For many Republicans, the presidency of Barack Obama felt like a Babylonian exile. America was in ruins, and Donald Trump surveyed them—seeing, as he said in his inaugural address, “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” as evidence of a broader “American carnage.”
Among these Republicans have been Christian pastors, many of whom came (with a few notable holdouts) to support Donald Trump as the ultimate outsider who could fix Washington. Speaking for many of them, on Inauguration Day, the Reverend Robert Jeffress of Texas was chosen to give the sermon at the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church across Lafayette Square from the White House. Addressing Trump, Trump’s family, and the assembled worthies, the Southern Baptist Jeffress compared the soon-to-be 45th President to Nehemiah.
“You see what a sorry state we are in,” cried the prophet in the Book of Nehemiah, Chapter 2, verse 17. “Jerusalem is in ruins and its gates have been burnt down. Come on, we must rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and put an end to our humiliation!” To make Jerusalem great again, Nehemiah believed he had to reverse all of the decisions of the previous administrations and impose on the Jews returning to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile a strict version of the Jewish Law.
Jeffress preached straight from that part of the Hebrew Scriptures, and in so doing, took part in a long tradition that we might call “the American nehemiad”—the enjoining of the leader to save his beleaguered people.
Builder and Enforcer
The original Nehemiah, recall, was cupbearer to the Persian emperor Artaxerxes. While serving the emperor, he persuaded Artaxerxes to send him to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls. The leaders of neighboring satrapies considered Nehemiah an upstart. As he began construction, these rivals—Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem—asked that he cease operations until they had met in the Plains of Ono to discuss the matter.
Nehemiah refused, responding that he was “doing a great work . . .Why should I come down to you?”
The three conspired against him. They sowed discord, menaced workers with brigands, sent a false prophetess to warn of doom, and tried to persuade the emperor that Nehemiah had betrayed him. Nehemiah persisted in his project, only responding by arming Jews to stand guard over it. In a mere 52 days, he prevailed over his adversaries and rebuilt the city’s walls.
Nehemiah enforced the Law as a conservative populist. He demanded that Jewish creditors forgive loans taken out by other Jews. He forced Jews who had married non-Jews to divorce. He closed the city gates on the Sabbath to prevent commerce on the day of rest. When he discovered Tobiah had leased storage in the temple, he emptied the room of its contents out of respect for the sanctity of the Temple and, almost certainly, because of his contempt for the man.
The American Nehemiad
American pastors have for centuries used Nehemiah’s energetic example to exhort elected leaders, especially executives, from the pulpit. This tradition of “the nehemiad” has three outstanding features.
First, it unites piety with patriotism. Good governors must be pious examples to be true patriots, and they are patriotic servants of the people because of their piety.
Second, the nehemiad has the church supporting, and instructing alongside, the state. Nehemiah knew how to govern because he had the Law to guide him, just as American executives can look to Scripture and the church as resources for good governance.
Lastly, it stresses perseverance in the face of opposition. A good governor cannot expect an easy term in office, since fidelity to the Law will invariably be distressing to the unfaithful. They will at every turn attempt to undermine “the great work” and return to the ways that caused the city’s decline.
The Puritans had a long tradition of treating Nehemiah as an exemplar of good government, which made him a useful subject for Puritan election-day sermons. Look, for example, at the homily preached by Jonathan Mitchel in Boston in 1667. Mitchel’s sermon, Nehemiah on the Wall in Troublesom [sic] Times, was directed at voters, so that they would be made aware that faithful adherence to “Gods [sic] Commandments are the Rule of man’s good” and “the chief and last end of the Civil Policy,” but also so they would know that, as was true in the case of Nehemiah, ahead lay “difficulties and troubles.”
The Massachusetts divine Cotton Mather, in his 1702 Magnalia Christi Americana, elevated John Winthrop as the ideal of the Puritanical governor. Mather anointed Winthrop the “Nehemias Americanus” in recognition of his “Holy Zeal.” Mather called Winthrop “a Zealous Enemy to all Vice” and a “Ruler in Managing the Publick Affairs of our American Jerusalem, when there were Tobijahs [sic] and Sanballats enough to vex him.”
George Washington, too, embraced Nehemiah. While serving beside Washington at the Battle of Loyalhanna during the French and Indian War, the Presbyterian minister Andrew Bey mentioned that he preached a sermon on Nehemiah 4:14 at Washington’s request. The passage he drew upon says (in the King James Version):
And I looked, and rose up, and said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses.
During the 1775 siege of Boston, Abigail Adams invoked this passage in a letter to her husband John. She wrote to him that she wished to be
like Good Nehemiah having made our prayer with God, and set the people with their Swords, their Spears, and their bows we will say until them, Be not affraid [sic] of them. Remember the Lord who is great and terrible, and fight for your Breathren [sic], your sons and your daughters, your wives and your houses.
After independence, Washington became heir to the title of Nehemias Americanus. There are many examples, but let this one from 1790, from John Cosens Ogden, suffice:
Nehemiah is that noble character, in whom we see the likeness of the beloved President of these States. Heaven has, in love, pointed them both to us, as patterns by which to regulate our actions, each in his sphere, whether in stations that are sacred or civil.
In the 1830s, as the Second Great Awakening began, the nehemiad shifted from political theology to missionary work. Preachers now made Sanballat represent congregational stinginess to fund evangelization or refusal to observe the Sabbath. Politics remained beneath the surface, however, as preachers identified secular government as the walls defending the temple of Jerusalem. The contemporary American example was religious liberty for churches, which would enable them to perform the “great work” of evangelization.
Evangelist Charles Finney’s Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835) made the Old Light Presbyterians into Sanballats as compared to his heroic New Light Nehemiah. Finney, too, used the language of “a great work” to advocate a new activism that would bring a “Revival of Religion.” Having to treat with the Old Lights, like Albert Baldwin Dodd of Princeton University, was to steal time from this urgent task and go “down into the plains of Ono, and the works must cease.”
Finney held revivals to combat the twin evils besetting America: intemperance and slavery. To end both required a Christian nation. Americans had to convert to true Christianity, said Finney, because “God cannot sustain this free and blessed country . . . unless the church take the right ground.” Revivals made more Christians but also brought Christianity in America back to its moral foundations. To shut down the revivals, as Finney’s rival churchmen wanted to do, would tempt God to strike with the “rod of WAR” held over all nations.
New Right, Old Role Model
In our time, the heirs to the nehemiad have been the Southern Baptists like Reverend Jeffress. During the 1980s, Jerry Falwell had used the nehemiad to mobilize fundamentalist Christians on behalf of conservative Republican candidates for elective office. Falwell enjoined his flock to embrace Nehemiah’s habits of prayer, his staunchness in defense of the nation, and his ability to anticipate opposition from those who hated the church. Here is an excerpt from one of Reverend Falwell’s homilies from 1984:
Our Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshems today are the ACLU, People for the American Way, Norman Lear, the National Education Association, NARAL, NOW, the National Organization of Women, the World Council of Churches, Planned Parenthood, the Abortionists, the pornographers, the liberal politicians. Those are the persons who are against what we’re doing and the liberal clergymen cursing us for doing it. Why? Because somebody has now come to seek the welfare of the children.
Another Southern Baptist minister, David Barton, currently runs an organization intended to restore Christianity in politics. He chose the name “Wallbuilders” because, as his website explains:
In the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, the nation of Israel rallied together in a grassroots movement to help rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and thus restore stability, safety, and a promising future to that great city. We have chosen this historical concept of “rebuilding the walls” to represent allegorically the call for citizen involvement in rebuilding our nation’s foundations.
This, then, is the background of last month’s inauguration sermon by Jeffress, which only gains in aptness considering the campaign issue that propelled the real estate mogul and reality television star to the presidency. How, we may ask, does this sermon for the Trump era stack up as American political theology?
Trump in Troublesome Times
The first thing Jeffress does is invoke the Jewish governor:
When I think of you, President-elect Trump, I am reminded of another great leader God chose thousands of years ago in Israel. The nation had been in bondage for decades, the infrastructure of the country was in shambles, and God raised up a powerful leader to restore the nation. And the man God chose was neither a politician nor a priest. Instead, God chose a builder whose name was Nehemiah.
The secular leader of the United States of America is the new Nehemias Americanus, fated to take a people in exile and rebuild their country. Next we come to the heavies, Sanballat and Tobiah, and their analogues:
They were the mainstream media of their day. They continued to hound and heckle Nehemiah and spread false rumors while he and the Israelites were building the wall.
Unlike Mather with Winthrop, Jeffress has precious little that he can pull from the life of Trump that bespeaks a pious patriotism. Neither is our 45th President much like our first, even conceding the fact that Washington was heterodox in his Christianity. Compared to Trump he might as well have been John Calvin himself. Failing a credible comparison to Nehemiah’s piety, Jeffress instead emphasizes Trump’s experience in bearing up under heavy criticism and in overcoming others’ opposition to his plans and projects. He then alludes to the “tremendous obstacles” faced by the Biblical prophet: “an economic recession, terrorist attacks from enemies, and discouragement among the citizens.”
No, Jeffress’ Trump does not quite live up to the title Nehemias Americanus. Still it doesn’t seem amiss that the inauguration sermon calls on him to look for divine assistance. After all, the stakes could not be higher. “It will take more than” Trump’s “natural ability” to meet the challenges ahead, Jeffress quite sensibly says. “The good news is that the same God who empowered Nehemiah nearly 2,500 years ago is available to every one of us today who is willing to humble himself and ask for His help.”
Interestingly, whereas Falwell’s nehemiad treated all religious Americans as collectively doing “the great work,” in this case, Jeffress puts the monumental task entirely on the shoulders of the Donald.
Let the record show that in one respect, at least, he compares well to his Biblical forerunner. The prophet describes in Nehemiah 2:8-9 how he procured materials for the wall. He had a letter sent to Asaph, “the keeper of the royal park, that he may give me wood for timbering the gates of the temple-citadel and for the city wall and the house I shall occupy.”
The response: “The emperor granted my requests.”
In other words, Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and made the Persians pay for it.