Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Trump: The New Messiah?

In recent Facebook postings, evangelicals have boasted of their love of President Donald Trump and their belief that he epitomizes the idea of a messiah.

That just proves they don’t understand the messianic concept.

To begin with, the term is a simple Greek transliteration of a Hebrew word meaning “anointed king.” It refers totally to a new human ruler who has blessed olive oil dripped on his head as a way of passing along God’s supposed approval.

Samuel anoints David
The concept was borrowed from the Egyptians, who anointed all of their pharaohs. 

Basically, the ritual differentiated an ordinary king (“melek”) from one who was acceptable to God (“meshiach”)

So, Saul, the first king of Israel, was anointed by Samuel, who later anointed David, Saul’s successor.  The remaining kings of Israel and Judea were also anointed until the last one was carted off to Babylonian captivity in the 6th century. However, before Saul, the individuals called Judges in the Bible were not anointed.  They may have ruled ancient Judea; they just were run-of the-mill rulers, not special ones.

After that, Jews longing to be free of whatever foreign country dominated their land – Babylonia, Assyria, Egypt, Greece and Rome – prayed for a new king to arise to defeat their enemies.  The messianic concept was boosted by the Essenes, religious fanatics two millennia ago who hoped for the return of their leader, who they called the Teacher of Righteousness.  That was at least 100 years before Jesus.

Ruins of Essene town of Qumran
The Essene concept of a monarch sent from heaven represents the next evolution of an idea of an anointed mortal king.

By the way, the Essenes were decimated by the Romans around 70 C.E. and disappear from history.  Their messiah never came.

Christians later picked up the concept and applied it to Jesus, who is proclaimed today as the messiah, but not as an anointed king.  He wasn’t anointed and wasn’t a king.  Biblical authors tried to tie him genealogically to David, accepting the prophetic claims that the new king would arise from the line of David.  Prophets (not all, but most) were sure the new king would be related to David since kings of Judea were part of the Davidic dynasty for more than 400 years. 

However, John, the fourth Gospel, flatly says Jesus was not a distant relative of the second king. 
Moreover, a Roman emperor later rounded up descendants of David and then released them, concluding they were just ordinary, inconsequential people.

After Jesus died, followers were sure he would have to return to claim the throne and create a Jewish theocracy.  As such, the term “messiah” took on other-worldly dimensions, becoming the concept that evangelicals are bandying about. They are thinking of.not some everyday king, but someone designated by God to lead them to the “promised land” of complete control.  That’s what the Jews wanted, too.  Of course, if evangelicals succeed, they would try to forcefully convert Jews – and everyone else who doesn’t buy into their rigid beliefs.
Coins minted during Bar Kokhba revolt

Because of the elevated status accorded the term, since the time of Jesus, multiple people have claimed to be the messiah.  The most famous ancient one was Simon Bar Kokhba, a Jewish general who led a Judean revolt against the Romans in the second century and, after brief success, was killed around 135 C.E.  Others are mentioned in the New Testament and by Josephus, the Jewish historian of the day.

More have arisen in the last 2000 years.  Some are living right now.  Over the years, messianic claimants have ranged from would-be prophets, cult leaders, rabbis and truly mentally deranged individuals.

Trump is in fine company.

However, he clearly isn’t a messiah.  He has not been anointed.  He is not king.  In fact, the impeachment trial is all about his efforts to exercise authority as if he were ruler of the country and not an elected official.

As such, under the circumstances, he’s about as far from a messiah as anyone can get.

Not that the distinction  matters to evangelicals.  They have yoked themselves to the Trump messianic bandwagon without regard to either the reality of the concept or any plausible reason.  In the end, they will discover that Trump isn’t a messiah.  No one is or has been since priests stopped dripping blessed olive oil on some regal head.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University.   He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at He is the author of the recently published novels Revelation! (Southern Owl Press) and The Great Seer Nostradamus Tells All (Bold Venture Press) as well as a variety of nonfiction books, including The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information and Comparative Religion for Dummies.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Birth of a New Religion?


I’ve been thinking about starting a religion.  I realize this is nothing particularly new or even exciting.  People start religions all the time.   In the last 200 or so years, new religions have been popping up regularly like acne on a teenager.

Here are just a few:  Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Baha’i’, Christian Science, Rev. Moon’s Unification Church, Scientology and many more.   We know about them because they have survived.  Many others did not.  The Shakers come to mind in that category.  My wife’s grandfather also started his own small, liberal Christian group.  It died with him.  

If I’m going to start a religion, I’d like it to endure.  To accomplish that, I have spent a lot of time studying the survivors to figure out what they had that other religions did not.  I examined not only the newer versions, but such long-lived religions as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto and more.

The first thing I noted is that they share very little in common.  Shinto, for example, is simply ancestor worship.  Buddhism has no god; Hinduism has thousands.   Judaism has no heaven or hell; Islam and Christianity happily consign each other’s followers to their own hells.  

To me, that was the easiest requirement:  I can be as inconsistent as anyone.

What did they share?
Holy texts.  They all have writings of some kind that are accepted as somehow divine.  I think I write well.  I imagine I could come up with a book and claim that some great power dictated it to me. That's what Joseph Smith did, and it worked for him.

Rituals.  All religions have some sort of rites that must be followed by adherents.  This helps set them apart.  Unitarians light a candle prior to a service, for example.  Catholics have sacraments.  I’m not sure what mine will be, but it won’t be onerous.  I’m not fond of ritualistic requirements.  Maybe everyone in my faith should know a secret greeting.  We still use the secret greeting of the followers of Mithra although the religion died centuries ago: a handshake.

Some kind of belief.  It doesn’t have to be logical – in fact, illogical is a strong selling point with religion.  After all, how can anyone prove the existence of heaven or hell? Or that every Mormon will be king of his/her own planet.  Or that virgins await every heroic Muslim?   Or that Hindus are reborn to work off karma?  No one knows if any of that is true, which makes it perfect for religion.  I believe in taking cruises.  I think that’s something everyone can embrace.

Obligations.  Every religion has something: no fish on Friday; fast on the Day of Atonement; no alcohol; walk around a sacred stone seven times; rest on the Sabbath; and so on.  I’m reminded of Woody Allen in one of his movies in which a revolutionary takes over an impoverished Hispanic nation and requires everyone to wear underwear on the outside.  I wouldn’t go that far, but I can imagine something easy to do, but distinctive.  Just as requiring all members of my faith to eat artichokes at least once a week.  I really like artichokes.

Clergy.  Someone has to teach the faith and serve as a spiritual guide.  Otherwise, how would anyone get married in the faith?  In Catholicism, the priests are given special powers, but that’s not true in most other faiths.  I like awarding powers.  My clergy can fly.  No one can see that, of course.  They fly during secret, arcane ceremonies that only they can attend. Ordination will involve a complex series of chores, like cleaning my house.,

Promises.  This may be the biggest thing.  Every religion promises something.  In many, a believer will live forever in unity with a deity.  The bigger, the more impossible the promise, the better.  This is one thing I know I can do, in spades.  I can promise anything to anyone.  In my religion, I promise that every member will enjoy all the food and money they need in the afterlife.  Gamblers will always win; athletes will play forever.  Teachers will have docile, eager students, and so on.  It will be just like heaven,. But without the halos and other rigmarole.

The successful religions are all built on existing beliefs, sort of adding new scaffolding to an existing building.  Or, in religious terminology: old wine in new wineskin.  This may be the hardest.  I really don’t want to tie into messianic faiths.  I don’t accept that idea and certainly don’t want that role for myself.  Messianic figures tend to get really badly hurt.  I also don’t want to link up with deity-based faiths like Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  They only want to fight each other to “prove” their divine support.  I’m a pacifist.

There are a lot of unusual religions to join.  For example, my religion could build on the Church of Euthanasia.  Its motto, “Save the planet; kill yourself,” says it all.  But, it’s a bit drastic for my taste.   So is Raelism, founded by a man named Rael (surprise!), who insists that extraterrestrial beings created human life.  This idea is absurd enough to become really successful in the future, but I don’t like anything completely refutable by DNA and science.

The Church of Maradona, named for a famed Argentinean soccer star who apparently invested heavily in drugs and desperately needs a weight-loss program.  While hero worship is commonplace, I tend to shy away.  It can be a very tricky business.  Who wants to honor Bill Cosby these days, for example?

Happy Science argues that in 2050 the Angel Gabriel will be reincarnated in Bangkok, Thailand and that, 50 years later, angry gods will sink the U.S.  That’s a good way for a religion to grow: predict something beyond the lifespan of most people.  And I do like Thailand.  Nevertheless, I don’t want to associate with a religion with such a dire future for my American descendants.  

The Church of All Worlds is based on a fictional religion created by a science fiction writer.  That’s similar to Scientology, but this one’s only sin is hypocrisy.  Apparently, followers are unaware that hypocrisy is a prime requisite for a successful faith.  I don’t hold out much hope this will survive.
Chen Tao

In Taiwan, in 1993, Chen Tao started a religion based on the idea of founder Hon-ming Chen that, in 1998, God would appear on a television station.  Chen offered to be crucified when that didn’t happen.  His followers declined to follow through; some are still waiting for the cameo.  Since 1998 isn’t likely to come around again, I think I’ll pass on this one.
Actually, I couldn’t find any faith my new religion could merge with that wasn’t already absurd, illogical and beyond plausible belief.  I’ll keep looking.  Maybe I should focus on creating a religion based on something no seems to have considered yet:  one that makes sense.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University.   He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at He is the author of more than 18 books, including comic novels like The Great Seer Nostradamus Tells All as well as a variety of nonfiction books, including Comparative Religion for Dummies.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers, including Bold Venture and Southern Owl.  He can also be followed on Twitter.