We have been living through days that try the soul of the nation and test the resiliency of our republic. All of us who hold positions of leadership, whether in the political, the economic, or the religious sphere of life, must think through the meaning of the tragic affairs that have afflicted the highest leadership of our nation.
However, we would always rather hide our wounds than heal them. It is always more comfortable to believe in the symbols of righteousness than to acknowledge the reality of evil. This is especially true in our national political life. And we have become adroit at manipulating religious impulses in our land to sanctify this political life. That is the temptation of our “civil religion.” We run the risk of misplaced allegiance, if not idolatry, by failing to distinguish between the god of an American civil religion and the God who reveals himself in the Scriptures and in Jesus Christ.
We want to believe that our nation and its leaders are right, just, and pure. We want to put our country beyond the reach of God’s judgment. Why? Because everything is so much simpler then. We want to believe, in the words printed on the back of our Great Seal, that “God hath ordained our undertakings,” and not believe that God also judges them.
This impulse is born out of our own lives. We want to believe we merit God’s blessing. How hard it is to admit that we stand in need of God’s forgiveness. We would rather celebrate Easter than Good Friday. But without Good Friday, there can be no Easter.
We must look to biblical religion—not civil religion—for the wisdom to guide our lives, and the life of the nation. Then we discover that our prayers must begin with prayers of repentance. We must start talking about sin again—sin in our personal lives, and sin in the corporate life of our country.
Sin is an old-fashioned word that many people think is irrelevant to this modern age. But if we really reflect upon the crisis that afflicts us at the national level, and the dilemmas in our own personal lives, then we come face to face with the unavoidable reality of sin. In the words of St. John: “If we refuse to admit that we are sinners, then we live in a world of illusion and truth becomes a stranger to us” (1 John 1:8).
Any of us in positions of leadership find it terribly difficult to deal with the concept of sin. We may be able to handle this in our personal lives well enough. We have some idea about what is right and wrong in our personal treatment of others. But when we enter our public or professional lives, we tend to leave our thoughts about sin behind.
For a leader, this is all the more true. When we are given a position of leadership, it becomes almost second nature to avoid admitting that we may be wrong. Confession becomes equated with weakness. The urge toward self-vindication becomes enormous, almost overpowering. A politician faces this temptation in a very special way, for somehow it has become a political maxim never to admit that one is wrong. Now, that may be wise politics. But it’s terrible Christianity. In fact, it’s the very opposite of biblical faith.
Herein lies the vulnerability of leadership. For the more one gains power, whether in business, economics, government, or religion, the greater the temptation to believe that he stands beyond the scope of transcendent judgment. We see this especially clearly in the office of the Presidency. Every man who has held that office has known the unbelievable temptation of identifying the power of that office with self-righteousness.
When power becomes the end, in and of itself, power will always corrupt. Any means that sustains power becomes justifiable. So in the end we feel we can transgress upon the law, whether man’s or God’s, because we are accountable only to ourselves, and our ability to wield power.
The roots of this temptation, however, lie not only within the hearts of those who aspire to power but also within the attitudes in each of us, in our worship of political power. There is an idolatry of the Presidency; we, as Americans, bow to the powers and prestige associated with that office in a way that can be ungodly. This makes temptations and burdens that fall on the shoulders of any mortal who occupies that office to be almost unbearable, and corrupting.
That is why any President deserves our compassion, and needs our fervent prayers. For in certain ways he is victimized by our idolatrous expectations. We impose demands of righteousness, wisdom, and virtue that no mere man can meet.
Often a cultism springs up around personalities of power. Perspective becomes lost and reality distorted, as the ego is constantly massaged. The plaudits, the honor, and the unswerving allegiance can create a moral vacuum. So bribes become referred to as inappropriate gifts. Crime is reduced to misguided zeal. Lies become misspoken words.
But the fault lies with us all. Why do we want so desperately to believe in man-centered power? Why do we want to place such a total and uncritical faith in our institutions? Why does each one of us want to believe that God blesses America more than he blesses any other land?
I believe it is because we have let the wellsprings of deep spiritual faith in our lives run dry. Man will always have a god. In Communist countries, where the death of God is made a tenet of government belief, the leaders and their dogma are deified so they can be worshiped. Man has an inherent instinct to worship; if God is not the source of his ultimate allegiance, he will then create his own gods. He will worship other people, or his country, or institutions, or money, or power, or fame—and all of these are different ways of worshiping himself.
As a people, we lack the firm foundations of a deep biblical faith in God; we have allowed our spiritual resources to be mocked, explained away, ignored, and forgotten. So we have transferred our allegiance to other gods—to materialism, to nationalism, to hedonism, to all the modern forms of idolatry that make claims on our fundamental allegiance.
If we forsake these gods, and also reject the platitudes of civil religion, and turn to biblical faith, what do we find? We discover that our actions, indeed all our lives, stand under God’s judgment and mercy. We are accountable to him—accountable for the motives in our hearts, and accountable for the conditions in our land. So our prayers must begin with repentance, individual repentance and corporate repentance: “If my people … shall humble themselves and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways … then I will forgive their sins, and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14).
The promise is that with this repentance and allegiance to God come healing, reconciliation, and new life. We are made whole as persons, and we see that the wounds of the world can also be healed. We can see this wholeness of life demonstrated in the person of Christ. As we receive for ourselves the love that molded his life, then our entire self can be transformed and made new.
Our whole understanding of leadership and power and the purpose of life is then re-created. A source of ultimate allegiance beyond the ego is established in our hearts. Then leadership is seen as service to others. We discover from the Scriptures that if we are to save our lives, we must lose them; we must give ourselves away for the sake of others.
We then have a standard of values that gives a basic framework of integrity for our lives, whether it be in a business or profession or in political life in Washington. We can no longer seek power at any cost; we can no longer isolate ourselves from reality and vindicate our actions.
I am convinced that this is the only way we can guard against the vulnerability of leadership. I know of no other formula for overcoming the corrupting influences of the world’s power than to give our lives over to a higher power, the power of God’s love. This can seem foolish in the eyes of the world. But there are times when each of us must choose where we give our final allegiance.
The one who follows Christ is a citizen of a different kingdom; he has another Master; his allegiance is to a new order from which he derives his ways of thinking, feeling, and judging. He therefore cannot give ultimate allegiance to the world and its way of operating. His first duty is to be faithful to the Lord. The central life commitment for a Christian must be to the lordship of Jesus Christ.
In following this life, we are gripped by a vision of the world and a love for all mankind. We sense the mandate for every man to be made whole, for his physical and spiritual needs to be fulfilled and his gifts to be expressed. We see our swords being turned into ploughshares, and our spears into pruning hooks. “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain” (Isa. 40:4). We want justice “to roll down like a river,” in the words of Amos, “and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
To the eyes of conventional politics, this vision seems almost irrational, irrelevant, totally unrealistic. But the world normally regards God’s word and his truth as nonsense. The world believes in the power of power; the one who follows the life of Christ believes in the power of love.
Because of that love, we are compelled to give ourselves for the needs of others, to involve ourselves in the task of healing others and healing the world. So we find ourselves in the midst of the world, many times under conflicting demands and pressures.
Personally, I continually find it hard to know how, at any given point, to live out this calling. Frequently the way may not be clear at all. But when a difficult choice or decision is made, we must be open to wherever we may be led. And then we must rely simply on our faith rather than expect human certainty about every choice we make.
But while we may not always know all the precise answers and actions, we do know that leadership is expressed through service. We cannot separate our allegiance to God from our love for our fellow man.
In our nation, this must especially include a love for the poor and the dispossessed. Here again it is so easy for us to neglect the reality of God’s judgment on us as a people. We are tempted to think that the millions of impoverished citizens in our land are merely an unfortunate fact of life. But God takes the suffering of the poor far more seriously.
What, for instance, was the greatest sin of the city of Sodom, which caused its destruction by God? Sexual immorality? Listen to the words of Ezekiel, in the Old Testament: “This was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride of wealth and food in plenty, comfort and ease, and yet she never helped the poor and wretched.” Wherever wealth abounds and the poor continue to suffer, we must confront God’s judgment.
Christ opened his public ministry by rising in the synagogue and reading these words from Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me; he has sent to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then Christ began to speak. “Today,” he said, “in your very hearing this text has come true.” If we are gripped by Christ’s love, then we will have an unquenchable compassion for the poor and the needy.
The thought of turning our national attention, at appropriate times, to the need for repentance should not be foreign to us. President Abraham Lincoln had a profound sense of the sovereignty of God. He knew how the nation stood accountable to God’s judgment. In the midst of the Civil War, the U. S. Senate asked the President to set aside a day for national prayer and humiliation. That might be a very appropriate action for the U. S. Senate to take today. On April 30, 1863, three months after the Emancipation Proclamation and three months before the battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln composed a Proclamation for a Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer:
Whereas, it is the duty of nations, as well as of men, to owe their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.… We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.
It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.
Rebuilding the inner strength of our nation today requires the same of us, in each of our hearts.
George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”
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