But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.”
-1 Samuel 8:19
Some post-election thoughts. These are very specific. I have a lot more, but who knows what will become of them.
As I watched the course of the presidential campaign over the past couple of years, my long-held convictions about a fundamental problem with the shape of the process were confirmed. The reactions of the supporters of Clinton since the election have only deepened those convictions.
It all comes down to this: the office of the presidency has become too important.
There are both spiritual and political dimensions to this. I’ll take the political first.
So most of you, I trust, are familiar with the United States Constitution and the general shape of our government. There are three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. The intention of the founders was to create a system in which power would be balanced and checked. Hence the term “checks and balances.”
The President is the head of one of those branches – the executive.
He is the head of the executive branch which “executes” the laws that the legislature enacts and the judicial branch evaluate in terms of their constitutionality.
He is not the king. He is not a “ruler.” Moreover, he is not the representative of anyone’s soul, identity or deepest yearnings.
But of course, that limited sense of the president has not held.
I sometimes think, although it was probably inevitable, that it was unfortunate that a hero was chosen as our first president. It sets the bar high and imbues the office with an aura prone to idealization and idolatry – hence the 1865 fresco in the rotunda of the dome of the US Capitol, The Apotheosis of George Washington– which depicts Washington rising to the heavens in glory. “Apotheosis” means deification.
How much better it would have been, I think, if John Adams had been our first president!
The temptation of make too much of the presidency is also an extension of this country’s deeply-rooted sense of its own role in Divine Providence, beginning with the Puritans, continuing through the Revolution and formation of the nation and reaching a peak of sorts in the 19th century.
The expansion of the federal government, especially the executive branch, has not helped. Beginning with the Progressive Era then escalating, of course with the Great Depression and World War II – big, global problems that seemed to call for big solutions that, once in place, are all but impossible to roll back. And yes, books have been written on the “Imperial Presidency.”
But now we are at a point at which people spend years of their lives, sacrifice their family and personal lives and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to attain this office, an office which has far more power than the founders intended, partly because the branch of government which it heads has far more power than it should.
Yes, there are and always have been profound differences in views about the shape and direction that the United States government should take. People with varying views group themselves in political parties to put forward their view and bring it into power. So in a way, yes, the President does “embody” something and that something can involve not only administrative responsibilities but the ideals that shape this direction. Fine.
But it’s too much.
There is something wrong when the country is more or less constantly thinking about the president: who it is now, and who it will be in a few years. Don’t you resent the obsession and the attention to the office of the presidency? I do.
It seems to be a sign of a fundamental instability and lack of a core, as well as celebrity culture.
And of course politicians play on this. “Make America Great Again.” “Build a better world for our children.” It’s all part of the same thing.
Which brings us to the spiritual, as it always does.
Over the past few days, protests have broken out over the country, centered on the meme #NotMyPresident. The anger, shock, dismay and yes, grief, is on full display.
When I look at this on the news or on my social media feeds, I see, above anything else, a spiritual vacuum.
There is room, of course, and if your conscience demands it, an obligation to express hesitation and opposition to a stated program of action with which you disagree or feel some aspect of your life to be threatened by. But even so, most people would, you know, wait for the person to actually take office and make decisions to make a judgment on how to react to that. To engage in this kind of protest at this stage is nothing more than attempts at intimidation.
No, what I sense goes deeper, and it’s not just the events of the last couple of days that lead me to that, but also the spiritual dimension of what I wrote above.
It’s too much. It shouldn’t be that important.
But for some reason, it is. Why?
Well, when God has been chased out of your life, when the transcendent is simply what you make it to be, it is almost inevitable that the inborn yearning that we have for certainty in identity, belonging and meaning will be transferred.
Basically, this: If the election of the head of the executive branch sends you spinning and feeling distraught because the president doesn’t represent your values and moves you to disrupt your life to cry out #NotMyPresident! …the presidency is too important to you. It’s become an idol.
It is possible to have high expectations of our leaders’ competence and abilities without deifying them or expecting them to embody your personal values and be crushed and outraged and moved to violence and hatred when they don’t.
Perhaps a good way to get my point is to take it down a level. Think about the governor of your state. The mayor of your city or town.
When you consider who to vote for those offices, what enters into your decision-making? I’m going to guess it’s pretty practical. I would think it would seem pretty strange to deal with the identity of your governor or mayor in the deeply personal way that some seem to be dealing with the presidency.
I don’t vote for mayor, governor, Senator or President, looking to have my ultimate personal values reflected or my sense of the ideal human being or social construction represented. After all, then I would never vote, would I? And if a candidate I vote for happens to win and hold office, I don’t look to he or she to do anything but move the workings of government in the general direction which he or she promised, and do as little harm as possible.
I can understand being upset. I really can. I can even sympathize with the identity politics aspect of this and the disgust with Trump’s personal character. Absolutely! Perhaps you are saying that you will be “embarrassed” to have Trump as president. Well, there are some of us who have been mostly “embarrassed” by the president of the United States since the Gerald Ford days, more or less continually, for various reasons, so it gets to a point at which you realize…he’s just the president and there’s no need for me to tie who I am, even as an American, to the identity of who the president is today.
So yes, the angst seems totally out of proportion to what this office *should* be about. I mean…who among us who was alive and sentient in, say 1977, looks back and says, “Gerald Ford! His presidency was satisfying because it represented me and satisfied my soul!” ? Or..”That Ford presidency really did a number on me. Never been the same since, and what is life, my friends, anyway?”
So yes, resist.
Resist the temptation to put your trust in kings.
Resist their attempts to exploit your yearning for meaning and the transcendent.
Resist…and be free.