There is a long-standing argument among thinkers, scholars, and know-it-alls online about whether or not the US was founded as a republic or a democracy. I go back and forth, and I think the best answer is that it was neither. It’s always been its own thing, a mutt government crafted from diverse and sometimes incongruous sources.
But all of that aside, the founders were clear in at least one aspect of this new government: the rejection of monarchy. The internecine system of checks and balances they created was intended to protect against the accumulation of power in one position, person, or party. (Sadly, they could not have foreseen the combined assault of increased partisanship and a diminished sense of personal shame.) Having left a society that was dominated by a distant legislature and a detached monarch, they wanted to build a government that was stable yet responsive to the people, impervious to mob-aucracy and autocracy.
We were free of kings, and we were supposed to remain that way, with a government made up of three co-equal branches of government. And yet, there is something in human nature that desires a singular authority, someone to look to for leadership and reassurance in a crisis, along with someone to blame when that crisis gets worse. When you combine that aspect of our nature with the history of the past century of major crises—world war, depression, war, nuclear power, etc.—it is no wonder that the presidency has been transformed and expanded, becoming “imperial” in the estimation of many.
Both sides of the political divide have contributed to this shift and benefited from it, so this isn’t about bad guys and good guys, your team or my team. This is about examining a growing problem in our system of governance, in which we continue to give more power and authority—governmental and moral—to a single person, returning ourselves to a time of monarchs and a potential loss of freedom for all citizens.
Which is why I am distressed by how we have turned politics into a cult of personality and elections into apocalyptic popularity contests. We campaign for our candidate with such ferocity and conviction, as if we actually believe that one single person can fix everything.
We’ve had forty-six presidents since we’ve started: if one of them was going to save us, we’d have been saved by now.
3 Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
5 Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God.
Politics is all about promises; governance is all about solutions. I really mean that. I don’t get too worked up about the potential of a politician to come through on their campaign promises—though I do worry about campaign threats—but I still do expect the government to at least attempt to solve real problems. And yet, I don’t put my faith in either princes or presidents. Our world is broken, and no person can put it back together. Sure, one or the other might make things worse, but none of them can save us.
So why do we act as if they will? Why do we so quickly turn to worship leaders who are just as frail and mortal as we are?
19 Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. 20 He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. After securing the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply.
21 On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22 They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.”23 Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.
I don’t want to put too fine a point on this, but that passage in Acts sounds like too many political rallies I’ve watched over the past two decades. I don’t blame people for getting swept up in the excitement of the moment and feeling excited about a charismatic leader, but I do worry about a trend in which we treat the selection of a national leader as a popularity contest, as a rock concert, as if a god were walking among us.