What’s the only thing more frightening than an unstable man with the nuclear codes? A unstable man who is being told that God himself has given his blessing to push the big red button.
On Tuesday, President Trump said North Korea would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it continued to threaten the United States. Soon afterward, an evangelical adviser to the president released a statement saying that God has given Trump authority to “take out” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. “When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear,” Robert Jeffress, pastor of a Southern Baptist megachurch in Dallas, said in a statement given to the Christian Broadcasting Network. “God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary—including war—to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un.”
Jeffress, who was one of Trump’s earliest and loudest evangelical supporters during the 2016 campaign, later tweeted praise for the president’s reliability and predictability:
In a follow-up interview with the Washington Post, Jeffress elaborated that he was referring to Romans 13, which includes a passage on how Christians should relate to political authorities. The passage says that government authorities have been installed by God, and a ruler is the “servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” In Jeffress’ interpretation, that gives leaders freedom “to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un.”
Christian media outlets regularly cover the plight of the estimated 300,000 Christians in North Korea, where citizens are required to worship the Kim family and other religious practices are banned. The latest issue of the conservative evangelical magazine World, for example, features a long reported story on efforts by Christian defectors to draw attention to human rights abuses in their home country. (On Wednesday, North Korea released a Canadian pastor who had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 2015 on charges of using religion to overthrow Kim’s government.)
It’s one thing to pay close attention to religious persecution in a totalitarian nation. It’s another thing to give a confident thumbs-up to nuclear war, especially since many Christian groups have long been on the forefront of the anti-nuclear movement. (Catholic groups have arguably been the most consistently outspoken.) But evangelist Billy Graham, an influential spiritual adviser to American presidents starting with Harry Truman, also called the end of the nuclear arms race his “No. 1 social concern” in the early 1980s and set off on a college speaking tour about the need for disarmament.
But times have changed, and now evangelicals such as Jeffress have the president’s ear. Before last year, Jeffress was best known nationally for his occasional pronouncements on topics like the satanic origins of Mormonism, Catholicism, and Islam. Jeffress was a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board during the campaign and appeared with Trump several times at rallies, reassuring attendees that the thrice-married casino mogul would be a “true friend” to evangelicals as president. He preached at a private ceremony for the Trump family before the inauguration, and he has been a frequent visitor to the White House since then. Last month, his church’s large choir performed an original song titled “Make America Great Again” at the Celebrate Freedom Rally in Washington. Trump apparently loved it.
Jeffress’ statement about North Korea makes clear that he is not claiming to have received a new revelation from God that Trump should go after Kim. These days, that counts as reassuring news. Rather, the pastor is offering a controversial interpretation of a tricky piece of scripture he sees as applicable to the current moment. Still, in order to argue that God has granted political authorities the right to do evil to combat evil, he has to brush away significant other chunks of the New Testament. Romans 12—the chapter just before the one Jeffress cites—explicitly commands readers not to repay evil with evil. Jeffress brushed that off to the Post, saying the command applies only to Christian individuals, not governments. And what about Jesus’ sermon in which he sweepingly upends traditional hierarchies in order to elevate the meek, the merciful, and the peacemakers? “A Christian writer asked me, ‘Don’t you want the president to embody the Sermon on the Mount?’ ” Jeffress told the Post. “I said absolutely not.”