Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving Day is a day on which Americans are reminded to give thanks for the blessings that we, as individuals and as a nation, have received. Many spend their Thanksgiving watching football, others travel, and almost everyone eats more than they probably should. Many celebrants thank the people with whom they spend the day, usually family and friends, most thank whoever prepared the meal, and everyone should thank God, ultimately the One who provided everything we have.

Of course, to thank God requires that we believe in a personal God. It makes no sense to thank God if you don’t believe that one exists, and it also makes no sense to thank a god who isn’t a person, someone who isn’t a “someone”; unless you are of the sort who thanks the air that you breathe or the water that you drink. Surveys suggest that about 95% of Americans believe in god in some form, although perhaps 20% of those believe that god is a cosmic force, as opposed to a Person.

The Theory of Evolution plays a role. Those who believe that the universe began in a Big Bang and proceeded to develop into what we see today in the absence of divine intervention are entirely logical if they ask “why thank God for anything that we have received when the impersonal forces of evolution gave it to us?” Even if they believed in such a distant god they would be justified in withholding thanks from someone who never did anything for them.

Of course, in the absence of a personal God it is hard to explain where human personality came from. It is far easier and more logical to assume that human personality is as illusory as divine personality. If people who believed this were entirely rational, they would conclude that there was no point in thanking whoever made their Thanksgiving dinner or gave them Christmas presents. In such a belief system, these actions are equally the result of impersonal, deterministic forces.

The difference in how we see Thanksgiving in modern times is suggested in the above discussion, but it is better illustrated in comparing Presidential Thanksgiving Day Proclamations over the past two centuries.

Thanksgiving Day Proclamation – 1789

By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor– and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be– That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions– to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually–to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed–to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord–To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go: Washington

Thanksgiving Day Proclamation – 1863

October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States – A Proclamation

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United Stated States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

Abraham Lincoln

Thanksgiving Day Proclamation 2012

On Thanksgiving Day, Americans everywhere gather with family and friends to recount the joys and blessings of the past year. This day is a time to take stock of the fortune we have known and the kindnesses we have shared, grateful for the God-given bounty that enriches our lives. As many pause to lend a hand to those in need, we are also reminded of the indelible spirit of compassion and mutual responsibility that has distinguished our Nation since its earliest days.

Many Thanksgivings have offered opportunities to celebrate community during times of hardship. When the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony gave thanks for a bountiful harvest nearly four centuries ago, they enjoyed the fruits of their labor with the Wampanoag tribe – a people who had shared vital knowledge of the land in the difficult months before. When President George Washington marked our democracy’s first Thanksgiving, he prayed to our Creator for peace, union, and plenty through the trials that would surely come. And when our Nation was torn by bitterness and civil war, President Abraham Lincoln reminded us that we were, at heart, one Nation, sharing a bond as Americans that could bend but would not break. Those expressions of unity still echo today, whether in the contributions that generations of Native Americans have made to our country, the Union our forebears fought so hard to preserve, or the providence that draws our families together this season.

As we reflect on our proud heritage, let us also give thanks to those who honor it by giving back. This Thanksgiving, thousands of our men and women in uniform will sit down for a meal far from their loved ones and the comforts of home. We honor their service and sacrifice. We also show our appreciation to Americans who are serving in their communities, ensuring their neighbors have a hot meal and a place to stay. Their actions reflect our age-old belief that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and they affirm once more that we are a people who draw our deepest strength not from might or wealth, but from our bonds to each other.

On Thanksgiving Day, individuals from all walks of life come together to celebrate this most American tradition, grateful for the blessings of family, community, and country. Let us spend this day by lifting up those we love, mindful of the grace bestowed upon us by God and by all who have made our lives richer with their presence.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim Thursday, November 22, 2012, as a National Day of Thanksgiving. I encourage the people of the United States to join together – whether in our homes, places of worship, community centers, or any place of fellowship for friends and neighbors – and give thanks for all we have received in the past year, express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own, and share our bounty with others.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twentieth day of November, in the year of our Lord two thousand twelve, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-seventh.

– BARACK OBAMA

Comparison of the Presidential Proclamations George Washington

Notice the differences of the proclamations over time. In 456 words, George Washington reminded Americans of the providence (care, guardianship and control) of Almighty God and implored them to “obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.” He suggested that we spend our time in thanksgiving and prayer, and to “promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue”. God is mentioned or at least alluded to in almost every sentence.

George Washington did not refer to individual ethnic groups but referred only to the “People”. He highlighted science and liberty and his desire for our nation to be a blessing, and for God to bless, all Mankind. Washington referred repeatedly to the People “establishing a government”, “becoming a Nation” and “establishing Constitutions.” He mentioned the importance that each individual do his part “whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually”. Aside from “I”, he never referred to himself. Finally, Washington asked pardon for our national sins.

Abraham Lincoln

In the midst of the terrible Civil War, Lincoln also referred to the providence of the Almighty God and the Most High God. He mentioned the human tendency to forget the source of our blessings, and alluded to the hardness of the human heart. After reflecting upon the blessings that the Union had enjoyed, despite the hellish conflict, Lincoln gave credit to the personal God, not the strength of men. He also referred to the sins of his nation.

“No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

As in Washington’s proclamation, Lincoln focused on God as the benefactor to whom our thanks belong. He never mentioned individual ethnic groups but simply referred to “fellow citizens” and “the American people.” As with Washington, God is referred to in the masculine personal. Lincoln referred to himself as “fellow citizen”. The length is 519 words.

Barack Obama

Only 74 years passed between the proclamations of Washington and Lincoln, compared to 150 years between Lincoln and Obama, but America has become a different nation. We read of “God-given bounty”, “our Creator” and “God” but compared to Washington and Lincoln, the Divine One is barely an afterthought. There is no mention of His providence, His judgment, His service, His glory, or even “Him”.

In 550 words, Obama emphasized “lending a hand”, helping each other and “giving back.” One ethnic group is mentioned, and the word “Americans” is used. Obama honored the military and the rest of the nation separately, while the others did not honor the nation at all. Washington and Lincoln suggested that we humble ourselves, while the word is absent in 2012. Having little history as a country, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln referred to present events. In contrast, Barack Obama spoke at length of history. His only Biblical allusion was “we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers” (Genesis 4:9). While Lincoln stated that America’s greatest gifts came from God, Obama attributes them to “our bonds to each other”. He referred to himself as “President of the United States.”

Conclusion

There can be little doubt that the themes of America, as revealed in Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations, have changed. Biblical Christianity has given way to a humanistic communalism. God is mentioned but is in no way central. Sin and repentance are entirely absent, as is the providence of God. Honor is reserved for man, and not for the Creator of all men.

If modern American Christians were to write a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, what would ours say? Would it resemble Washington and Lincoln or Obama? If the latter, can we wonder why America has changed so much over the years? Renewal in our land will not be found first at the ballot box but in the prayer room, at the pulpit, in the home, and at the workplace. If Christians humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face, and turn from our wicked ways, He will hear from heaven, forgive our sins, and heal our land (2 Chronicles 7:14).

MLK Day – Human Rights, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties

Our ultimate authority, the Word of God, teaches that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).” Combined with other Biblical testimony, this means that we are equally created, equally sinners, and equally eligible to receive God’s grace. Jesus Christ sacrificed Himself for us all, rose again for us all, and those who believe in Him are united in the Body of Christ. As the old hymn reads, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.”

From a political standpoint, the US Declaration of Independence holds that all men are created equal; meaning equal before God and equal before the Law. While people differ in their abilities and their character, their God-given rights and responsibilities are recognized and protected by the law. Minorities are no worse, and no better, than majorities. Neither is any other group. Franklin Roosevelt noted “No democracy can long survive which does not accept as fundamental to its very existence the recognition of the rights of minorities (Letter, 25 June 1938, to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).”

Despite this truth, man is notorious for denying rights to people who are not like him, and even in denying rights to people who are not him. Everyone does this in ways large or small, whether they do it intentionally or not. No man or group of men is uniquely bad or good, and every person, compared to the perfect nature of God, is a racist, sexist, ageist, bigot, or whatever other term we wish to use. We may not see it and we often deny it, but lurking just beneath the surface in every man, woman, and child is a selfishness and wickedness that none of us ever want to acknowledge (Romans 3:10, 23).

Muslims have oppressed Christians, Chinese have oppressed Tibetans, Europeans have oppressed colonials, and everybody has oppressed everybody else whenever they had the power to do so throughout history. Closer to home in America, whites enslaved blacks and then denied them basic human rights even after they had been freed from slavery. Martin Luther King Jr. a black Baptist preacher named after Martin Luther, the Architect of the Protestant Reformation, was an important leader in the fight for equal rights, and responsibilities, for African Americans.

God Is the Foundation of All Just Law

As King noted in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas taught that “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” Eternal law and natural law are rooted in the character and personality of God the Creator. How could it be otherwise? If the universe has anything to say about law and justice, it says that only the fittest, those individuals best adapted to their environment, survive. Even if one considers not the individual but the community, those that survive are those that out-compete others in their environment. In a universe without God, inequality and competition, not equality and cooperation, are the lessons written in the stars. Mankind’s sense of justice is rooted in the Lord, not in ourselves or the created world (Romans 1:18-22).

Those who reject God reject this truth, but even their rejection cannot mask the fingerprints of the Holy One. In light of the recent massacre of kindergarteners at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, the Washington Post ran an article entitled “Atheist parents discuss death”. One atheist parent said “As far as morality and how to behave, when it comes up I say ‘You don’t have to be religious to know right from wrong; the Golden Rule is what we go by.’” This atheist parent may have been shocked to find that the Golden Rule, “do unto others what you would have them do unto you,” is found in the Bible (Matthew 7:12). For those who would argue that these words of Jesus merely reflect what is found in other religions that predate Christianity such as Buddhism and Hinduism, the root concept is found in Leviticus 19:18, written around 1400 BC and long before Buddha ever roamed the earth. The universe could never reveal the Golden Rule – someone outside the universe needed to do so.

God Is the Foundation of All Human and Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

Since law is derived from God, and since humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28), human rights are also derived from God. Human rights are generally defined as “inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being.” The Bible is clear that men are equal in having been created, equal in being sinners, and equal in being eligible for God’s grace. From these truths are derived the universal human rights noted in the US Declaration of Independence; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These God-given human rights provide the foundation for the civil rights, such as the right to vote, that we enjoy in America today.

There is no genetic or environmental reason why humans should have any rights. If, as Darwin suggested, only the fittest survive in nature, then human rights as we know them do not exist. Individuals have only what they can take. Those who can take nothing get nothing.

Neither is there historical justification for universal human rights because for millennia the only ones with such “rights” were those who could seize them by force. Kings did whatever they had the power and legitimacy to do with their subjects, whether rape, murder, or plunder. Women, the poor, and foreigners often had no rights at all. The caste system in India, the concept of dhimmi in Islam, and the ideas of a “master race” are built on the ideological foundation that all people are not created equal. Concern for universal human rights did not become widespread until the 18th century, and then primarily in Christendom. Because of the inherent sense of right and wrong that God has placed into man, most people feel guilty about doing wrong to others, but history suggests that “thou shalt not kill” has more traction than “all men are created equal”.

“Civil rights” are commonly defined as those rights which are granted by a government to its citizens to promote equality. They are political, social and economic rights that the government must monitor and protect. People who believe that individuals have rights but refuse to believe in God may argue that human rights and civil rights are the same thing. Logically this would mean that in truly democratic countries, those in which the people hold the reins of power, the citizens grant rights to themselves. In non-democratic countries, citizens would receive only such rights as the rulers gave them. In such situations rights might differ between countries or cultures. The end of the story is that without God, human rights and civil rights are neither universal nor irrevocable.

“Civil liberties” are fundamental freedoms that the government must stay out of in the lives of its citizens. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press are examples. One government professor summarized that civil liberties are about freedom and civil rights about equality.

A Christian Approach to Human Rights, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

As Christians approach the issue of human rights we must remember that man has no rights before God. He creates us and sustains us, and the Lord is never in our debt. His character, His will and His laws are the ultimate authority in the universe. The Bible clearly teaches that all people are equal. Certain universal rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are the logical consequences of such Bible truths. Civil rights are not granted by governments but are derived from the God-given human rights which are themselves derived from God’s Law. Civil liberties, likewise, are based on the freedoms that God provides his creatures as revealed in the Bible. As such, human rights, civil rights, and civil liberties are universal and irrevocable.

Once a people abandon the Biblical basis of human and civil rights, so called “rights” can arise which are not rights at all and which can even deny real human and civil rights to certain groups. Controversies masquerade as human rights issues which have more to do with sin and selfishness than real human rights. In the infamous Roe v. Wade decision on abortion in 1973, the US Supreme Court decided that a woman’s “right to privacy”, a tenuous “right” based at most on inference from the Constitution, takes precedence over her baby’s right to life. Christians must have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) and must utterly reject such reasoning. The Bible is our guide, and we must be transformed by it.

Ensuring that we know the issues and know the Scriptures intimately, followers of Jesus Christ must advance the cause of Biblically based civil rights wherever and whenever we live. Jesus did no less. But we must also oppose sin and selfishness masquerading as civil rights wherever and whenever we live. Jesus did no less.

Believers should advocate for civil rights in the name of social justice to advance social equality. It is also important for followers of Jesus to advocate for civil liberties to advance freedom in society. We must keep these in balance; taking money from the rich to help the poor may advance social equality but it also hinders civil liberty. Limiting freedom of speech to protect one group necessarily harms another.

Conclusion

Human rights, civil rights and civil liberties ultimately begin at the throne of God. Those who would promote equality and freedom must begin there. In our messy world, however, the fruits of human rights, civil rights and civil liberties are poorly distributed and incomplete. The final solution to these problems lies in the heart of each man. Government can help but can also hinder, whether by ham-handed intervention or by tyranny. Businesses and other organizations can do the same. The best hope of “liberty and justice for all” is found in “one nation under God”, and even more in each man under God. James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers (#51):

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

When each man is under God he becomes a better man, more like an angel, and more able to safeguard human rights, civil rights, and civil liberties for all.

Inauguration Day

Inauguration Day is a special day in America, whether your candidate wins or not. 

On 21 January 2013 I served as the deputy tactical commander for US military medical forces at the 57th Presidential Inauguration, opening the second term for President Barack Obama. All told, nearly 200 military and hundreds of civilian medical personnel provided care to the estimated 800,000 spectators and 10,000 participants. Hundreds of patients ultimately found their way to the dozens of medical tents, aid stations, roving medics, and others involved. Most people were simply cold and aching but a few had heart problems and other more serious conditions. Our National Capital is a beautiful place and the parade was a panoply of music and color. Regardless on one’s political convictions or voting record, everyone on our team was proud to have been a part of this event.

This was my third inauguration; I was the deputy commander of forces from Dewitt Army Community Hospital in 2009 and a spectator at the Bush Inauguration in 2001. In each case I was struck by how many people stayed to watch the presidential motorcade and how few to watch the parade. Even though the motorcade was delayed by over 30 minutes yesterday most of the people lining the route remained. After the president’s armored limo, preceded by press trucks and surrounded by Secret Service, passed by, thousands of spectators disappeared. It was as if the highlight of the day was a chance to see the President.

Two women, African Americans in their early 20s, jumped with joy as he passed, shouting to him and blowing kisses. They had been Democratic campaign volunteers, having spent hours on the phone and door to door grind. Some other black women argued, albeit good naturedly, with each other about which of them Obama had actually waved at. As the limo crept past shouts erupted from the onlookers. Many donned Obama hats, wore Obama T-shirts and carried Obama bags.

I could not help but puzzle at the fascination; almost worship, shown by many in the crowd to the president. Presidents are not generally exceptional in other things that generate such adoration, such as appearance, wealth, or talent in drama, sports or music. Though Obama has a unique standing among African Americans, who were very well represented yesterday, Bush also enjoyed such attention. What is it about the President of the United States that engenders such devotion? How does this feeling continue, though diminished, into the second term despite the inevitable disappointments?

From an economics standpoint, scarcity is a factor. The country needs a president, there are 330 million Americans and there is only one American president, so the supply and demand curve is heavily skewed in his favor. This is certainly one advantage that the president has over Congress and the Courts.

From a success standpoint, simply becoming president makes a person more successful, at least in the eyes of the world, than most people will ever be. Though presidents rarely have movie-star looks or talent, they have been reasonably well appointed and gifted. Success breeds success, and people feel more successful when they are around a successful person.

From an historical standpoint, presidents are part of history, no matter how good or bad, and people with a sense of history, no matter how small, want their fleeting lives anchored in something bigger than themselves. In 2005 I was deployed to Fort Polk to assist with the rebuilding after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. While there I visited the Los Adaes State Historic Site and met a worker whose ancestor had been the commander of the Presidio Los Adaes in the early 18th century. When visiting Antietam for the sesquicentennial my son and I were guided by a Park Ranger whose ancestor had fought in the battle. Their history had given these men direction and even purpose, and being a part of presidential history can do that for some.

From a personal interest standpoint, the President, more than any other single individual in America, can advance the interests of one person or party over another. Between the bully pulpit, the appointment of judges, the enforcement of legislation, and the control of the massive executive bureaucracy, the President of the United States can heavily influence who wins and who loses in many fights.

The single greatest factor in the appeal of the presidency is power. While the President exerts control on the domestic scene, he also exerts tremendous power internationally. The American president controls the most powerful military on earth, and the most powerful in human history. Insofar as he can work with Congress he holds vast wealth to distribute to whomever he sees fit. Those who claim that the President of the United States is the most powerful man on earth are probably not too far off the mark. Whether he is too powerful (or some might say not powerful enough) will be the topic of a future article.

All of these factors help us understand the fascination of the onlookers yesterday with the president. But in some cases even more is at play.

The president might be the closest thing to God that some accept. Many refuse to believe in the Biblical God and yet understand that they cannot personally make the world as they wish it to be. So they try to find someone else who can do it for them. Perhaps this is the real reason that Americans are giving their presidents more and more power. Perhaps that is why some Americans make their president an object of veneration.

Those who refuse to accept any reality beyond the physical world must attribute to this world the highest priority. Governing this world then gains the highest urgency. Could this be why zealots left and right seem to hate those who disagree with them, even though they are fellow Americans? Could this explain “gridlock in Washington?” Finally, could this explain the emergence of what many have called The Imperial Presidency?

President’s Day – Christians and the President

American Presidents are extraordinary, and they are ordinary. We should value, and can learn from, them all. 

This President’s Day, it is reasonable for Americans who follow Jesus to consider the President of the United States, the man and the office, and to commit ourselves to praying for him, for the rest of our government at every level, and for our nation.

“The conclusion of a brief speech made by Gen. Garfield at a mass meeting in front of the Merchants’ Exchange in New York City, April 15, 1865, the day of President Lincoln’s death. The excited throng was demanding vengeance upon certain newspapers for utterances considered treasonable; two men lay dying in the street for exulting in assassination, and telegrams from Washington gave intimations of other probable victims of a general conspiracy. At this critical moment, a man known to but few stepped forward, and, beckoning to the crowd with a small flag, spoke these words in a clear and impressive voice:

‘Fellow-citizens,—Clouds and darkness are round about Him. His pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds of the skies. Justice and judgment are the establishment of his throne. Mercy and truth shall go before his face. God reigns, and the government at Washington still lives.’
The effect was instantaneous. The crowd listened, and became calm, and the meeting afterwards was quietly dissolved (http://www.bartleby.com/344/187.html).”

The Power of the President

The President of the United States is considered the most powerful man in the world; primarily because the United States is the most powerful nation in the world. He has command of a military of over 3,000,000 and influences a federal budget of nearly $4 trillion dollars. There are over 310 million Americans, almost 5% of the world’s population, and the US gross domestic product is over $15 trillion, over double that of China, who has the second biggest economy. For the brief time that he is in office, the man who is the President is the personification of America. His may be the most recognizable face on the planet, with people everywhere seeing his face on television, on the Internet, in magazines, and in a thousand other venues.

Within the United States, the power of the President is unequaled. He has what Theodore Roosevelt called a “bully pulpit”, the ability to be heard, but not necessarily agreed with, nationwide on any issue of his choosing. The president will always be more popular than Congress or the Supreme Court because, unless he is an idiot or a sadist, it is always easier to like and harder to dislike an individual than an organization. From 1975 to 2010, Congress’ job approval rating averaged about 35% (http://www.gallup.com/poll/145238/Congress-Job-Approval-Rating-Worst-Gallup-History.aspx) while the President’s, though much more variable, has most often been in the 40-50% range (http://www.gallup.com/poll/124922/Presidential-Approval-Center.aspx). The president has the power to unilaterally modify legislation through signing statements and Federal rulemaking, and can move the executive branch through executive orders. He can also decide to enforce certain laws and disregard others. Congress and the Supreme Court can do little except by consensus and the courts can decide on only what comes to them.

The Demands on the President

We have had good presidents and we have had poor presidents, but regardless of the qualities of the man the American people, and many others throughout the world, put great faith in him. Making the world safer in an age of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, encouraging the equitable distribution of scarce resources, protecting the Earth’s climate, and helping safeguard human rights for all is a nearly impossible task, but we expect our president to do all of these things. Simultaneously he needs to laugh when we laugh, cry when we cry, and grow angry when we are angry. Americans expect the president to inspire them when they are discouraged and point the way to a brighter future. It is a burden no man can fully bear, but the best among us can handle for a time.

No one who has never been president understands the diamond-crushing pressure, the microscopic scrutiny, the impossible expectations, and the gravity of the decisions inherent to the office. When Truman was sworn in as the 33rd president of the United States after the death of Franklin Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Georgia in April 1945, he famously asked Eleanor Roosevelt what he could do for her. Eleanor replied “Is there anything that we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”

The Limitations of the President

Though presidents have tremendous power and control an impressive array of resources, people, money and expertise, they are not able to do whatever they wish. The Founders specifically limited the power of the presidency to prevent tyranny. Government was and is limited, and the citizens of America have a vital interest in keeping it that way. This is because government is comprised of people, and we all have the same corrupt nature. James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers:

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

Unlike more autocratic nations, the United States has multiple centers of power which limit the president. Corporations and other organizations can and do vigorously oppose him at times. Citizens vote every four years to keep or replace the president, and the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution ensures that no one can ever be president more than 10 years.

Putting Hope in the President

Too many people put too much hope in a president. For reasons good and bad, his power is always limited. Presidents and other political figures, no matter how good they are, will always disappoint. Presidential satisfaction levels are nearly always high when he first takes office, and drop off significantly thereafter. Presidents are men, and even the best, like Lincoln or Washington, sometimes failed. King David, one of the best leaders in history, failed spectacularly. And as noted in the introduction, presidents die. Through natural processes, accidents or the hands of others, the Great Equalizer strikes down even the most capable, the most likeable, and the most powerful.

What should Christians Do?

As Christians, we must pray for the president, both the office and the man. We must pray for Congress, the Supreme Court, and all of the other executives and legislative bodies that govern our land. Shortly before the 2012 Presidential Election, a woman in my church told me in passing that she was praying for the presidency, but not the president, with whom she vehemently disagreed. Though that opinion might sound good to some Christians, to whom Barack Obama’s policies are anathema, Jesus would have vehemently disagreed. He commanded His followers to “pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).” The Apostle Paul wrote “Bless those who persecute you (Romans 12:14).” No U.S. President in history can compare to Herod or Nero.

Believers in Christ should be active in all aspects of life, including politics, to try to “form a more perfect union.” If governments at all levels in the United States are truly governments of the people, by the people and for the people, such governments are not our enemy. When they do wrong, however, the Church must oppose them, as Friedrich Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer did against Hitler.

But we must never place our hope in a man or in any group of men. Psalms 146:3-4 reminds us “Put not your trust in princes, [nor] in the son of man, in whom [there is] no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” Though governments seem to have so much power, God still reigns (Psalm 2). When Pontius Pilate, the appointed governor of Judea in the Roman Empire, told Jesus that he had the power to free Him or condemn Him, Jesus replied “you would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above (John 19:11).”

James Garfield, on that somber day in April 1865, got it exactly right: “God reigns, and the government at Washington still lives.”