Ralph Reed’s new book, For God and Country: The Christian Case for Trump (published by Simon & Schuster in March 2020), doesn’t devote much energy to defending Trump’s moral character or articulating his role as an instrument chosen by God to save Christians. Instead, the notorious conservative lobbyist, evangelical apologist, and founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition doubles down on the toxic argument that Trump is an unlikely ally in the Christian struggle for religious freedom.
During the Clinton presidency, Reed, then executive director of the Christian Coalition, was a fierce watchdog for presidential morality, as Kristin Kobes Du Mez has noted in Jesus and John Wayne. “We care about the conduct of our leaders,” Reed asserted, “and we will not rest until we have leaders of good moral character.” Reed has undergone an about-face: he doesn’t apply the ethics by which he judged Clinton to Trump. Indeed, his book pivots from the usual right-wing biblical justifications for supporting Trump to fully embracing the president’s immorality as an opportunity for the advancement of conservative Christianity.
Instead of an anointed instrument of God like the Persian king Cyrus, Trump appears in Reed’s book as—hold on to your mask—the Roman emperor Tiberius, the last hope of the apostle Paul, an embattled Christian citizen. Here’s how he puts it:
“Critics of Evangelicals today argue that we should spurn assistance from political leaders who are not perfect or have committed sins. But as a citizen of Rome, Paul pleaded for the help of the most disreputable political leaders the world has ever known. Did this signal he was a hypocrite or compromise his witness for Christ? Of course not. In fact, it did the opposite, and the Bible records that members of Herod’s and Caesar’s households became Christians as a result.”
“Tiberius Caesar was a corrupt, evil, and violent despot who routinely murdered his enemies and allowed their corpses to float down the Tiber River to intimidate his opponents in the Senate. He was also a sexual deviant and pedophile. This is to whom Paul appealed for assistance … because he took his rights as a Roman citizen seriously and treated them as sacred and inviolate. Because of Paul’s faithfulness, the message of salvation through Jesus Christ reached the court of Caesar, and the Bible records that many in the emperor’s household came to faith in Christ (Philippians 4:22).”
“If Paul could appeal to Tiberius, a reprobate and bloodthirsty emperor, then Christian Americans are fully justified in appealing to President Trump, the Supreme Court, and any other elected or appointed official on behalf of their constitutional rights.”
There are, as with most of Reed’s biblical analogies, a number of basic textual and historical problems here. To scratch the surface: Roman citizenship would have been rare among the earliest followers of Christ; Paul probably was not a citizen himself (this detail appears in the romanticizing later narrative of Acts of the Apostles, but not in Paul’s own letters); and, the “emperor’s household” in Philippians was a reference to the slaves and freedmen serving in the imperial bureaucracy throughout the empire, not the emperor’s palace or family in Rome.
But one point here is so absurd and blatantly wrong that it deserves further comment. Tiberius was not the emperor to whom Paul appealed. Nero was!
Tiberius reigned from 14–37 CE. Acts of the Apostles only refers to the emperor to whom Paul appealed after his arrest in Jerusalem by the generic title “Caesar,” but the other historical figures mentioned as part of Paul’s trials (especially Porcius Festus, who governed Judea beginning around 59 CE) leave no doubt that the emperor in question is none other than Nero (r. 54–68 CE). Later ancient Christian texts such as the Correspondence of Paul and Seneca, the Acts of Peter and Paul, and the Martyrdom of Paul all dramatize aspects of Paul’s encounter with Nero.
Did Reed, one of the noisiest Bible-thumpers in Trump’s evangelical ensemble, mix up his emperors? Not a chance.
Reed had obvious motives for presenting Paul’s appeal to Tiberius as an analogy for the ideal Christian U.S. citizen’s support for Trump. He wanted to conjure up a Gentile ruler from the biblical world who was indisputably immoral but not as obviously chosen by God as Cyrus, the Persian king described as “anointed” by God to restore Israel from exile in Isaiah 45. Cyrus has enjoyed wide appeal as a model for conservative evangelicals’ understanding of Trump as a Gentile despot sent to save Israel. The origin of this explanation is often attributed to the xenophobic dominionist Lance Wallnau.
This link has been examined from multiple angles by scholars like Sean Durbin, who has noted how this explanation resonates with Christian Zionists’ theological and political agenda to protect the state of Israel at all costs. Damon Berry has shown how this connection emerges in the conservative Christian consumer culture, with Wallnau selling products such as commemorative coins that associate Trump, the 45th president, with Cyrus, the messiah of Isaiah 45 (the 45 coincidence is rubbish; Cyrus is already praised in Isaiah 44:28 and the chapter divisions are a medieval imposition in any case).
Reed acknowledges the Cyrus theory and declares, “I have no particular view on that subject, but I have never made a similar claim—nor would I. God alone knows his heavenly purpose in elevating a leader.” He goes on to praise Esther and Daniel as biblical models who operated within the government of a Persian ruler to protect God’s people. But the problem with Daniel and Esther is that they were both Judean immigrants in foreign courts. With Paul, Reed could construct a Christian hero who relied on their citizenship to spread Christianity to the imperial court in Rome. This biblical model, however problematic (Paul was a Jewish Christ-follower and not definitively a Roman citizen), fits much better with Reed’s long-standing anti-immigrant positions.
Reed found in Paul a clear model for the Christian U.S. citizen, but he could not have presented Nero as a model for Trump because Nero is remembered in traditional Christian narratives as a villain. As it turns out, things didn’t go so well when Citizen Paul appealed to Nero. This reviled emperor is notorious for executing the apostles Paul and Peter in the aftermath of the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, supposedly the first systematic persecution of Christians (a fixture in the Christian “myth of persecution” whose historical basis is disputed by scholars). Nero had started the fire himself, some ancient authors alleged, to clear space for his new lavish palace, known as the Golden House. Writing half a century later, the historian Tacitus created the memorable image of Nero singing about the fall of Troy as the city burned, the basis of the expression that Nero “fiddled while Rome burned.”
Reed’s main defense of Trump is that he has kept his promises to protect Christian “freedoms” (read: privileges), so he could not by any means link Trump to an emperor notorious for blaming the Great Fire of Rome on Christians.
Incidentally, linking Trump to Nero would also have given credence to the meme that went viral around the same time that Reed’s book came out. After Trump retweeted a curious meme of himself playing the violin back in March, a number of critics mocked him for acknowledging that he is like Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burns—a fiery critique of him golfing while numerous Americans, especially poor and racially marginalized Americans—died from COVID-19.
Reed couldn’t associate Trump with a notorious persecutor of Christians, so he opted for Tiberius instead. This is an undeniable historical error. I wonder if Reed’s appeal to Tiberius might even have been influenced by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s bestselling book, Killing Jesus (2013). As I argue in my forthcoming book Republican Jesus, O’Reilly and Dugard also pay far more attention to Tiberius than one would expect. They do so, however, to portray Tiberius as an exemplar of Roman immorality in a way that linked him with what the authors considered the cultural abominations of contemporary U.S. liberals.
Tiberius is best-known from an invective crafted by Suetonius, an author born twenty years after the emperor’s death and bent on legitimating the later emperor Hadrian as morally superior to his predecessors, as James Kim On Chong-Gossard has demonstrated. Among other depravities, Suetonius’s perverse version of Tiberius indulges in a game where young boys suck on his genitalia like minnows in a pool at his palace on the island of Capri. Reed takes the constructed immorality of this emperor as a factual model not for the sexual culture of liberals, as in Killing Jesus, but as a parallel for Trump. If Paul could have asserted his citizenship rights within the “law and order” government of Tiberius in order to convert the household of this sexual deviant, certainly the ideal Christian U.S. citizen could make inroads within the government of a morally bankrupt president like Trump.
If you’re thinking I’ve gone too far and should give Reed the benefit of the doubt—perhaps he just mixed up Tiberius and Nero (despite having an A.B. and Ph.D. in history)—here’s the rub: in June 2014, Reed reacted to Obama golfing in the midst of crises in Syria and Iraq with this metaphor: “The administration fiddles while Rome burns.”
Reed knows that Nero is the emperor traditionally associated with the Great Fire and Paul’s fatal execution in Rome. He deliberately distorted this biblical narrative to turn Paul into a heroic Christian citizen who could win over the government of an immoral emperor. So long as that immoral emperor isn’t a persecutor of Christians.