Monday, May 7, 2007

The President as Your Own Personal Jesus

Remember that song by Depeche Mode? "...Someone to hear your prayers; someone who cares..."? According to Martin Gore, the songwriter, the song is about making someone (who isn't God) into your god. As he states, "...that's not a very balanced view of someone, is it?"

What got me thinking about that was the upcoming (, you know, like a year and a half) election for President, and how I'm utterly unimpressed with any of the major-party candidates. I tend to vote Republican, not out of any sort of party loyalty but because the candidate on the ballot with whom I most agree has tended to be from the GOP. I wish this weren't the case; I'd like to see some Democrats who aren't supporters of abortion and who think the Iraq war was worth pursuing run so there would be less polarization and more competition between the parties. In some cases, if I'm uninspired by any of the options I'll typically write one of my parents in (they raised me well, so I may as well give them a shot at whatever office it is I'm voting on). I was considering Steve Adams (only one letter away from Adama, and The Admiral has been doing a successful job of shepherding humanity so far...) as something of a protest vote, but I'm now leaning towards Fred Thompson. I'm on board with most of both men's views, but electability is important. I wish Adams well, and hope his candidacy will advance the causes of faith in Christ and in reforming our political system, but we're at too critical of a point in history for me to spend my vote protesting the current way the political process is working.

In any case, part of the problem is that I believe that we Americans, aided in large part by the press, are making the position of President of the United States of America into more than it should be. We want the President to be our leader, chief executive, First Citizen, ambassador at large, hero to children and foreigners, mommy, daddy, and sometimes scapegoat all at once. That's a lot to ask of one man (or woman, when and if that day arrives). He's a celebrity, and we're interested in his personal life, accent, and who's on the ins and who's on the outs with him. If someone in his administration does something stupid or illegal, it becomes a reflection on his leadership. When foreigners, who it should remembered have their own interests in play and should by all rights love their own country more than ours, like or dislike him it is treated as a referendum on whether he's right for America. When something goes wrong we immediately look to him, either for gravitas and the proper expression of the national feeling or as a scapegoat, as though the President controls the stock market or the response of local/state agencies to natural disasters. It's related to the erosion of federalism in our national consciousness in how we always demand the best, even when it's overkill for the situation. I don't need the chrome trim and factory-added decals on my new truck, especially at $429, but darn if it isn't tempting. Nor do I need 2GB of RAM and an advanced video card on a laptop I'm going to use for web browsing and Microsoft Word...but I want it anyway. Why settle for less? In the same way, if I have a problem then I want to know that the President of the United States is on the case.

What we want is to set up a man as our god and king. As a Christian, it's often hard for me to remember that even though I can't find God by my five senses He's always there. However, at least I have faith in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to carry me through. For those who don't have that faith in what's True, but are simply seeking to do what's right (...and there are those who aren't seeking to do what's right, too), it must be nearly impossible not to want to set up some sort of idol so we can have a place to direct our feelings and longings. As a nation imbued with a Christian aesthetic, even a Protestant and increasingly an Evangelical one, we've set up all sorts of icons and formulations regarding our country. Just trying to sort out all the images on a dollar bill will make your head hurt (it was only the fun story and the pleasant-to-look-at lead actress that helped me while watching National Treasure). As Gideon found out when he made a golden ephod which later became an idol, icons can very easily become idols if we become careless and irresponsible.

To a large extent, that's what I think has happened. Life is complicated, and a good case can be made that we're more aware of more troubles than those in the past. We're worried about the situation in Iraq, although Iran is also kind of scary and it's a good thing the North Koreans are only starving, not shooting the nukes they may or may not have at us. Darfur is worrisome as well, especially as nothing seems to be going on. Meanwhile, depending on your bias, you may believe either that the neocons are working to establish a theocracy with the help of the Illuminati or that militant homosexuals are trying to turn our country into a NAMBLA playground. Taxes are impossible to figure out, some appalling decision was just made by the local government or reached by some court in a state in which you don't live (as your state tends to be a model of reason, as Virginia tends to be). All this and more, which doesn't even include Jenny needing braces and headgear and how Barry Bonds may have used steroids. It's a lot to take in, and shifting some of the responsibility for figuring out how our government works (which, to be fair, is pretty complicated at times) is very tempting. We can't know everything, and even being politically savvy is very time-consuming, especially when we've just gotten back from work and the kids have a soccer game or there's a paper due tomorrow. However, we've seemingly abdicated just about all of our knowledge of our own government and the world of politics. Instead of figuring for which things our state (Commonwealth, in the case of oft-reasonable and definitely exemplary Virginia) is responsible and which things are under the purview of the national government in Washington DC, we simply want to go to the most obvious and seemingly-highest-ranked source, whom we believe to have the power to give and to take away.

From a Christian point-of-view this has its own dangers, and for which (another) over-long post could be written, but it's also unsettling from the perspective of policymaking and concern over maintaining our freedom. Although we cavil about the Patriot Act and possibly-illegal wiretapping, we're very willing to trade or even give away our freedoms and rights. This overmagnification of the office of the Presidency is a symptom of the entropic tendency for a people to let things fall apart, when maintaining our civilization and the many benefits we derive from it is very expensive and time- and energy-consuming. That may have come across as a little melodramatic, but it's not meant to be. If you look at once-great powers Britain and France, or ancient Rome, you can see how this begins to play out. I have some ideas, hopes, and plans on how to revive ourselves, and we're not sunk yet, but it's very easy for one step to become many on the road to mediocrity. We're currently a (the?) great power, and until and unless we can pass the torch, we have a responsibility to guard it.

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