The Story Behind Those ‘Jesus 2020’ Signs
The lawn signs suggest support for Trump, but they don’t exactly mean that Trump is Jesus
“Jesus 2020” signs have sprouted up like weeds on the front lawns of Trump supporters across America. They’re also standing tall like battle standards over the crowds at rallies like Prayer March 2020, a recent political extravaganza held in Washington, D.C., where leaders of the Christian Right masqueraded their Trumpvangelicalism as the only true political expression of Christianity.
These increasingly widespread signs began with the efforts of two women from a Baptist church in Alabama. “We’re trying to keep politics out of this,” one said, declining to endorse either major party candidate. “Our focus is on Jesus.”
One problem: There’s nobody named Jesus on the 2020 presidential ballot. So what do these signs really mean?
Outsiders might take these signs as confirmation that Republican Christians believe Trump is the second coming of Christ. They have limited evidence of this belief at work: For instance, in 2018, a Christian group posted a billboard showing Trump alongside the biblical quote “The Word became flesh”; during the impeachment hearings Georgia Rep. Barry Loudermilk compared Trump’s trial to Jesus’ trial under Pontius Pilate; and last year, Trump himself retweeted the false and anti-Semitic claim that Israeli Jews love Trump “like he is the second coming of God.”
But as much as liberals like to joke that the Christian Right worships Trump, the simple formula Donald Trump = Jesus Christ misrepresents right-wing Christians’ theological justifications for Trump. Instead, the Christian Right generally describes Trump as “chosen,” “anointed,” and “appointed” by God. Trump embraces this designation as the “Chosen One” and declares that God is “on our side.” The fact that Trumpvangelicals interpret Trump as God’s appointed leader, but not as Christ himself, is important, because this offers plausible deniability for anything Trump does that conflicts with traditional Christian morals.
Right-wing Christians have tended to focus on King David and the Persian emperor Cyrus as models for Trump; both of these men are described as messiahs in the Bible. The English word “messiah” comes from the Hebrew mashiach, which means “anointed (with oil)” and was translated into Greek as christos. Jesus was called christos — Christ — but he wasn’t the first. Kings and high priests were ceremonially anointed with oil in ancient Israel to signify that they have been appointed by God to protect his chosen people, Israel.
Franklin Graham, Trump’s most influential evangelical advisor and the host of Prayer March 2020, was one of the first to suggest King David as a model for Trump. David was appointed by God even though he was capable of sins like having a sexual affair with a married woman and killing her husband. Adultery and murder, so it goes, don’t disqualify someone from being an agent of God.
David and Cyrus aren’t sinless and perfect like Christ, but are instead sinners granted divine authority to defend God’s chosen people
A more popular model is Cyrus, the only non-Jew named as messiah in the Bible. The book of Isaiah describes Cyrus as the “anointed” instrument God used to subdue nations in order to restore Israel to the promised land, ending the exile imposed by the Babylonians. Lance Wallnau, who thinks America should be a Christian theocracy, has been the foremost salesman for the idea that Trump is a new Cyrus — he markets commemorative coins depicting Trump and Cyrus together, among other merchandise.
As with David, the Cyrus model excuses the anointed one’s sins, but it goes further in two key ways. First, it asserts that God may appoint pagan outsiders to protect his people. And, second, it celebrates this pagan outsider guarding God’s people by any means necessary, including militaristic violence.
When right-wing Christians speak of Trump as “chosen,” “anointed,” or “appointed” by God, David and Cyrus are the models they usually have in mind. They aren’t sinless and perfect like Christ, but are instead sinners granted divine authority to defend the rights of God’s chosen people from their enemies at any cost.
While the Jesus 2020 signs don’t necessarily mean that Trump is Jesus, they do gesture to the idea that God chose Trump to “restore” power to those who confess faith in Jesus.
During the 2016 speech at a Christian college where Trump famously said he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” he went on to make a pact with his Christian base. “Christianity is under tremendous siege, whether we want to talk about it or we don’t want to talk about it… Christianity will have power. If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power…” The conditions of this transaction are clear: If the Christian Right supports Trump, he’ll use executive orders and Supreme Court nominations to guarantee them even more power that they already have.
Trump’s pact with conservative Christians excludes non-Christians and progressive Christians. As Kristin Kobes Du Mez explains in Jesus and John Wayne, Christian nationalists like Trump’s supporters believe they are God’s chosen people and America is God’s chosen nation. But they also think their vision of Christian America should be defended as such. According to Du Mez, the Christian Right has since the mid-20th century developed a culture that exalts a form of “rugged, aggressive, militant white masculinity” modeled after modern icons like John Wayne more than the Jesus of the Bible.
In Taking America Back for God, sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry demonstrate that the most ardent ambassadors of Christian nationalism are Second Amendment fundamentalists. They think they need guns to protect Christianity from immigrants, BIPOC, non-Christians, and, increasingly, liberals on the whole (“You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America”). Forms of violent aggression may be justified as the defense of God’s people and their God-given rights. Like Cyrus, Trump should stop at nothing to attain supremacy for his Christian base.
Even though his supporters don’t regard Trump as Jesus, many still endeavor to turn Jesus into a MAGA-hat-wearing Christian nationalist.
When the Right rewrites the biblical Jesus to make him support Christian nationalism, they ignore or distort Jesus’s most substantial teaching in the New Testament: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The shooter who opened fire with an AR-15 in a synagogue in Poway, California, last year professed he was in fact “loving his neighbor” by preventing Jews from robbing and murdering white Christians of European descent ideas based on vile anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
As I argue in my book Republican Jesus, the Christian nationalist framework for this deranged individual’s beliefs is common among the Christian Right. You can find it in bestselling books like Phil Robertson’s Jesus Politics, which ties gun rights to being able to love and protect “our neighbors.” Or in Christian fundraising to support the teenager who murdered two Black Lives Matter protesters with an AR-15 in Kenosha. Or in the claim by Robert Jeffress, one of Trump’s evangelical advisors, that “law enforcement officers are ministers of God sent to punish evildoers.” In every case, those outside the Christian Right may be construed as a threat against God that needs to be subdued by God’s anointed leader on behalf of his chosen people.
When right-wing Christians turn “love your neighbor” into an ethic that only applies to neighbors within the Christian Right, they ignore the contexts in which this teaching occurs in the gospels. In his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus is explicit:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (5:43–46).
Like the Jesus 2020 signs, Prayer March 2020 pretended to be nonpartisan. Franklin Graham just happened to organize it so that Christians could pray for the “protection” of America on the same day that Trump announced his Supreme Court pick, fulfilling his pact to ensure power for right-wing Christians, with the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett. And Vice President Pence just happened to make a “surprise” visit at the start of the event.
After Pence spoke, Michele Bachmann and Bishop Harry Jackson offered up what were clearly prepared prayers for Pence. “Father, I thank you for a president and a vice president who publicly praise the Lord,” Bachmann prayed. Jackson proceeded to recite the first verse of Psalm 68, “Let God rise and his enemies be scattered.” This, he explained, is a “prayer to heaven that God will arise and anoint this leadership team.”
Don’t let their dog-whistling about “Jesus” and “prayer” fool you. The Christian nationalism of Trump’s supporters is a violent and discriminatory ideology where neighbor-love is circumscribed by adherence to Trumpism. A vote for Trump isn’t a vote for the Jesus of the New Testament or the Jesus of American Christians. It’s a vote for Republican Jesus and the militant power-mongers using his name to expand their already extensive privileges.