Today the world witnessed the transfer of the nation's leadership from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. I am not going to comment on any of this today. Instead I will share this word from my book Faith in the Public Square. The essay was first written while George W. Bush was still President (for the Lompoc Record), and published while Barack Obama was President. I think that the word shared then still fits, so it is my word for today.
In a conversation with a friend I was stunned by his insistence that God chooses our presidents for us. Apparently God is guiding the nation’s voters – or at least the Electoral College. My friend finds the constant criticisms of the President, including my own, troubling and inappropriate – for we’re to honor our leaders and support them. Now, things might have changed since that conversation, as the person holding that office has changed. His beliefs, which I don’t think are unique, have a long history—they’re rooted in a tradition of “divine right monarchy.” This ideology of earlier years held that because God is sovereign and God chooses the ruler, from family to nation, we who are ruled should not resist that person’s judgments. We should, instead, trust in the ruler’s judgment—for surely they know more than do we about the affairs of state.
The idea that our leaders lead with a divine mandate often seeks to draw from biblical precedents, such as David’s reticence to touch Saul because he was God’s anointed (1 Samuel 26:9). Then there’s this verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1 NRSV).
That seems rather direct and to the point, but what we tend to forget when we read and try to apply a passage such as this is that it has its own context. We forget that the governing authorities mentioned here are Imperial Rome and its proxies. Perhaps Paul was cautioning prospective rebels to reconsider. What this passage doesn’t have in mind is American-style democracy, where at least in principle the people are the foundation of government.
That was my answer to my friend’s statement—we the people choose the president of the United States—sometimes we make good choices and at other times not so good choices, as history has demonstrated. Because the people make the choice, the President —this President and every President—is therefore accountable to the people of this country. This point needs to be made at a time when the religious rhetoric in the public sphere is becoming increasingly sharp.
As we wrestle with texts like Romans 13 that encourage us to obey our leaders, we need to remember that our nation was founded in the midst of a revolution that threw off the designated governing authority—King George III. We should also remember that if we take Romans 13 very literally and apply it indiscriminately, then we must apply it not just to our leaders who are democratically elected, but to all leaders—including Hitler, Stalin, and yes even Saddam Hussein.
If a leader believes himself or herself to be divinely chosen, or if that person’s supporters speak in terms of divine mandate, that ideology will certainly steel them up when making difficult choices. But such a sensibility can prove to be dangerous, for to believe that one carries a divine mandate creates blind spots and insulates them from listening to advice that runs counter to their agenda. Indeed, leaders could delude themselves into thinking it appropriate to “go it alone” despite the opposition or misgivings of allies. And when combined with a vision of “American Exceptionalism,” such a sense of divine calling could lead to an arrogant expansion of American imperialism around the world.
With a growing number of candidates for office on both sides of the partisan divide expressing themselves in religious terms; it’s important that we remind them that as elected leaders they have a responsibility to the people. If they’re people of faith, then their faith traditions can and should help guide their decision making—hopefully making them more compassionate, more gracious, and more committed to justice and peace—but ultimately they must remember that the people have chosen them to lead, and it’s to the people that they’re accountable.
If I understand Paul in his context, I can hear him remind us that God desires order not chaos. But if there is any divine mandate to be considered it is our calling as people to exercise good judgment in choosing our leaders, and then having chosen them we should pray for them but also show due diligence by holding them accountable to the highest standards.
Faith in the Public Square: Living Faithfully in the 21st Century, (Energion Publications, 2012), pp. 106-108.