President Donald Trump’s denials of a sexual relationship with porn star Stormy Daniels prove rather flimsy. Conservative evangelicals, a major Trump voting bloc, may even believe that Trump cheated on his current wife after the birth of their son, but they use the biblical example of King David and Bathsheba to justify or excuse his immorality.
King David looms large in Bible history. While King Saul was Israel’s first king, David proved more memorable, a “man after God’s own heart.” David defeated the giant Goliath. He defeated Israel’s enemies in battle time and time again. God promised to build him a “house,” and Jesus Christ descends from his line.
King David is also known for a horrific episode of adultery. Lusting after Bathsheba, the wife of his own soldier Uriah the Hittite, David invited her to the palace and slept with her, getting her pregnant. Rather than confess his own sin, David orchestrated Uriah’s death in battle, and then married Bathsheba himself (2 Samuel 11).
Evangelicals have used this story to defend support for Trump. “God called King David a man after God’s own heart even though he was an adulterer and a murderer,” Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr. told the Liberty Champion in March 2016. “You have to choose the leader that would make the best king or president and not necessarily someone who would be a good pastor.” (Indeed, Falwell provided cover after news of the Stormy Daniels affair broke.)
Conservative donor Foster Friess wrote a letter urging even a “principled evangelical Christian woman” to support Trump. Friess noted that “God has harnessed imperfect people to fulfill his perfect will. King David sent Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, off to the front lines in hopes he would be killed so David could play cozy with his wife.”
Dennis Prager also cited King David in defending Trump. “King David did much worse than privately boast about women allowing him to grope them. He had a man killed so that his adultery with the man’s wife would not be exposed. And while God was angry at, and punished, the king, God still maintained David as king and gave him a central role in Jewish history,” Prager wrote in October 2016. “If God shouldn’t be ashamed for supporting King David, Christians shouldn’t be ashamed for supporting Donald Trump, given the far more corrupt and destructive alternative.”
Indeed, even though more white evangelicals said in a recent poll that they believed Stormy Daniels’s story on the affair (40 percent) over Donald Trump’s denials (36 percent), this does not portend a widespread defection.
To be clear, Trump has achieved a good deal for evangelical Christians. His religious liberty executive order, his new religious freedom branch in the Department of Health and Human Services, and his reinstating of the Mexico City Policy banning federal aid funding going to abortion, among other things, have defended the moral priorities of conservative Christians. The Trump administration has also defended Masterpiece Cakeshop baker Jack Phillips in front of the Supreme Court — a Court that now includes Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Evangelicals can defend Trump’s policies without excusing his character defects, however. They also should not use the story of King David in supporting Trump, due to the vital second half of the story.
After David orchestrated the death of Uriah and took Bathsheba for his own, God severely punished him. God sent the prophet Nathan, who told David a parable about a rich man who had many flocks stealing from a poor man, who had one ewe lamb who he treated like a daughter. The rich man slaughtered the lamb and served it to his guests. David, in great anger, declared, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die!” (2 Samuel 12:5).
God punished David — and the people of Israel because of him. David’s son with Bathsheba died, and David’s son Absalom rose in rebellion against his father, bringing death and grief to Israel.
God carried out this punishment in spite of David’s repentance. At this point, the story of Trump and the story of David completely diverge.
After God reprimanded David, the king composed Psalm 51. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions,” David sang. “I know my transgressions, and my win is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.”
David asked God to “create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.” Perhaps most powerfully, the king declared, “you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Judging from his public statements, Trump lacks this “broken and contrite heart,” which Psalm 51 captures so perfectly.
In July 2015, focus group guru Frank Luntz asked Trump if he had ever sought God’s forgiveness. The then-candidate replied, “I’m not sure I have ever asked God’s forgiveness. I don’t bring God into that picture.”
Trump added that, “When I go to church and when I drink my little wine and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of forgiveness. I do that as often as I can because I feel cleansed. I say let’s go on and let’s make it right.”
When asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper a few days later if “asking for forgiveness” is central to his faith life, Trump replied, “I try not to make mistakes where I have to ask forgiveness.”
Trump’s remarks suggest a complete rejection of that message in Psalm 51. The candidate seemed to think — and there is scant evidence his opinion has since changed — that God is delighted in sacrifices, the outer workings of religion, more than the inner disposition of the heart.
Anytime a Christian uses the "Trump is like King David" argument, I know that they have never opened a Bible in their lives. There are exactly zero similarities between Trump and David. And David repented of his sins while Trump publicly stated that he does not need repentance.
— Matt Walsh (@MattWalshBlog) March 26, 2018
For this reason, any parallel between Trump and King David on matters of faith and morality can only ever be superficial, until the president follows the spirit of David’s great psalm of repentance. A much better comparison might be between Trump and King Cyrus of Persia, an unrepentant pagan who nevertheless benefitted the people of God, even going so far as helping to rebuild the Jewish Temple and the walls of Jerusalem.
Evangelicals who still wish to compare Trump to King David might also want to reconsider. God did not just judge King David for taking Bathsheba, He also punished the people of Israel — with a civil war. In America’s excessively polarized climate, such a judgment does not seem too far-fetched.