The modern political world often idealizes leaders who “get things done” — in other words, are able to enact an agenda effectively. I see a lot of merit in the arguments for a more powerful executive, though to be fair I have not personally acquainted myself with the arguments against the strong executive. While I am relatively unanchored concerning this debate, I nevertheless want to explore ideas in this piece that look toward scripture to highlight the proper role of a President.
To start, consider one of the most pertinent passages regarding this topic when Israel receives its king in the Book of Samuel:
“Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” And Samuel prayed to the LORD. And the LORD said to Samuel, “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds which they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, hearken to their voice; only, you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking a king from him. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your menservants and maidservants, and the best of your cattle and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; and they said, “No! but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Hearken to their voice, and make them a king.” Samuel then said to the men of Israel, ‘Go every man to his city.’” (Samuel 8:10-22)
While I am sure there were many reasons people in general should not have a king, the ones God points out (that I identify) are as follows:
- A king would make Israel like other nations when it was meant to be separate. (v. 5)
- A king would take the place of the Lord as ruler of Israel. (v. 7-8)
- Mankind is fallen, and so a king coming from men would certainly abuse his power. (v. 11-18)
I want to focus on the last reason, as the first two, arguably, don’t apply to the United States. Throughout history and across cultures, one encounters the notion that, for a king to have authority to lead a people, he must come from a divine “stock”. I suspect this idea arose because the king is meant to be someone to imitate, to look up to. Yet, all of us, even kings, are fallen, creatures. If you are idealizing a fallen person, you will come up short, and sooner or later you will be disappointed.
I think the Founders were aware of the folly of leader worship because they designed America’s government to be more similar to a machine than a European royal court. The American Revolution, with its Enlightenment roots, was fundamentally a rejection of the moral and practical validity of kingship; Washington himself cemented this principle at the end of his Presidency. The U.S. government’s structure is enduring because it assumes the people who run it to be corrupt and self-interested, and it tries to play them against each other so that power remains distributed and the potential for serious harm is minimized. If the people overwhelmingly agree, stuff can get done, otherwise, we have gridlock! The Congress is composed of elected representatives of both the people and the states. Remember, under the Electoral College, the President is not supposed to be elected by the people; he is nominated and elected by delegates of the states! The concept of the electoral In effect, he is a representative’s representative, originally intended to unite the country in times of war, manage economic crises, and oversee inter-state affairs.
The ideal executive of the founders seems now a distant memory as we encounter historic numbers of executive orders by modern Presidents. In Biden’s first week alone he signed 37 executive orders, the most of any president to this point. While the victors of the recent election may enjoy this situation, the losers are most certainly horrified by it. The closer we move toward a king-style Presidency, the more we will encounter the inherent problems of kingship. Namely, that the Presidential office is becoming that of a cultural figure that needs to be elected! (He is a cultural figure for half the country and an anti cultural figure for the other half.) Outside of wartime, even Presidents Reagan or Kennedy had a huge part of the country who saw them as exactly what NOT to be.
For the Founders, the only time the President is supposed to lead the country as a whole is in times of war or crisis. The role of American government changes in crisis and in peace, and unlike Washington most Presidents will not let go of their power when the conflict abates. In peace, the President is a leader; he is a representative’s representative who actually changes the equation and there does need to be a certain level of ethics and character involved, which historically tends to be lacking.