Respect for the President

[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.

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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18 Responses to Respect for the President

  1. Sayyed Hamid Banihashemi says:

    Hi Aron,
    When I was at Holy Names college in Oakland California, I took a class on philosophy including Plato through his book of Republic of Plato. One of the things discussed was Plato's cave allegory. Apparently, Plato was executed because he was thought that he mislead the young. In fact, I distinctly remember that a female student in our class asked quite affirmatively from our Chinese professor of philosophy that it is rumored that Plato was homosexual! The prof denied it but simply said that perhaps out of affection for his students he laid down with them a bit (if I remember correctly after so many years that passed by.)
    Actually, I got to know your site from Peter Woit's "Not Even Wrong" as I commented on his post of "Various Links." But it somehow got vanished! This is what I said there:

    How do you do? It seems to me that there must be some excitements as to why we need to work with SUSY and MSSM and even string/M/F theories is that there seems to be such a big mystery around the Higgs particle. In particular, how are Higgsings and unHiggsings done such as in F-theory going back and forth between the symmetry groups of products of U(1) and SU(2) or SU(3) or ... and its implications in realizing Higgs particle in SM. The need for Langlands program too then comes in quite naturally! Actually, I downloaded your very interesting book on quantum theory, groups and representations and even looked a bit at the sections on the standard model. But I got a blue page and suddenly all the web pages were gone and the computer restarted after a long period of sleep/wake episodes. So, I will have to download it again and I already wished to thank you for the nice job.

    Actually, I got a hold on Marjam Cvetic and David Morrison's papers of unhiggsing and out of the excitement on the matter I wrote the comment. The other thing about our philosophy class is that it was there that I learned how Ibn Sina is called Avicenna as our professor had his PhD written on a translation of Avicenna's work from Latin. Philosophically, there is a thesis/antithesis between algebra/will in the sense that they oppose each other. In a sense one must learn the algebra in order to overcome the difficulties in what one wants to do! E.g. DeCartes supposedly first successfully introduced in the west to algebrecize geometry. But then we also have the Gödel incompleteness theorem, Gödel algorithms or Turing machines. And frankly to go beyond these limits of algebra and will and even beyond kings and presidents, it is only proper to appeal to theology. And thus, as Peter Woit puts it one has the Jesus resurrection business. Of course, one also theologically has the upheaval of Imam Husain God bless Him. It is only thorough theological considerations that the president or the king must realize that he has possibly occupied the theological position of Jesus in the Christian tradition or the Imam in the Muslim tradition instead of the advent of most fearful terrorism. But unfortunately in our modern times too, politics and theology can apparently bifurcate catastrophically. This has to be corrected by all efforts of schools of theology, philosophy, science, politics, .... Best regards.

    [Added a block quote to clarify the comment---AW]

  2. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for your comment. One important correction: it was Socrates, Plato's teacher, who was executed by the Athenians, not Plato himself.

    Incidentally, most of Plato's dialogues describing Socrates are very accessible, and I would recommend reading them directly over reading any amount of commentary about Plato. Gorgias, Meno, and book I of the Republic, and the Apology are particularly good.

    Discussion of homosexuality does come up in a few of the dialogues (though the ones I mentioned don't focus on it), since some Athenian men would have relationships with adolescent boys. My own personal take is that Socrates wasn't gay himself, although he would certainly make jokes about it, but was trying to use the cultural practice as a metaphor for something more philosophical and spiritual. The scene you refer to is in the Symposium, where Alcibiades tried to seduce Socrates; Socrates allowed him to lie next to him in bed but refused to go further. (This is portrayed as if it were an example of heroic self-control, but maybe he just wasn't that interested.)

    In any case, these people lived without the benefit of explicit divine revelation, something which I am sure God will take into account. Really the more amazing thing was how close Plato comes at times to Monotheism, and even to Christian ethics such as the duty to love one's enemies.

  3. Mactoul says:

    "the USA is not currently such a tyranny."
    State laws on same-sex marriage were overturned by courts and ALL social conservative arguments dismissed as mere bigotry and expressions of irrational animus by the Supreme Court.

    Christian vote for Clinton makes comprehensible certain historic phenomenon. Such as why the Catholic Centre party in 1933 voted for Enabling Act and later disbanded itself.

  4. Mactoul says:

    On an another blog I have been hammered with Arrow's impossibility theorem and Sorites Paradox as showing that voting is irrational and immoral (in a system that works within liberalism).
    I have no knowledge of maths required to judge these claims. How can they be refuted?

  5. Micha says:

    I felt challenged by your post. We have a far-right populist party in Germany, that scares me. But if they’ll get elected next year, I’m going to read your post again.

    You write, that the president "is the representative of the whole nation, whoever curses the President also curses the nation, and therefore curses himself." I’d like to complement a quote by Max Lucado and I hope, that the American public will remember the key role of the president: to be the face of America. When he/she speaks, he/she speaks for you–the United States of America.

    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.

    This made me smile. ☺

    Best regards from Hamburg. You can be sure: Many of us are watching this American election tensed up.

  6. Aron Wall says:


    State laws on same-sex marriage were overturned by courts and ALL social conservative arguments dismissed as mere bigotry and expressions of irrational animus by the Supreme Court.

    The Supreme Court making a decision we disagree with, is not the same as tyranny. Remember, Imperial Rome allowed fathers to commit infanticide by exposure, and the Emperor himself liked boys and later "married" one (after castrating him), but the New Testament still said it was the duty of Christians to submit to the government (when it is not directly commanding something immoral). Also, comparing support for Clinton to support for Adolf Hitler is absolutely ridiculous, and personally insulting to me and others who think she is the best available choice in this election who has a reasonable chance of winning. Especially when it is her rival who keeps saying creepy entho-nationalist things about purging the country of foreigners, not that I think he is Hitler either.

    Arrow's Impossibility Theorem states that there is no "perfect voting system". Roughly speaking, when choosing between 3 or more candidates, you can't come up with a voting system where a) it is not a dictatorship, b) if everyone prefers candidate X to candidate Y, candidate Y cannot win, and c) there is never any reason to engage in "strategic voting" by ranking the candidates in an order you don't actually prefer in order to get the candidate you want.

    But, the absence of a perfect voting system doesn't mean it is immoral to vote in the voting system we have. That is a bizarre claim, making the perfect the enemy of the good. Obviously, you cannot get a claim about ethics out of a mathematical theorem without some additional assumptions of an ethical nature.

  7. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks Micha.

    The essay by St. Max Lucado is nice. But, Donald Trump is on the record as saying that he's never once in his life asked God for forgiveness, so to my mind, that makes him not a Christian! He's been involved with some "prosperity gospel" preachers, but that is a different gospel than the one I believe in.

    St. Hillary Clinton is a much more pious person although she is very private about her faith, for a politician. I do find it somewhat disturbing to see a Christian championing abortion etc., but she does seem to believe in Jesus' death and resurrection, and the need for forgiveness, and things like that.

    CNN did a nice series on the religious views of the candidates: Trump, Clinton.

    By the way, as a Christian I don't feel that I am morally obligated only to vote for other Christians. In fact I would much prefer to vote for an honest non-Christian than somebody who pretends to share my faith but actually doesn't.

  8. TY says:


    "On an another blog I have been hammered with Arrow's impossibility theorem and Sorites Paradox as showing that voting is irrational and immoral (in a system that works within liberalism)."

    Majority voting does not in general lead to what is called Pareto efficient outcome, a situation where there is no room for making citizens better without making anyone worse off. Pareto optimality, the perfect state, can be achieved, but you need (a)to grant dictatorial powers to an individual and (b) he or she must have the ability to add up citizens’ preferences and ethical beliefs.

    Democracy and casting ballots may be seen as second-best (or some would say best of all the worst).

  9. Aron Wall says:

    Um, which version of the theorem are you quoting? I thought that Pareto efficiency was possible as long as you violate the "Indepedence of Irrelevant Alternatives" assumption.

  10. TY says:

    I was saying that one way to get around the impossibility problem is a dictatorship because a dictator can always make a consistent social decision by imposing his or her preference. But barring dictatorship, Pareto efficiency requires relaxing the IIA condition so that the way voters rank the choices between, say, the green park and the community swimming pool will now entail weighing other choices, the mass transit, space exploration, defense spending, and so on, so that at the margin, the rates of substitution between the options available are equalised for given the price tags. So I agree with you.

    I'm truly amazed at your command of disciplines outside your own expertise!

  11. Mactoul says:

    "The Supreme Court making a decision we disagree with, is not the same as tyranny."
    True but this was not my point. To repeat:
    "ALL social conservative arguments dismissed as mere bigotry and expressions of irrational animus by the Supreme Court. "

    I prefer myself the glorious example of Jehovah's Witnesses. Unlike servility exhibited by Catholics and Lutherans towards the Nazi regime, they practiced total non-cooperation. They were the only Christians respected by Himmler (Paul Johnson's History of Christianity).

  12. Hamid says:

    Hi again,
    Thanks for the correction. I thought the matter was otherwise. Apparently, as Wikipedia also explains, Plato almost faced death and was sent to slavery but was later bought and released. Actually, I also misspelled Descartes too which I later realized as I was contemplating on my French lessens that I also received at Holy Names university (which was then called college). Somehow I don't know why the great auto-correction word/wordpress system did not catch this as it usually does!
    By the way, the philosophical question that it is best to learn about the dialogues first hand and directly from Plato's writings as they are very much accessible today too as over learning about them from commentaries about Plato might be considered by some philosophers to be against the philosophy of the Socrates question. In fact, my Chinese-American professor would not have known about Avicenna if it wasn't otherwise. The philosophical commentaries of Avicenna and other Muslim philosophers apparently filled a big time gap in the history of philosophical flourishing periods not to mention Christian theologians and philosophers like Thomas Aquinas. Incidentally, Jesus can not also be learnt about directly from the Bible but rather is learnt thorough his disciples. There is also a passage about his disciples in Sura Yassin which is also called the heart of Quran about an incidence in Antioch.
    Let me also mention that I was trying to read your paper on BTZ black holes with Gao and Jaffries (, and I eventually arrived at Susskind and Maldacena's paper and butterflies and firewalls. Of course, I've heard of the butterfly in Noncommutative geometry BlogSpot site of Connes before, but I haven't heard of the tfds yet. It reminds me of Alice in Wonderland when the worm keeps on smoking and is also turning into a butterfly and also keeps asking Alice whooo arrre yooou?! I confess that I have a lot to learn on the subject matter and its ethics involving butterflies.

  13. Micha says:

    Thanks Aron,
    for providing links to articles about the religious views of the candidates.

    In my humbled opinion, the quote from Max Lucado’s “Decency for President” applies to non-Christians as well. It is “the key role of the president: to be the face of America. When he/she speaks, he/she speaks for” America. I really hope your nation gets a voice and a face that has a sense of decency.

    But I agree with both of your views: ① I don’t think Donald Trump is a Christian. ② And I don’t think it’s necessary—maybe not even desirable—that Christians only vote for fellow Christians.

  14. AleksyL says:

    I utterly agree with you Aron that a Clinton presidency would have been a more stable administration then a Trump one, although I disagree with you on one minor note.

    I really think that Democratic leadership would be much more suited towards judicial nominees to the Supreme Court. When I was younger (about two years ago), I read a great book on William O. Douglas called 'Wild Bill,' which really made me appreciate some allegedly activist court make up such as the Warren Court. And even to this day, although I don't agree with all his judgements (e.g Roe v. Wade), I think he made commonsense choices in the following cases, which I would also do, if I was Jurist:

    2) (no brainier decision)

  15. Aron Wall says:

    You will not be surprised to hear that I still disagree. I've read hundreds of contemporary-era Supreme Court decisions, and it seems pretty obvious to me that the conservative justices are more interested in what the constitution actually says and means, while the liberal justices are much more likely to claim that their own liberal cultural views are somehow embedded in a centuries old text. This is a form of cheating because the Supreme Court exists to interpret the law, not to favor one side in the "culture wars" (except insofar as the written constution and precedent requires them to do so), thus usupring the roles of Congress and the Presidency.

    Of course that does not mean that conservative justices do not sometimes mistakenly read conservative ideals into the Consitution, or that liberal justices don't sometimes make correct, commonsense decisions! But "conservative" and "liberal", as applied to judges, do not mean the same unprincipled partizanship they do in the political branches. They refer to judges who are "textualist or originalist" vs. "living consitution". The former philosophy is specifically designed to minimize the amount of discretion coming from the judge's own personal opinions, while the latter encourages things that are unmoored from text and even previous precedent, and makes actual black letter commands of the law disappear when they become inconvenient. (It understands precedent as progress on a trajectory that gets farther and farther from the original meaning towards supposed justice, so that you respect precedent by going even farther in the same direction!) It would be really quite surprising if the latter judicial philosophy didn't lead to a greater number of bullshit (or partizan!) decisions.

    This does not mean that ethical judgements play no role when interpreting ambiguities in the Consitution and statutes, obviously they should. Law is a normative endeavor, so the standard for the "best" interpretation involves morality, not just grammar. But that does not justify inserting one's own ethical judgement into situations where the Constitution provides no principled basis to e.g. strike down a statute.

    I'm speaking in generalities here, not trying to critique St. William O' Douglas specifically. Obviously some of the decisions you cite are good (especially Brown v. Board, although personally I would have focussed more on the objective fact of discrimination and less on the psychological harms done).

    On the other hand, I don't think it can possibly be "common sense" to effectively cause a moratorium on all death sentences in the entire country, unless you've already implicitly decided that the Death Penalty serves no important purpose. And it seems consitutionally problematic for a Supreme Court Justice to decide that, given that the Consitution explicitly contemplates the possibility of capital offenses. And I think that a lot of the Court's choices to "tinker with the machinery of death" (e.g. requiring juries to decide the penalty rather than judges, and on the basis of highly subjective factors) has actually made the system more unfair, not less. There is a case for abolition, but that should be a political question, not a judicial one.

  16. TY says:

    How prescient you were:
    “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.”
    I watch with utter dismay the Executive Order regarding the ban on Arabs from a list of countries and the ensuing problems at airports. I am horrified at the path he’s taking decent and compassionate Americans along with him.
    Why must one man sully the image of a whole nation? Is there hope?
    God help us!

  17. Aron Wall says:

    Meditate on Psalm 146:

    Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!
    While I live I will praise the Lord;
    I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.

    Do not put your trust in princes [or presidents],
    Nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help.
    His spirit departs, he returns to his earth;
    In that very day his plans perish.

    Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help,
    Whose hope is in the Lord his God,
    Who made heaven and earth,
    The sea, and all that is in them;
    Who keeps truth forever,
    Who executes justice for the oppressed,
    Who gives food to the hungry.
    The Lord gives freedom to the prisoners.

    The Lord opens the eyes of the blind;
    The Lord raises those who are bowed down;
    The Lord loves the righteous.
    The Lord watches over the strangers;
    He relieves the fatherless and widow;
    But the way of the wicked He turns upside down.

    The Lord shall reign forever—
    Your God, O Zion, to all generations.
    Praise the Lord!

  18. Matthew Major says:

    Our president has fought for his campaign promises harder than any president in my lifetime and I’m 60 years old. I believe you owe him an apology from your comments in the first paragraph

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