[Historical Note: this blog post was written prior to the U.S. Presidential election of 2016. However, it highlights an issue which I think has been a problem with American politics for as long as I've been paying attention to it.]
"You shall not revile God, nor curse the ruler of your people." (Exodus 22:28)
Treat everyone with high regard: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:7)
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.... This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:1, 6-7)
Given the chaos of the election season, I just wanted to write a reminder to my fellow Christians who live in the United States about our civic and Christian duty to respect whichever person ends up being President next year.
I am writing this now, when both candidates have a significant chance of being elected, so that nobody will think I am a hypocrite, who only cares about this issue when somebody I like is in the White House.
(That does not mean I am neutral when it comes to this election. While I am not a huge fan of either candidate this season, Donald Trump is far more dangerous, irresponsible, and crude than his rival, and I may have some personal difficulty in following my own advice if he is elected. Although it is conceivable he would keep his promise to appoint justices to the Supreme Court in keeping with my own views, this year the "worst case scenarios" for the Executive Branch seem way worse than for the Judicial Branch. But that doesn't change what I am going to say.)
Anyway, the Bible says you are supposed to honor the ruler of your country, because all rulers are appointed by God—not in the sense that God necessarily approves of their rise to power, nor the things they do while in charge—but rather in the sense that it is God's general will that governments exist and that, under normal circumstances, people should submit to duly constituted authorities.
There are two communities naturally ordained by God, based on the way he created human nature: family and governments. Similarly, there are two communities that were supernaturally ordained by God: Israel and the Church. The members of all these communities owe their leaders some degree of obedience and respect, because without that they cannot function as healthy communities.
In every other nation besides ancient Israel, God has left the details of how the government should be structured up to the human beings in that area. At the time of the Bible, most governments were monarchies of various sorts. Now we live in a democracy, where we have the privilege of choosing our own rulers. That is a great blessing, but it does not change the fundamental reality of the situation. Once we have chosen these rulers, in principle they have the exact same divine authority that would have existed in a monarchy—I mean when they are acting within the scope of their delegated powers; I'm very grateful we don't live in a society where the president is an absolute dictator! (The President has no direct authority to command American citizens except where authorized to do so by law.)
Just as it is God's will that children should obey their parents, and (even after they grow up and are no longer subject to them) give them due honor for providing them with life, sustenance, and upbringing, so too should Christians obey legitimate government authority, and also give due respect to the individuals who exercise that authority, in a way that is appropriate given the democratic customs of our own society.
It does not matter if the individual in question is unworthy of the honor. As people in the military say: "you salute the uniform, not the man". When Sts. Peter and Paul wrote their letters, most likely the man in charge was NERO CAESER, who was not a very nice man. If you are concerned about infanticide, torture, foreign conquests, denial of religious freedom, undermining separation of powers, or the "Imperial Presidency", well these things were all much worse in the Roman Empire than they are today, and yet the Apostles still taught that Christians should honor the king! Jesus himself taught that we should "Render to Caeser what belongs to Caeser, and to God what belongs to God".
Of course, sometimes other ethical principles must take precedence over that of obeying authority. If our earthly leaders tell us to sin, then we must "obey God rather than men". For example, many early Christians were martyred rather than participating in the cult of Emperor worship. A more recent American example was the civil disobedience that took place during the Civil Rights Movement. In some extreme situations, a government may be so tyrannical that armed rebellion against it is morally necessary. But I take it as obvious that the USA is not currently such a tyranny.
Of course, raw power is not the same as government authority. To a brigand or conqueror who makes no pretense of ruling in his subjects' interest, but merely comes to plunder and rape and kill, we owe no respect or obedience whatsoever, quite the contrary! But once such a person sets up laws and officials in order to promote the common good of society, then to that extent it is a government, and it should be submitted to in ordinary affairs until such time as it can be replaced with something better.
The Bible passages above make it clear that we are required to give respect and not merely grudging obedience to our leaders. Of course, it is perfectly acceptable to criticize the President's policy decisions, to sound the alarm at usurpations of power, to whistleblow crimes, to reject immorality etc. You are not required to agree with him or her, any more than the command to "honor your father and mother" means you must always agree with their decisions.
What is not acceptable is to take a constant tone of bitter disrespect, to express continual contempt, to make mean-spirited jokes (a genuinely funny joke is another matter), to make unwarranted comparisons to Hitler and Stalin, to believe every slanderous rumor you hear about them, to despise half the population for voting for them, etc.
Whenever a party's own politician is in charge, they can see quite clearly just how deranged the critics on the other side have become, and how it harms our ability to unite as a nation and make important decisions. I urge you all to remember that the same thing is true when the other party's choice is in charge. Politicizing every single issue isn't actually good for the country. Each of the last 3 Presidents has been hated by the opposition party to a far greater extent than can possibly be healthy. And "the other party started it" is not a good excuse.
Just as in other areas of life, people tend to rise and fall towards the expectations other people set for them. As St. Chesterton once wrote:
"It is a practical course to destroy a thing; but the only other practical course is to idealize it. A respected despot may sometimes be good; but a despi[sed] despot must always be despicable."
[Brackets are my own speculative attempt to correct what I believe to be a 111 year old typo.]
If whatever the President does is viewed as an unprecedented assault on all the liberties we hold dear, the there is no incentive for them to be better than that, because the other side won't respect them even if they do follow the law.
We should also remember to pray for them, not just that they would do a good job, but also because the job is spiritually dangerous and they risk losing their own souls in the process. Few Presidents escape the White House without rubbing off part of their consciences, through supporting actions that they would at one time have been outraged at.
Since the President is the representative of the whole nation, whoever curses the President also curses the nation, and therefore curses himself. So instead be a blessing. The same principles apply in politics as anywhere else:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
Some last thoughts about voting:
1) Mathematically, your vote can make a significant difference on average (at least if an election is close).
2) There are other elections on Nov 8 besides the Presidential election, and they are also important! Please research the candidates and cast an informed vote.
3) But, if you've walked into the voting booth just to vote for President, and you have no idea who or what the other things on the ballot are, then I recommend you leave these other ballot questions blank so that the voters who have researched those issues can decide them. Please don't cast an uninformed vote; that just adds noise to the system.