Commentary: In a world where Christ is king, authoritarian leaders can only be Antichrists

Today’s anti-democratic leaders are promising to deliver justice by any means necessary. This is not God’s way.

(Artie Walker Jr. | AP) Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Summerville, S.C., in September 2023. "If we compare the gospel message with that of Donald Trump and other authoritarian leaders," writes columnist Thomas Reese, "we can only conclude that he and they are Antichrists."

This past Sunday was the Feast of Christ the King, celebrated by Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists and other Christian denominations. Seeing Jesus Christ as king has ancient roots, going back to a time when every nation was ruled by a king. For Christians, it was natural to see Christ as king of the universe, since all creation was handed over to him by God his father.

Pope Pius XI instituted the feast in his 1925 encyclical Quas Primas, believing that the “manifold evils in the world were due to the fact that the majority of men had thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives; that these had no place either in private affairs or in politics: and … that as long as individuals and states refused to submit to the rule of our Savior, there would be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations.”

At the time, the fascist Mussolini had taken over Italy, and the European continent was already tilting toward World War II. Talking of a king seemed to betray the democratic ideals that the Allies had gone to war to preserve just a decade before. Some feared Pius’ encyclical was just another attempt by the church to assert its supremacy in the political world, since it claimed to speak for Christ the King.

Americans, despite our revolution against the British crown, have a fascination with royalty, real or fictitious. Queen Elizabeth was admired and respected, while Princess Diana was loved and mourned. We love the princes and princesses who populate our Hallmark dramas and Disney movies.

Glamour is part of the attraction, but so, too, is power. Kings have unlimited resources and power to right wrongs. In this way, they are like superheroes who are free from the laws and restraints imposed on ordinary people. We wish for a leader who will make things right by whatever means necessary.

But there is a dark side to this desire for a mighty savior.

That same Hollywood that gives us Disney princesses has produced thousands of movies in which the hero or heroine, unable to get justice through the legal system, goes outside the law to take revenge. Violence is portrayed as an acceptable path to justice for victims and even police. We cheer as the body count rises, and we don’t care if laws are ignored.

If this were only mindless fantasy, it would not be a problem. But it is not.

Today, as between the two world wars, authoritarian leaders around the globe are promising justice by any means necessary. They portray themselves as the heroes of their narratives where they alone can save the nation. They will destroy our enemies and protect us from outsiders. They will not be slowed down by democratic niceties or laws. Each promises that if we put him in power, if we make him king, he will save us. We will have success and prosperity.

This is not the platform of Christ the King. These authoritarian leaders are the Antichrists of our time.

The platform of Christ is the gospel: Love your neighbor as yourself. Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Turn the other cheek. Take up your cross and follow me.

In his “Spiritual Exercises,” St. Ignatius of Loyola provides a meditation on the two standards, that of the devil and that of Christ. The devil sends his minions to “tempt people to covet riches,” Ignatius writes, “so that they may more easily come to vain honor from the world, and finally to surging pride.”

Christ, on the other hand, calls people to spiritual poverty and even a degree of actual poverty if it serves the divine majesty. Likewise, he wants them to desire “reproaches and contempt, since from these results humility.”

A soldier before he joined religious life, Ignatius had served a human king, but after his conversion he wanted to serve only Christ the king by taking up his cross and following him.

The contrast between the two standards is meant to be jarring. Christ does not promise riches and success in this world. He simply asks us to follow him, to imitate him, to continue his work of building the kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice, peace and love. Even in the face of defeat, we keep going because we love our king and his people, and we believe that ultimately he will win.

If we compare the gospel message with that of Donald Trump and other authoritarian leaders, we can only conclude that he and they are Antichrists.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)