Superhero-in-Chief: Getting Perspective on What We Give to and Ask of the President

Posted: November 2, 2008 in Uncategorized
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This year, some Christians (myself included) expressed a discomfort with voting for either of the mainline candidates for the presidency of the United States, and not for the typical reasons – abortion, gay marriage, prayer in schools, etc. Some of us felt – and continue to feel – not just that the candidates differed with us on important issues (for me, it was the use of violence in conflict), but also that something about the modern presidency and our potential participation in electing someone to it was somehow at odds with our Christian faith. Glenn Greenwald’s post at Salon might help explain why.

Glenn writes, in part:

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago (see the last few paragraphs):  if I could be granted one small political wish, it would be the permanent elimination of this widespread, execrable Orwellian fetish of reverently referring to the President as “our commander in chief.”  And Biden’s formulation here is a particularly creepy rendition, since he’s taunting opponents of  Obama that, come Tuesday, they will be forced to refer to him as “our commander in chief Barack Obama” (Sarah Palin, in the very first speech she delivered after being unveiled as the Vice Presidential candidate, said of John McCain:  “that’s the kind of man I want as our commander in chief,” and she’s been delivering that same line in her stump speech ever since).

…Worse, “commander in chief” is a military term, which reflects the core military dynamic:  superiors issue orders which subordinates obey.  That isn’t supposed to be the relationship between the U.S. President and civilian American citizens, but because the mindless phrase “our commander in chief” has become interchangeable with “the President,” that is exactly the attribute — supreme, unquestionable authority in all arenas — which has increasingly come to define the power of the President.

…Whether deliberate or not, the chronic assignment to the President of this title is a method for training the citizenry to conceive of our political leaders, especially the President, as someone whose authority is naturally and desirably expansive and absolute.  He’s supreme.  It converts civilians into soldiers and Presidents into supreme rulers.  It’s no surprise that this is the shape our government has now taken; this phraseology both reflects and helps to enable the transformation of the President into an unaccountable, virtually omnipotent figure.

For a Christian like myself who views Jesus’ anti-violent statements such as those in the Sermon on the Mount as part of the essential core of his message, this militarization of the popular concept of the presidency causes great concern already. But the problem, while it includes this concern, runs far deeper than that.

The words “repent and believe” figure prominently in Christian writings, not least because they were words Jesus used: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” [Mark 1:15] The words have come to mean a kind of personal renunciation of a vice or sinful habit. One “repents” of a habit of swearing, of drinking, of perusing pornography, etc. But the words mean much more. They include a political connotation. To demonstrate the wider connotations, N.T. Wright writes in Jesus and the Victory of God (p. 250-253) of Josephus’ use of these phrases:

Josephus has gone to Galilee to sort out the turbulent factionalism there.  A brigand chief…makes a plot against Josephus’ life. Josephus manages to foil it. Then, he tells us, he called [the chief] aside and told him

‘that I was not ignorant of the plot which he had contrived against me…; I would, nevertheless, condone his actions if he would show repentance and prove his loyalty to me. All this he promised . . .’

‘If he would show repentance and prove his loyalty to me.’ The translation is accurate enough, but could have just as well have been rendered ‘if he would repent and believe in me‘. Josephus is requiring of this [chief] that he would give up his brigandage, and trust him (Josephus) for a better way forward.”

Regarding Jesus’ use of the same verbage, Wright writes:

“…this repentance seems to have little to do with the official structures of the Jewish system.  True repentance, it seems, consisted in adherence and allegience to Jesus himself…Jesus…was acting as a prophet of Jewish restoration, speaking on behalf of Israel’s god, summoning the nation, in view of impending judgment, to repent of its nationalist violence, and offering to all those who did so the promise that they would emerge as the vindicated people of Israel’s god.  Those who refused, by contrast would be faced with devastating judgment in the form of a national disaser.”

To paraphrase Wright’s overall point here, Jesus’ call to “repent and believe” was a call to abandon violent nationalistic agendas and to trust him for his agenda instead. Christ redefined the boundaries of the new Israel around one criterion: you were part of the people of God to the extent to which you gave Christ your total functional loyalty.

With that in mind, consider again Greenwald’s concern about unthinking use of the phrase “Commander in Chief” that saturates modern discussion of the U.S. presidency, a position at the top of a relationship between civilians and leadership where “superiors issue orders which subordinates obey,” with the President more and more being associated with “supreme, unquestionable authority in all arenas.” Much of the excesses of the Bush Administration tilted in this direction: illegal wiretapping of citizens, executive-directed torture, etc. With the help of this creeping “Commander in Chief” paradigm and a compliant or, at best, nominally resistant Congress, the presidency during the Bush years grew fully into itself, capping a long, steady, constant growth of the role of the chief executive into the role of, as Gene Healy put it,

soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise. He—or she—is the one who answers the phone at 3 a.m. to keep our children safe from harm. The modern president is America’s shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host. He’s also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth.

The kind of loyalty we’ve taken to giving the President via the “Commander in Chief” paradigm creeps ever closer to the kind of loyalty Jesus asks of his first-century hearers, that is, total functional loyalty. The mocking descriptions by Republicans of Barack Obama as “The One” during this election cycle barely concealed the fact that their preferred “Commander in Chief” paradigm plays a foundational role in pushing the modern concept of the presidency into messianic proportions. Or, one might say, it grows into Octavian proportions. The role the modern president now fills in national life, together with the kind of loyalty he/she increasingly demands, leads many Christians to think twice before participating in a national sacrament intended to usher in an every-four-years American Eschaton.

John McCain campaigned almost entirely on his fitness to fill the Commander-in-Chief role, but the candidate I ultimately voted for bears just as much guilt for pushing this expasive view of the presidency.  Again, Healy:

“Barack Obama has done more than any candidate in memory to boost expectations for the office, which were extraordinarily high to begin with. Obama’s stated positions on civil liberties may be preferable to McCain’s, but would it matter? If and when a car bomb goes off somewhere in America, would a President Obama be able to resist resorting to warrantless wiretapping, undeclared wars, and the Bush theory of unrestrained executive power? As a Democrat without military experience, publicly perceived as weak on national security, he’d have much more to prove.”

Greenwald’s post answers Healy’s rhetorical questions:

“…the natural instinct of political officials — especially new arrivals determined to achieve all sorts of things — is to consolidate, not voluntarily relinquish, extant political power.”

The challenge of an Obama presidency will be to overcome a euphoria at the end of the Bush era. That euphoria will be our worst enemy if it lulls us into complacency. It’s conceivable that those who opposed the worst excesses of this administration will be so overcome with relief at the election of “our guy” to the post that they will want to give him his head to get things done rather than push him to relinquish over-inflated power that comes with the office.  But true support for this president, for the change he campaigned on, will be measured in tough love. Once he takes office, he must find himself hemmed in and checked on many of the paths open to his predecessors. He must be enveloped in a vocal, demanding social movement that loves the ideas he represents enough to resist his grabs for the levers that this administration and this Congress have left within his reach. Obama, for his part, to borrow a pairing from Mother Teresa, will have to be “faithful” to his ideals rather than avail himself of all available means to be “effective.”

With a compliant Congress eager to shore up its dismal approval ratings and what looks to be a true electoral mandate shaping up, any hope for a governing policy of “presidential restraint and re-balancing” might be a pipe-dream. That’s why it’s absolutely essential that Christians keep Jesus’ words and example firmly at the center of their politics over the next months. The role of the presidency in national life and the kind of loyalty demanded by the office and by “presidentists” will compete with the role Christ demands in each of our lives. Obama’s platform not only plays into this expanded role (as does John McCain), but it also contains a substantial amount of nationalistic violence and brigandage in Afghanistan and around the world.

No matter if you vote or to whom you give your vote, give your loyalty to Jesus. Then, get ready to lovingly resist the demands of Caesar to render unto him things that belong to God.

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