Divine Power, Donald Trump, and How the 2016 Presidential Elections Challenge Common Religious Assumptions

by Joerg Rieger at the Huffington Post 

Much has been written about whether people of faith should or should not be supporting presidential candidate Donald Trump in the upcoming election. This much is clear: Trump’s track record on topics that are typically valued by religious communities is dismal. This includes not only his comments but also his practices in matters of sexuality, his comments on racial and ethnic minorities, his lack of support for working people, his attitudes towards other nations and immigrants, and many other matters.

So why would people of faith still consider supporting Trump? Some believe this has to do with his stance on issues that have been of concern to conservative Christians, like abortion and a belief in America as the chosen nation. Of course, elections are not always rational and balance sheets do not always matter.

Underneath these more obvious considerations, however, deeper issues appear to be at work in this election. One of them has to do with how people conceive of the power of God. Is it possible that Trump’s way of projecting power resonates with how many people of faith perceive God’s power to be at work? At the heart of it all is a very particular understanding of omnipotence.

Right off the bat, there are some striking parallels. Trump projects himself as a doer who can single handedly fix things if he wants to. God is perceived by many in similar ways, if people’s prayers are any indication. This is how omnipotence is commonly interpreted: as the ability to do anything an agent wants to do.

Next, Trump acts without consulting others and without asking for permission. This became most clear in what he called his “locker room talk” about how he relates to women: “Just kiss, don’t even wait. And when you are a star they let you do it. You can do anything,” Trump can be heard bragging about approaching women on a hot mic (CNN video footage). This, too, is how omnipotence is commonly interpreted: as the ability to act without being influenced by anyone else. In classical Greek philosophy, in order to be omnipotent God had to be the first unmoved mover.

The power projected here is strictly from the top down, from a subject to its objects, from the ruler to the ruled. Trump later apologized “if anyone was offended” by his remarks, but he did not apologize for the kind of power he projected. This top-down power is very real, transcending the sexual and suffusing the political and everything else: the powerful, the star, like certain images of God, can do anything. According to this logic, might also makes things right.

What is the alternative? From the perspective of Trump and many of his supporters, it is to do nothing at all. This was one of his main charges against the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, in the second presidential debate: she had never done anything. Far from merely being campaign rhetoric, such an assumption shows a particular understanding of power. Power that moves through democratic processes, consensus, and parliamentarian procedures, is disregarded as ineffective and weak.

At first sight, religion seems to back up unilateral top-down power, as divine power is often perceived in precisely this way. Fortunately, there are other resources that provide alternative points of view. In the Middle Ages, some Christian views of omnipotence held that God, unlike a tyrant who could do anything he wanted, tempered unlimited power with the demands of justice (Anselm of Canterbury, see Joerg Rieger, Christ and Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times, 2007).

In the Abrahamic traditions, divine power is at times more closely linked to people power than to the power of kings and rulers. The traditions of the Exodus from Egypt, which Jews, Christians, and Muslims share in common, talk about a conflict between God’s power and the power of Pharaoh and the formation of alternative power which was organized by Moses, Aaron, and their sister Miriam. Prophets like Isaiah and Amos also challenge top-down power in the name of God, as does the example of Jesus who for Christians shapes the image of God.

These challenges to top-down power are coming alive again today not only in times of presidential elections (where they are often missed by the candidates) but also in the various social movements of our age. Unilateral top-down power has proven to be problematic at many levels. Not only can it amount to unwanted sexual and political advances, it is even troublesome when it tries to do good and to help, especially if the recipients have no share in this power.

Alternative forms of power that are built on collaboration, consensus, and shared governance are not only a better match for those of us who still seek to uphold democracy and the Constitution’s theme of “We, the people.” These forms of power may also be more deeply rooted in many of our religious traditions than we ever realized. Whatever the election may hold, it is time for people of faith to think more deeply about the God they are worshiping and the kinds of power they want to support.


Read More Endorsements.

“Joerg Rieger tackles difficult, contemporary issues related to race, class, gender, and sexuality. He skillfully relates them to Wesleyan perspectives on sin, grace, salvation, and the role of the church.” -Josiah U. Young III, Wesley Theological Seminary on “No Religion But Social Religion”

“Engaged theology at its best: passionate, articulate, and informed by deep knowledge of tradition and awareness of the pressing realities of contemporary political and personal life.” -Roger S. Gottlieb on “Occupy Religion”  

“This book is an invitation for us to listen, with God, to the cries of those who labor.” —Shane Claiborne, Author and Activist on Unified We Are a Force

“We are all trade unionists now. We are all civil rights activists now. … Unified We Are a Force is the handbook for all of us who work and are people of faith or goodwill, who believe in a moral universe, to join hands and march together.” —Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, Author of Forward Together, on Unified We Are a Force

“Joerg Rieger uses the occasion of the present financial crisis to remind us once again that the religion that controls most human history at present is devoted to the market rather than to the father of Jesus Christ. He shows how far we who call ourselves Christians have been sucked into the orbit of worship of this God. May his call to repentance be widely heard.” –John B. Cobb Jr., Professor Emeritus of Theology, Claremont School of Theology, on No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future

Welcome to the Online Home of Joerg Rieger

Cal Turner Chancellor’s Chair in Wesleyan Studies,
Distinguished Professor of Theology,
Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion,
Vanderbilt University

Joerg Rieger’s theology has been hammered out on the anvil of resistance to contemporary struggles for power and domination, set before the backdrop of the conservative worlds of the south, both in Germany and the United States, with the intention of providing genuine alternatives.

During his seminary education and internships in German Methodist churches, Rieger became increasingly aware of deep-seated problems in church and theology, which helped to perpetuate unjust structures like gender inequality and exploitation of the environment.  Moving to the United States where he received his Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from Duke University, Rieger became further aware of issues of racial discrimination and economic injustice and of how church and theology were complicit.  Neither the conservative, rules-based Christianity of the Methodist church in which he grew up nor the liberal theology of his early theological education provided the resources to address such forms of systemic oppression.  Rieger’s work is based on the recognition that more radical and faithful visions of Christianity were needed, and that such visions were already emerging from grassroots communities both locally and globally.

Having taught at Perkins School of Theology from 1994 to 2016 and now at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Rieger continues to develop this more challenging vision of Christianity in close collaboration with colleagues both nationally and internationally and with emerging grassroots movements.

The aim of this website is to share this radical vision of Christianity as it is shaping up in Rieger’s work, the work of many of the theologians who are also working to develop such a vision of Christianity, and some of the national and local organizations that embody the work of such a radical Christianity.

New Book: Unified We Are a Force

“This book is an invitation for us to listen, with God, to the cries of those who labor.” —Shane Claiborne

“We are all trade unionists now. We are all civil rights activists now. … Unified We Are a Force is the handbook for all of us who work and are people of faith or goodwill, who believe in a moral universe, to join hands and march together.” —Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, Author of Forward Together

The American dream of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is no longer possible, if it ever was. Most of us live paycheck-to-paycheck, and inequality has become one of the greatest problems facing our country. Working people and people of faith have the power to change this—but only when we get unified!

In this practical and theological handbook for justice, renowned theologian Joerg Rieger and his wife, community and labor activist Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger, help the working majority (the 99% of us) understand what is happening and how we can make a difference. Discover how our faith is deeply connected with our work. Find out how to organize people and build power and what our different faith traditions can contribute. Learn from case studies where these principles have been used successfully—and how we can use them. Develop “deep solidarity” as a way to forge unity while employing our differences for the common good.

Get Unified We Are a Force: How Faith and Labor Can Overcome America’s Inequalities today.


Book Dr. Rieger to Speak

Joerg Rieger is frequently invited for presentations nationally and internationally on topics bringing together religion and the struggles for justice and liberation that mark our age.  To book Dr. Rieger for a speaking engagement please email him directly at jrieger@mail.smu.edu.

Topics include:

  • Progressive Christianity
  • Grace under Pressure
  • Religious Beliefs: God, Christ, Holy Spirit, Church, Salvation, etc.
  • Religion and Power
  • Religion and Empire, Postcolonialism
  • Religion and Justice
  • Deep Solidarity and Religion
  • Occupy Religion
  • Religion and Labor
  • Religion and Economics
  • Religion and Politics
  • Religion and Globalization
  • Religion and Traveling
  • Common Good

Countries where he has spoken include South Africa, Zimbabwe, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, the Netherlands, Belgium, England, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico. In addition to many national and international universities, he has given presentations at the Chautauqua Institution, the Wild Goose Festival, Transform Gathering, the World Social Forum, the European Society of Women in Theological Research, the Left Forum, the Institut für Theologie und Politik, and many religious and grassroots communities.

Rieger is equally at home with academic and popular audiences, church groups of all ages, community organizations, labor unions, grassroots movements, as well as leadership groups in politics and economics.