As We Think

Directing our emotions, our thoughts, our words, and our actions…to be who we were created to be.

The Economist is no fan of Donald Trump. The October 27 to November 2, 2018 issue featured a column by the editor Lexington describing the foreign policy failures and successes of the President. It was accompanied by the picture noted here, which shows Trump as an archer rejoicing over a single bulls-eye while quivers of arrows are far off the mark. He seems to be ignoring his many failures and raising his arms in triumph over one, perhaps random, success. Maybe Lexington sees Trump as an incompetent egomaniac who sometimes gets lucky. Certainly, other people do. While catchy, this illustration is a snowflake in an avalanche of political cartoons criticizing the US leader.

In my primary care medical practice, I encounter dozens of patients every week who, if they were featured in the same picture, would be sad. The context wouldn’t be foreign policy, but might be success at work, a loving family, new hobbies, losing weight, quitting smoking, or any of a hundred other things.  Rather than looking out of the illustration at the reader with upraised arms and a self-satisfied smile, their eyes would be downcast. Their brows would be furrowed and the corners of their mouths drooping. Instead of more than 30 arrows there may only be 10, or 5, or 1, because the person would have given up. He or she might tell a bystander “this is a stupid sport anyway. I have better things to do.” Just below their level of consciousness, they might get a queasy feeling – “why show my failures to the public, and to myself? How much better would it be to stay home alone with my screens, my games, and my programs? That way I cannot fail.”

There is danger in an excessive focus on our successes, but likewise danger in an excessive focus on our failings. The best focus is outside ourselves – at the problem to be solved or the grace to be enjoyed.

A focus on failures is not only a problem for patients, but for all of us. How do we regard each moment of our lives? Do we ruminate on our regrets? Do we marinate in our missteps? Do we refuse to forgive those who hurt us? Do we choose to take offense at the clumsy words and actions of others? Do we reject others for what they are, and reject ourselves for what we are? Do we put ourselves and others in the worst possible light? Do we cut others out of our lives when they don’t consistently meet our expectations and fulfill our wishes? Do we withdraw into a cave of confusion, sit down in den of darkness, and finally lie in a coffin of loneliness?

Conversely, do we bounce back after our blunders? Do we stand up after we fall? When faced with a seemingly impossible task, do we act as the inventors did in The Roses of Success, from Ian Fleming’s children’s musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang:

Every bursted bubble has a glory!
Each abysmal failure makes a point!
Every glowing path that goes astray,
Shows you how to find a better way.
So every time you stumble never grumble.
Next time you’ll bumble even less!
For up from the ashes, up from the ashes, grow the roses of success!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses of success!
Oh yes!
Grow the roses!
Those rosy roses!
From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success!
(spoken) Yes I know but he wants it to float. It will!
For every big mistake you make be grateful!
Here, here!
That mistake you’ll never make again!
No sir!
Every shiny dream that fades and dies,
Generates the steam for two more tries!
(Oh) There’s magic in the wake of a fiasco!
Correct!
It gives you that chance to second guess!
Oh yes!
Then up from the ashes, up from the ashes grow the roses of success!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses of success!
Grow the roses!
Those rosy roses!
From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success!
Disaster didn’t stymie Louis Pasteur!
No sir!
Edison took years to see the light!
Right!
Alexander Graham knew failure well; he took a lot of knocks to ring that
bell!
So when it gets distressing it’s a blessing!
Onward and upward you must press!
Yes, Yes!
Till up from the ashes, up from the ashes grow the roses of success.
Grow the ro… (continue)

To succeed after failure, we must control our emotions. Years ago a young woman told me of a time when she felt awkward. I replied, “Awkwardness is a choice. If you chose to not feel awkward, you will not feel it.” She paused, a look of realization crept over her face, and she smiled.

Offense, discouragement, and every other emotion is also a choice. We cannot control the initial flush of feeling that we get from any situation, but we can control what we do with that flush of feelings. Emotions roll over us like a wave for the first few seconds, but then we must decide whether and how to redirect the waters.  We can nurture resentment over an injury or to forgive it. We can see any circumstance as a defeat or a victory. We can dwell in the prison of our fears or dance in the pastures of our joys. We can consider that both compliments and criticisms say more about the giver than the receiver.

The Bible tells us again and again to control our thoughts and our emotions and channel them toward success. We are to “Fear not!” (Isaiah 41:10) and “Not let our hearts be troubled (John 14:1).” Day by day success is performing the tasks which He has given to us with all our might (Ecclesiastes 9:10, Colossians 3:23). Ultimately, success for the Christian is loving, glorifying, and enjoying God.

The Economist probably did not mean to make Donald Trump look good in this illustration. I do not know Trump’s thoughts or his character. However, insofar as the Trump in the picture is rejoicing despite many, many failures, the British newsmagazine may be revealing a secret of his success.  

Communication Conflicts

Assumptions, Emotions, Perceptions, Conditions, and Facts color our communication with ourselves and others. We must learn to manage them.

A wise man once said that the hardest thing about communication is the illusion that it has occurred. I have been involved in hundreds of medical, military, and public safety operations, and the after-action reviews of each one cite communication as a problem. Whether in business, relationships, or anywhere else, avalanches of academic papers and mountains of media articles bemoan our inability to effectively talk to each other, and propose ways of fixing it.

Several factors are present in every communication event, including assumptions, emotions, perceptions, conditions, and facts. They change the communication, often without the participants realizing it.

Assumptions

Assumptions are believed true but without proof. Each person, whether he considers himself religious, spiritual, philosophical, materialistic, or something else, makes metaphysical assumptions, assumptions about the fundamental questions of life. Suppose three college students, Mike, Sienna, and Jorge, are talking about their planned vacations. Mike, a Christian, believes that God created everything, that He is the center of existence, and that the purpose of every created thing, including people, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Sienna, a secularist, believes that the universe is just one of many universes in a “multiverse”, that the human community is the center of existence, and that making oneself happy is the purpose of existence.  Jorge, a philosophical naturalist, agrees with Sienna on the origin of things, believes that each individual is the center of existence for that individual, and claims that the universe has no meaning or end at all. Mike plans to do a mission trip to Brazil for his spring break, Sienna is scheduled to take an eco- and poverty-tourist trip to Belize, and Jorge is going to the Caribbean for alcohol, parties, and women. Each is acting in accordance with their fundamental assumptions about life, but their discussion will probably be no deeper than “whatever works for you.”

Most people do not recognize their own assumptions, but have a smorgasbord mishmash drawn from religions, the media, popular culture, and those around them. Nonetheless, these assumptions color everything that we do – from who we marry to how we work and vote. When two people talk, the further apart their assumptions are, the harder it will be for them to communicate, and the less likely it will be for the conversation to go well. Keep in mind that we are talking about fundamental, important assumptions; beliefs about life, the nature of good and evil, and purpose.

Imagine that Asherah, an ancient Sumerian woman, were listening to the conversation between Mike, Sienna, and Jorge. Unfamiliar with any idea of universal religion, she would puzzle over why Mike was sailing over the ocean (she couldn’t conceive of flying) to bring his religion to another people, who already had their own gods. Scoffing at the idea that all people are created equal, she would be scandalized that Sienna was going anywhere without her father or brother, and that she should be care about poor at all. Even if our Sumerian maiden secretly admired Sienna’s independence, she would not admire her egalitarian leanings. Asherah would understand Jorge’s plans the best, and if Jorge were wealthy, might approve.

Lesser assumptions also impact communication. If a woman believes that black men are threatening, or that men in general are oppressive, she will have trouble understanding anything that a male is trying to say, no matter how he says it. If a man considers women little more than sexual prey, he will be equally impotent in understanding women. The same is true for other prejudices, no matter their basis (religion, culture, nation, etc.). That is why such attitudes are so toxic.

Emotions

I know the look. When I am talking with my oldest daughter, I am in trouble when she squints, tilts her head, and furrows her brow. At that point, I better start apologizing, because we have moved from (usually) rational discourse to emotional damage control. It is not that she is unusually irrational but that she, like all people, is a complex mix of intellect and emotion. Often the emotion leads. My daughter is helpful in that she signals when the switch has occurred – with others you may never know.

Emotions powerfully affect communication, sometimes blocking it entirely. When doctors give a patient a terminal diagnosis, the patient hears nothing else during that conversation, no matter how the doctor says it. When a judge announces a contest winner, the same thing happens. Excessive anger or fear can also stop the ears and close the mind. Stress hormones like epinephrine and cortisol surge in the body, and all the person can do is react.

Emotions color conversations. All else being equal, speaking with someone you love will always be better than speaking with someone that you do not like, or are neutral towards, even if the words are as tame as “Please pass the butter.” Newlyweds eating by candlelight might see that request with the rose hue of love, while feuding co-workers at a mandatory company dinner might see it with the red fire of anger or the blue ice of bitterness.

Talking with someone new may be exciting, but it also generates fear. The same is true of talking to a person of a different age, sex, religion, culture, nationality, race, or political persuasion. Discourse with those who are different from ourselves is imperative, but the emotions involved often make it more difficult.

Emotions amplify or deaden the importance of communication. When a rigorous teacher in an important class says, “the test is tomorrow”, students will color and amplify the statement based on their perceived readiness. Prepared students will feel satisfied in their work and a readiness to get the exam over with, and unprepared students will feel dread about their anticipated grade and shame for not working harder. The words “the test is tomorrow” will pound in the unready student’s head all day long, while the ready student will hardly give them a second thought.

Perceptions

I was standing near a military medical tent in Washington DC during Barak Obama’s second inauguration in 2013. The Presidential motorcade was approaching, and several black women were chattering wildly in anticipation of seeing America’s first black president. Their emotions were high, and from the tenor and text of their conversation, had been for days. It was hard to know which black limousine the President was in, and hard to see anyone inside the vehicles due to their dark, tinted windows. Nonetheless, everyone found him and in the few seconds that he passed by, studied his every move. One woman shouted, “he looked at me!” while another exclaimed “he smiled at me!” Watching the same scene, I could not be sure that the President had done either. He could have scowled, or more likely not noticed them at all given the tens of thousands of people on the parade route, but it didn’t matter. Those women will stick to their stories and tell them to their friends and family all of their lives.

Perceptions are mental impressions or intuitive insight. In day to day life, what we perceive is often more important to our understanding and our actions than the truth. A look, body position, or tone of voice perceived as threatening, unkind, or even uncaring will undo the best of words. Similarly, favorable perceptions can make the communicating parties feel better about themselves and each other. Regardless of what Barak Obama actually did, the perceptions of these women at the Inauguration made them like him more.

Conditions

Everyone who communicates does so to gain something:

  1. Money
  2. Self-esteem
  3. Esteem in the eyes of others
  4. A chance to do good, whether by advancing their business or some other cause
  5. Specific, personal goals

While everyone more or less shares general goals, communicators are not likely to share specific goals. A boss might want to get his employee to do a task, while the employee might want to shift that work to someone else. A politician may want each person in the audience to vote for her, while listeners might want free food, a good time, and a chance to have an interesting experience with an important person that they can share with their friends. A man may want a date, but the woman he is talking to may simply want to escape from a “creepy” situation.

Real communication will be much harder to achieve if the parties don’t know what motivates others. If they know what the other person is thinking, the boss might emphasize the benefits of doing this particular job, the politician might design a rally to provide an exciting experience, and the suitor might learn more about the object of his affection to avoid making her uncomfortable. If the boss knows that nothing he can do will make the employee do the work, if the politician has no chance of getting certain votes, and if the man’s amorous advances are dead in the water, each would drastically change their tactics, or give up communicating all together.

Facts

People generally believe that they are communicating in facts, those objective truths upon which life is based. Because each party feels that he is dealing only in irrefutable facts, he may have trouble understanding how anyone could disagree. When we are not careful, this opinion leads to dismissing other opinions as stupid, or even evil. We demonize those with whom we disagree, and they demonize us. Our assumptions, emotions, and perceptions align against our opponents, and our desired outcome is no longer understanding or compromise, it is victory. Crushing the hated enemy, not understanding each other and accomplishing mutual objectives, becomes the goal.

Actually, facts can be challenged, debated, and seen from different perspectives. Truths are still objective – a person with colon cancer has colon cancer regardless of what they, their friends, or all the doctors in the world think. But finding the objective truth can be extremely difficult – much harder than we assume. No one has a monopoly on truth, but some do understand reality better than others – at least in certain fields. By comparing facts, acknowledging other opinions, being humble enough to learn, and keeping all participants’ best interests at heart, we all can get closer to the truth, and closer to solving the problems that vex our world.

Conclusion

It is hard to communicate effectively. If communication is an iceberg, facts are the visible part above the waterline, and assumptions, emotions, perceptions, and conditions are the barely visible parts below the surface. Just as the Titanic never would have foundered if it had hit only the top of the iceberg, so communication rarely founders on the facts. Rather, it founders because the parties don’t understand and sometimes don’t trust each other. Anyone who wants to communicate will take the time to ponder the assumptions, emotions, perceptions, conditions, and facts of others. These people will communicate better and have success.

The Long Shadow – How to Follow a Superstar

A Tennessee democrat who was firmly committed to the Union, Andrew Johnson had a distinguished career as congressman, senator and governor of his state. Hoping to send a message of reconciliation to the rebellious South, Lincoln chose Johnson as his vice president in 1864. Johnson’s debut on the national stage went poorly, with a rambling and perhaps drunken speech when he assumed office in March 1865. Lincoln followed with a masterpiece, his Second Inaugural Address. Little did anyone know that in only six weeks, at one of the most crucial times in American history, the rambler would be President.

A Missouri democrat who came to national prominence investigating fraud, waste and abuse on the Committee of Military Affairs during the Second World War, Harry Truman had earlier served as farmer, haberdasher, judge and US senator. With President Franklin Roosevelt in declining health and many expecting that he would not survive his fourth term, the party looked for a vice president who could succeed in the top job. Eighty-two days after the Inauguration, Roosevelt lay dead, and Truman took the top job.

Johnson struggled during his presidency, continually battling Congress on civil rights and other issues, being impeached by the House, and retaining his job by only one vote in the Senate. Historians have judged him to be among the worst presidents. Truman could never compete with the wildly popular Roosevelt, and did not try. He stuck to his agenda and his style through the atomic bomb, economic upheaval, strikes, the war in Korea, and the start of the Cold War. Though his approval rating was 22%, the worst ever, in the final year of his presidency, Harry Truman is now ranked among the best US presidents.

Many have considered why Johnson failed and Truman succeeded in their quest to follow a superstar. Johnson had the disadvantage of following a relatively young and still healthy president who no one expected to die. He also had to rebuild the nation. Truman’s ascension to the presidency was expected, but he had to stabilize the world. This article attempts to help leaders know how to follow predecessors whom others consider to be superstars.

Publicly Acknowledge Reality

1. Your predecessor is loved; do not be perceived as diminishing that in any way. If you do, you, not he, will be diminished.

2. Charles de Gaulle is the most famous man credited with saying “The graveyards of the world are full of indispensable men.” While it is true that the world will not collapse with the loss of any individual, it is equally true that no one is replaceable. Each person’s combination of knowledge, skills, personality, and industry is unique. Don’t even try to replace a predecessor.

3. However, many people could do any given job competently. Your job is not to replace a superstar, but to use your unique attributes to move the team and the organization to the next level and face a new set of challenges.

4. No one, no matter how good, can or should stay in a job forever. New times call for new people. Lincoln had an excellent plan for bringing the United States back together after the Civil War, but Lincoln was one of the greatest leaders in human history. Judging from his performance at Yalta, it is not clear that Roosevelt grasped how the world would be after World War 2, and not clear that he had a sound plan.

5. There are some people in the organization who do not consider your predecessor a superstar. No one is loved by everyone. No matter how good you are, you are not loved by everyone either.

Transition

1. If your predecessor is a real superstar, he will be sad to leave the people he has worked with so well. However, he will not impair your transition.

2. Once she is gone, she will not interfere in the organization. She will stay gone unless asked to assist.

Your task

1. Maintain the advances of your predecessor. Andrew Johnson kept Lincoln’s rough outline for gently bringing the South back into the Union, although he struggled against a vindictive Republican congress. William Taft advanced, albeit imperfectly, Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive agenda. Neither tried to turn back the clock.

2. Move the organization ahead to meet new challenges. Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, but Joshua led them into the Promised Land. Moses’ task was great and his results were legendary. Joshua’s task was also great, and his results also stood the test of time.

3. Know and use your own style. You will fail if you try to mimic someone else. You have strengths and weaknesses just like she does.

4. Improve your strengths, improve your weaknesses, and use your staff to help compensate. Andrew Carnegie, the American steel magnate, famously opined that the key to success was to surround yourself with good people.

5. Leaders are beloved by their troops because they love their troops. You must care for your people more than you care for yourself. The Chinese military writer Sun Tzu wrote

“Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death. If, however, you are indulgent, but unable to make your authority felt; kind-hearted, but unable to enforce your commands; and incapable, moreover, of quelling disorder: then your soldiers must be likened to spoilt children; they are useless for any practical purpose.”

6. Leaders are respected because they know their job better than anyone else, and work hard.

7. Leaders are followed because they know where the organization should go and how to get there.

8. As you are accomplishing your mission, enjoy your job and your team. They will not enjoy you if you do not enjoy them.

Anticipate a Positive Future

1. Make sure that your team knows that while their beloved leader has moved on, the team’s future is bright. It is your job and theirs to make the future better.

2. If your predecessor is a real superstar, rather than someone who is interested primarily in himself and his legacy, he will want your tenure to be even better than his, because he wants the best for the organization. The group’s well-being is more important to him than his own.

Conclusion

Some may argue that Andrew Johnson had no chance to succeed following Lincoln, and that the best he could have done was to be a placeholder until the next president came in and the magic of Lincoln had faded from public memory. However, as the examples of Truman and Joshua prove, capable men can succeed in the long shadow of superstars.

You may be following a superstar, but no matter how good, his or her time is over, and yours has begun. You have been placed in this new role by your superiors, and by powers even higher. You must respect and appreciate the past, but you must shape the future. Now all that remains is to do it.

How Much Do Leaders Care?

It is true that no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care

 

1.    A husband and father earns the right to lead his family by caring for his wife and children.

2.    A minister earns the right to preach by caring for his congregation.

3.    A physician earns the right to teach medical students and residents by caring for them, and the right to influence and even direct his patients by caring for them.

4.    A commander earns the right to command by caring for his soldiers.

5.    A manager earns the right to lead by caring for his employees.

6.    A teacher earns the right to teach by caring for his students.

7.    A king earns the right to rule and a prime minister or president earns the right to preside (exercise authority or control) by caring for his citizens.

 

Caring is not merely feeling benevolent emotions.  Actually, since emotions are merely a side effect of thoughts and actions, benevolent emotions are an outgrowth, not a cause or a definition, or caring.  Leaders who care do the following for those who follow them:

 

1.    Learn about them

2.    Pray for them

3.    Encourage them

4.    Talk to them

5.    Listen to them

6.    Rebuke them

7.    Mentor them

8.    Teach them

9.    Be accountable to them

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.”

The 2012 Presidential Debates

We have one television at home and generally watch only videos on it, because we have no cable, no satellite, and not even an antenna. With rare exceptions, we have lived without TV for over a decade. This year, however, with the Olympics in July and the presidential race in the fall we opted to buy an inexpensive cable package. One of the things that I anticipated watching was the series of presidential debates.

Elections are always a bizarre mix of truth and error, exaggeration and understatement, and bluster and bombast. Presidential elections are the most extreme. With little trust for the professional media, people seem to like debates because they feel that debates are the only unscripted and unstaged events in politics. Political conventions used to be raucous affairs with the outcome in doubt until the last ballot; now they are primarily pep rallies with the choice of candidate a foregone conclusion. Stump speeches and other events have more of the ring of a Hollywood production than of a chance to get to know the real candidate.

Stated another way, everything we know comes from our experience or the experience (and subsequent testimony) of others. We have ample personal experience with friends and family to feel that we truly know them. In the past, citizens roamed the White House and Capitol and interacted personally with their leaders. With the massive increase in the size and power of the Federal government in the past century, the US population growth, and the increase in security threats, this ended. People still feel like they should know governmental leaders but this has become impossible. Since we have little or no personal experience with the candidates, we rely on the statements of others about them. Unfortunately, those making the statements either have no experience of their own or largely turn these men into caricatures; so bad or so good as to belie the truth. Debates seem to provide a small but genuine personal interaction to each viewer.

I do not claim to be an undecided voter, but I hoped the first debate would be informative and civil. With modern attention spans measured in the minutes, not hours, I was not expecting a replay of Lincoln-Douglas (1858), though I would love to have seen it (yes, even the ridiculous portions, which have been around since before Cicero ran for Roman consul in 64 BC). The debate was a bit of a letdown, since it is hard to argue a point in a two minute long strings of sound bites, but I thought that each candidate performed well enough.

The next morning on the drive to work, the satellite radio channels erupted with exuberance (if the speaker was Republican) and drowned in despair (if the speaker was a Democrat). Apparently the commentators and focus groups felt that Republican challenger Mitt Romney had crushed Democratic Incumbent Barak Obama. Both sides reviled Obama for being “aloof”, “diffident”, and “weak”. President Obama explained that he had been too polite and promised to do better the next time.

If watching the first presidential debate was a bit of a letdown, watching the vice presidential debate was wearisome. This debate received our household prize for rudest and most arrogant of the year. My wife and I skipped the second presidential debate, recording it for my son, who wanted to watch it later. The next day he judged it “nothing but bickering and talking points”, summarizing that it was “not worth watching.” The thin, smile laden veneer failed to conceal the acrimony. Afterwards my son and I watched a clip from the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates of 1960 and the Reagan Mondale debate from 1984. He asked “Dad, why can’t we have debates like that today?”

Radio commentators and focus groups, however, seemed to be quite satisfied. Many believed that the president and vice president made up for lost ground, showing “commitment” and “strength”. Democrats labeled the Republicans “wonkish” or “weak”. Behavior that would not have been tolerated in our home was lauded on satellite radio. Do we really think that such cacophony demonstrates strength? Is this behavior really useful in tense international negotiations? Is this how Nixon opened China, or what Eisenhower did at Panmunjom? By the third presidential debate my wife and I had regained our tolerance for 90 minutes of televised argument and rudeness, so we watched. My daughter, home from college, was fed up after 45 minutes. Nonetheless we persevered. On the whole, I found it better than the others.

Were these debates really what the American people wanted? They must have been what the media wanted because they droned on for hours with commentary and analysis. Perhaps election coverage is to the media what the Works Progress Administration was to workers in the 1930s; a source of some useful and much meaningless labor. The debates were clearly what some of the viewers wanted, as indicated by the recorded comments and the tenor of some of the social media coverage. If people wanted conflict, they got it, just like spectators at the Coliseum in Rome. Were the debates what the candidates wanted? One suspects that they were at least what they needed, because these ambitious and articulate men subjected themselves to this process. Perhaps that is why George Bush infamously checked his watch in the 1992 presidential debates; he had to perform but hated doing so. It is easy to conclude that many Americans got what they wanted in the debates.

People want their leaders to be successful and to care enough about them to help make them successful. People want their leaders to be enough like them to understand their problems and enough unlike them to solve the problems that they cannot. They want strong leaders to stand up to threats at home and abroad, and sensitive leaders who are touched at the sight of a mother grieving her fallen warrior son. They want a man who can deftly manage a civil war in Syria and equally manage the workplace rights of a breastfeeding mother. It is a tall order, and no one on earth can do it perfectly. The entire election process is the best that we, or anyone else, has devised to pick the man who can do it the best. The American style of government, republican democracy, is messy. But given the inherent corruption of man, it is the best possible government for providing the most good for the most people. The election process, including the wearisome debates, gives Americans a glimpse not just into the candidates, but into the glories, and absurdities, of republican democracy.

One last note, as citizens of the world, Christians must help shape the world to reflect the goodness of the One who created it. Justice matters, and believers in Christ should be the first to fight for it, just as the American Abolitionists, largely Christian, did 200 years ago. However as citizens of heaven, we must never put our hope in the world. God alone is sovereign, and regardless of the outcomes of elections, or any other event on earth, He is in control. Our ultimate trust must always be in Him.