Does the Bible give Trump moral authority to kill Kim Jong Un, as Trump's pastor says?

Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, said the book of Romans in the Bible showed God has given President Donald Trump the authority to fight North Korea.

A Texas televangelist who acts as a spiritual adviser to President Donald Trump reasoned that the Bible grants the commander in chief the power to wage war against North Korea.

Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and host of the evangelical program Pathway to Victory, first mentioned that Trump was justified in stopping North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a statement on Aug. 8, 2017, on CBN.com, which he then discussed in the Washington Post.

More people took note of his point of view after he discussed it on the Fox News Channel the next day.

"The Bible gives President Trump the moral authority to use whatever force necessary, including assassination or even war, to take out an evildoer like Kim Jong Un," he said. Fox tweeted the soundbite soon afterward.

He followed that up with another appearance on the network to note that "there is a great deal of confusion among Christians when it comes to this idea of using force to topple evil." Jeffress said Trump preferred a diplomatic solution, but that approach hadn’t been bearing fruit.

Jeffress is a close Trump ally and is part of the White House’s faith initiative, but has made controversial remarks about gays, Muslims and others. He cited the book of Romans as proof of this claim, specifically Romans 13:4, the English standard translation of which reads in part, "For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer."

There has been no shortage of criticism about Jeffress and his interpretation, and we uncovered more as we reported on his remarks.

"Jeffress is right to say that the president has the civil authority to protect the United States of America. No one disputes that," said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics & Public Policy Center, a conservative-leaning think tank that studies the role of religion in public life. "But to leap from Romans 13 to ‘bombs away’ leaves a whole gap in what happens after that."

Whether the Bible gives a president moral authority is subjective, however, so this is not a statement we can rate. When we asked scholars from several disciplines about Jeffress’ interpretation, we found differences of opinion.

Necessary and appropriate

The book of Romans, the sixth book of the New Testament, is a letter from the apostle Paul addressing concerns of Christian life. One of the issues is how new converts should view their place in the world under Roman authority.

John Green, a University of Akron political science professor and senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, said Jeffress offered a traditional interpretation of Romans 13:4 — that God institutes civil authority (often translated as government) to protect people from the threat of malicious harm.

"Many Christians accept this basic idea, but there is considerable disagreement on what constitutes an ‘evil doer’ and how such ‘moral authority’ should be used," Green said.

Romans isn’t about a right to self-defense or responding to evil, he added, but how Christians have an obligation to obey authorities, even if those authorities aren’t explicitly Christian.

Deciding on the correct response, whether military or diplomatic, requires careful thought about the situation and the appropriate action, Cromartie said. People in general, let alone Christians specifically, may not agree on what is appropriate. It is not giving Trump carte blanche to do whatever he wants, from assassination to a nuclear strike.

Both Cromartie and Green cited the "just war" theory, which is a set of philosophical principles based largely on Christian ideals, and is one way to determine whether violent action by the government is justified. The principles include whether war is a last resort, the probability of success and how many civilians may die, among other variables.

The force being used must also be necessary and proportionate, University of Iowa philosophy professor Jovana Davidovic said. Jeffress appeared to be disregarding these principles in his statement about Trump having "the moral authority to use whatever force necessary."

"Just war theory supports none of these claims, but most importantly just war theory doesn't support the claim that one can use whatever force necessary to stop an evildoer," she said.

Nuclear weapons, for example, would never be a justified response, Davidovic said, since they always disproportionately endanger civilians, defying just war principles.

In even broader terms, it doesn’t matter if the Bible gave Trump authority or not, because the United States is not a theocracy, California State University, Bakersfield political science professor Jeanine Kraybill said.

"We are a nation governed by public law, not biblical law," Kraybill said. "When specifically discussing the authorization for presidential use of force, it is the Constitution that is to be consulted, that is where executive power is derived in our system and if and when the president's actions are disputed, what will be looked to."

When we contacted him, Jeffress told PolitiFact that he agreed it is up to the government to determine the proper response. He said he referred to Romans to show how God had granted government "the power of the sword" to deal with threats.

"I’m simply saying that the president not only has the moral right, but the moral responsibility to do whatever is necessary to protect American lives," Jeffress said. "I am not talking about operating beyond the Constitution, but according to the rights and responsibility the president has within the Constitution."