The word “anointed” has made a return to politics.
Evangelicals, once giddy at pulling off the incredulous claim that Donald Trump was somehow God’s anointed, are not the ones currently attempting to return the “anointing” to presidential politics. Anointing now has been invited to the dance by Casey DeSantis, wife of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
She tweeted out an ad with a Paul Harvey-esque narrator solemnly intoning, “And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a protector.’ So God made a fighter,” meaning her husband.
Anointing always has had a deeply embedded religious pedigree. Jewish, Christian and Buddhist religions use anointing. From Jews using oil to anoint priests, prophets and kings to Buddhists using water or yak butter, to Christians using oil and the laying on of hands, anointing belongs to the category of the religious.
“Anointing has become a political trope. There’s no actual liturgical performance, only an announcement.”
Yet anointing has become a political trope. There’s no actual liturgical performance, only an announcement. There’s no holy oil, water or yak butter. There’s a so-called prophet announcing on social media or to the press that a particular candidate is anointed by God.
According to Randall J. Stevens and Karl W. Giberson in The Anointed, “the literal meaning of anointing refers to a relatively common practice of placing a small quantity of oil on the forehead to symbolize a prayer request for God’s intervention in a personal matter, such as an illness. … The figurative meaning of anointing refers to the process by which God sends his spirit in a special way to a person, empowering that person to speak and lead other Christians.”
The idea of God being on your side can be appealing to almost everyone. Even Pharaoh, the primordial symbol of evil power in the Bible, said, “Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, serve the Lord, as you said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And ask a blessing for me, too!”
This ideology of “anointing” ripped from the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures creates a sense of power and authority invested in a candidate by God. In the view of many evangelicals, it divides candidates into the one who is “blessed” by God, appointed to be elected, and those who are losers.
Political “anointing” suggests a cult — a fanatic following of a charismatic leader — while biblical “anointing” is a cultic act, a religious practice, a liturgical experience invoking the divine blessing. There’s no surprise that a politician would say of “anointing,” “I got to get me some of that.”
The concept of anointing has at least two meanings. One focuses on God working with chosen messengers to bring truth and justice to the world — care for the least of these, protection for widows, orphans and immigrants, more equitable housing and health care for all. That sense of anointing has the truth-telling prophetic tradition in its orbit.
“Anointing becomes malleable to manipulation when we mix a liturgical experience with raw politics.”
The other instigates sneaky, deceptive politics hiding beneath the oil of anointing. In the 2016 election, this element of anointing produced an 83% evangelical vote for Donald Trump as God’s anointed candidate. Anointing becomes malleable to manipulation when we mix a liturgical experience with raw politics.
In biblical terms, Trump’s anointing had more in common with the deceptive anointing of Solomon to be king after David.
Walter Brueggemann chronicles the anointing of Solomon as an act of political deception.
“Solomon’s arrival on the throne was through a carefully choreographed subterfuge, designed to deceive the old king and mobilize him on behalf of his ambitious son,” Brueggemann wrote. “The agents of the act were Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba and Nathan, the court prophet.”
Brueggemann argues that Solomon’s anointing was rooted in deception, cunning, scheming lies and misinformation. Sound familiar?
Convincing voters to support a candidate by lying and insulting becomes a way of establishing a candidate as the one whom is God’s anointed. It becomes a way of showing God made the choice and good Christians are obligated to obey God.
Anointing today is not what it used to be. Now, any old hack can go on television or write a blog and declare some political candidate as God’s anointed. But being anointed is a slippery trope. Television personalities routinely insist they are “anointed” by God. Powerful preachers claim to be “God’s prophets,” or otherwise imply that God has given them the “mantle of Elijah.”
Some preachers are self-anointed. Some declare they are bishops without any vote or validation from a verifiable church body. Some preachers are declared “anointed” by their church members or television viewers or followers: “I believe he is anointed by God.”
Now, Gov. DeSantis has decided to claim the mantle of anointing. He believes he can be the one who gets the divine approval, with the oil flowing down his cheeks. DeSantis didn’t even bother to find him a preacher to announce the anointing. For reasons unknown, he had his wife make the announcement.
“Those who first claimed the anointment for Trump are left defending his lies, his immoral actions and his ill-mannered persona.”
But DeSantis should learn a lesson from Trump: Claiming the anointing and living as the anointed are two different experiences. Those who first claimed the anointment for Trump are left defending his lies, his immoral actions and his ill-mannered persona. Trump is now associated with three losing campaigns: 2018, 2020 and 2022. The oil has dried in his hair. The sheen has come off the fake gold.
In the aftermath of Jan. 6 and Trump’s 2020 defeat, the gig was up. A stark open letter signed by dozens of charismatic faith leaders in May 2021 insisted on “the need for prophetic standards in the church.” The signers spoke of “fake prophecies” about a Trump victory.
“We reject the idea that prophets can use Old Testament texts about believing the prophets in order to gain blanket support for their words, as if everything a prophet utters today must be believed,” they said.
Political anointing may be a one-trick pony, but it will not disappear. It won a presidential election, after all. It has a smoldering power that can’t be denied.
Rodney W. Kennedy is a pastor in New York state and serves as a preaching instructor at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.