In America, most of us grew up receiving great stories about our American Presidents – Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln (and depending on what type of home you were raised in) … Reagan.
Shortly after the Presidential debate last week, I saw a tweet inquiring “Why aren’t there any great Presidents anymore?” I assume its an offshoot of the often-heard statement, “I don’t like either candidate” mixed with the classic lament, “A good man/woman is hard to find these days.” Whatever is meant by those saying it, I’ve been thinking about it.
Understandably, it is easy to feel a measure of disillusionment towards our nation’s political leadership. There is a lot of posturing, a lot of game playing, some scandals and a good bit of deflection and deception. The only thing the public really wants is someone they can trust, someone who keeps their promises, someone who really is trying to serve the country but as we all know, this is a rather complicated thing.
And when it’s complicated, it’s easy to mistrust people. This is even further complicated by all the access we have to all people – not only in terms of our video cameras, teams of reporters, but so many aspects of our technology allow for the discovery and the delivery of so much news, data and gossip to circulate almost instantly. We simply have unprecedented access to the public figure (we also have unprecedented access to each other but that’s another story).
Not only do we have access, but we have an incredible market for the gossip – there’s a huge reward system around it. Certainly people have always been interested in gossip but I think it’s fair to say that as time has gone on, we’ve figured out how to make even more money from it, which has increased not only the efficiency of delivery but the volume as well. To put bluntly, people can get rich by discovering and revealing your worst secrets.
People also get rich and more powerful by not only protecting your secrets but also by growing one’s legend. This is best done to figures in the past (among the reasons I suppose is that they can do little to screw it up). Again, we see this with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Teddy, etc. On Sunday, I attended a class in our Adult Discipleship building on the faith of US Presidents. Normally, I am not into these discussions in a church setting but I had heard such great things of the teacher, Jim Wallace, that I decided to check it out.
This week was on the faith of Abraham Lincoln which was interesting because I am excited about the new Spielberg movie on him coming out next month. Anyway, the class was great but it wasn’t great because of the presidents – it was great because Jim was giving all sides of the story. Whether it is difficult to figure out where Lincoln stood in regards to his Christian faith (we learned that he was a Unitarian, was very superstitious, participated in cyanoses and though he called the nation to prayer, he rarely ever spoke about Jesus. Then things seem to change spiritually after the death of his son in 1850. Fascinating content but clearly not the modern American evangelical that have some have created him to be. Love that our church is talking about such subjects like this. It’s honest, it’s fresh, it’s needed).
It’s also interesting to see what happens with the legacies of the more recent Presidents has time goes on. This election season shows us a Bill Clinton with a halo on his head. But I tell you, I remember in the late 90’s amidst his scandals and I remember how he was loathed by Republicans … and many Democrats. Loathed. It’s not that we forgot the events that happened 15 years ago. It’s not that the internet has forgotten, it’s that his story is being told differently. It will be interesting to see how this new narrative is received.
We have access to so much gossip, we have a market for it, we have revisionist history for the good/bad/truth/etc. and we have also have so many other figures who are “leaders” in some way as well. Consider today that depending on who you are, you can regard Billy Graham, Tom Brady or Lady Gaga as your inspiration.
What’s the point to all of this? It seems unwise to compare the moral character of Presidents from one era to another or to compare the influence of public figures either. Though it will be an interesting discussion and insights can be gained, there is no winner to the question because all people have shortcomings, even the most just can be be unjust, all are corrupt. Thankfully, many have risen and demonstrated profound moments of greatness and God has used countless other moments as well.
But it puts things in perspective. This election season, let’s accept the realities of these figures. Let’s accept the realities of our personal and collective shortcomings and seek to find the solutions as opposed to the blame. For Christians, the shalom of Jesus does not come by securing worldly power, it comes by seeking the Kingdom of Christ. Though I believe we need to be faithful with our civic duties, the question we need to concern ourselves with is, “Where have all the great churches gone?”