, or that God placed them there for a purpose,” he said. For America, a relatively new nation, this Christian mythos became a foundational element of creating a national identity. “Colonials had closer ties to Britain than they had to each other. Christianity became a part of that.”
Fea concurs. Throughout the early history of America, he notes, American exceptionalism and a particular blend of Christian nationalism — seeing America as a kind of new chosen land for God’s intervention on a parallel with the Israel of the Old Testament — went hand in hand. He references the ideal of the “city on a hill,” an image from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, used by Puritan settler John Winthrop to describe how the new American colonies would serve as a model for Christian living.
Fea references, too, the work of early American revivalist preachers like Jonathan Edwards, who believed the second coming of Christ was imminent in Boston during the 18th century. Fea says the idealistic nature of America’s founding — as a country that believes in “liberty and freedom” — has lent itself to appropriation by Christian narratives. “It’s sort of taking these Enlightenment ideas [of freedom and liberty],” he added. “Since day one, they have been kind of ‘baptized' by evangelicals who say in a very unthoughtful way, ‘America is for freedom. God is for freedom. Therefore, God must privilege the US.’”
This sense that God has “chosen” America as a special people, or that he acts directly in American affairs, has, Fea argues, given us quintessentially American historical phenomena such as Manifest Destiny, the imperialist expansion of the United States across North America.
Therefore, at the very least, the idea that God intervenes directly in American political affairs, and uses American political figures as vessels to effect divine will, is deeply rooted in centuries of Christian nationalism.
Trump’s whole team furthers the Cyrus narrative
The continued prevalence of the Cyrus narrative throughout the campaign and the first year of Trump’s presidency speaks to its longevity and power. But it speaks, too, to the degree to which those around Trump — from his unofficial evangelical advisory council to Christian supporters on CBN — are able to signal to supporters that the evangelical agenda is receiving attention in the White House regardless of Trump’s actions, or even regardless of whether Trump is aware of what’s going on.
After all, Trump himself has mentioned Cyrus just once (and made up a quote in the process). But every time those around Trump mention Cyrus, they’re signaling to their listeners that because Trump is nothing but a vessel for God’s will, he’s also somewhat irrelevant in the scheme of things.
Pay no attention to the man in front of the curtain, they imply. The real work is being done by his evangelical influencers behind the scenes.
But Trump, too, is doing his share of influencing, dog-whistling to evangelical rhetoric of an unexpected or incongruous “divine plan.”
Within that paradigm, his somewhat incongruous anecdote during the State of the Union address about the New Mexico couple that adopted a homeless, heroin-addicted woman’s baby makes far more sense.
Trump says of Ryan Holets, the New Mexico police officer who adopted the baby, that “Ryan said he felt God speak to him: ‘You will do it — because you can.’”
Within the context of a presidential address, the anecdote felt jarring, out of place. But as a theological nod, the anecdote made perfect sense. The image of an unlikely individual chosen unexpectedly by God to shoulder a difficult and divinely ordained burden is a popular narrative within Christian, and more specifically evangelical, discourse.
And it’s a narrative that Trump will continue to capitalize on to keep his evangelical voters close.
Update: this article has been updated to reflect the content of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech.