What a difference a decade and a half and a war on terror have wrought! Was it really only in 1999 that the man who was soon to become U.S. attorney general stood before a conservative Christian college audience and proclaimed that America was founded on the belief that “we have no king but Jesus”? As attorney general, John Ashcroft would go on to authorize, or at the very least acquiesce to, some of the most unchristian and unconstitutional actions—a post-September 11 drift toward extrajudicial justice and a growing disregard for what were once seen as civilized constraints on nations. Maybe it would have been better if Jesus had been declared King of the United States! He once was King to a broader cross section of its society, but out of deference to true freedom and the principles of religious liberty there has never been any test for religious office (see U.S. Constitution, Article V).
Fast forward to 2016 and its fading weeks: the forever presidential campaign is nearly over as I write this, and will be past tense for most of the cover term of this issue—though the story is not really over till mid-January. I’ve lived through a few interesting elections. The Barry Goldwater run of 1964 had us all convinced that a wrong vote or two was all that stood between us and nuclear annihilation. And in 1972 a bizarre campaign turned violent in a Laurel, Maryland, shopping center, when hate-mongering candidate Governor George Wallace of Alabama took a bullet that left him partially paralyzed for life. The winners that year were President Richard Nixon and his running mate Spiro Agnew—both destined for disgrace. I’m tempted to invoke Ecclesiastes 1:9 (“nothing new under the sun”) for our 2016 elections, but some things are, if not as new as they seem, then remarkable.
I can sum them up in several points.
While corruption reached its apogee in Tammany Hall and its reach into the presidential election of 1928 (and we have even had presidents consorting with mobsters’ molls), there is probably no precedent to the public airing of charges of immorality and malfeasance by both parties.
While the U.S. Constitution remains an aspirational model for much of the world, presidential and governmental actions since 2001 have tested and arguably crossed its limits. How else to explain the rhetoric of the election which if taken at face value imply we are in an imperial era? The talk is not healthy for freedom.
The voter rebellion against party control and indeed against all “government” should be seen as a huge red flag against continued freedom, regardless of how the election turns. The representative government model of the Constitution has since 2000 given way to a public view of majoritarian power that is in the process of morphing into mob rule.
Religious liberty is as precious a commodity as ever, and there has been talk of it this time around. However, it is now a fish of a different feather (!), more akin to religious entitlement and empowerment for a certain religious class. And the degree to which religious figures and political aspirants have been willing to submerge Christian decency en route to religious “freedom” is reason enough to doubt their sincerity.
We have slowly come to realize that news is progressively morphing into proclamation. The reasons are many, not least the declining budgets of news organizations, which results most often by my own observation to “news” being minimally reworded recycling of the handout sheet available at most public events. This news fadeback has now given us a self-absorbed political slugfest while ignoring the fact that we are presently closer to all-out war with Russia than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis. “Fiddling while Rome burns” comes rather readily to mind.
Indulge me in looking to biblical analogy for some insight. First the “no king but Jesus” ideal that must remain with us each on a personal level. It is worth remembering that in the early days of the Hebrew narrative the wanderers then settlers were under theocratic rule: in other words, God directed then by fiery presence, by oracle, by Urim and Thummim, and by a voice like thunder. We, of course, have no such immediacy and do well to question anyone who claims to speak for God directly. But somehow the Hebrews in becoming a nation of Israel took a king to rule over them.
Why did they reject God and seek a king like all the other nations around them? I do not think it was merely perversity toward God. The record in I Samuel is clear. The high priest Eli allowed his two sons to act wickedly and immorally with the worshippers: taking bribes, sleeping with the women who came to worship, and profaning the holy things. When Samuel, the protégé of Eli, became prophet and judge over Israel, he repeated this laxity with his sons. The record of them is clear: they “took bribes, and perverted judgment” (1 Samuel 8:3). When the elders came to Samuel asking for a king, they cited his sons’ unworthiness (verse 5). So too, I believe, a society today can be hardened in its rejection of God by corrupt leaders, and in particular can be led astray by cynical religious leaders who pursue unpleasant political alliances in order to gain some imagined advantage for the faith.
The book of Daniel speaks much of empires and affairs of state. In its day the empire of Babylon was the first of the global powers, remembered today for its hanging gardens and less for its ruins, which can be found about 60 miles downstream from modern-day Baghdad. After the greatness and power of Nebuchadnezzar the empire began to decline and become self-satisfied. Daniel 5 tells of a great party held by King Belshazzar even as the army of the Medes and Persians encamped outside the walls. He sent for the golden vessels stolen from the Temple of God in Jerusalem and called for a toast to praise “the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone” (verse 4).
Yes, the gods were actually made of these materials. But how easy to praise the riches of an imperial lifestyle; how easy and natural to praise the stone walls of protection and the weapons of iron! How great an oversight to forget the river and not notice that it was drying up and allowing the enemy to slip in. The figure has to be relevant to us today in these blessed United States. The Revelation of John speaks of the final acts in earth’s history and in chapter 16 says that the river Euphrates will be dried up.
The same complacency, the same false worship will likely lead to the same end as Babylon of old. As we Party on through these perilous days, it is just as important to avoid praising the false gods—whether of financial success, military might, or political privilege. It is important that we not allow compromised political leaders or power-hungry pastors to disillusion us into handing divine prerogatives into an unholy grasp. Pray for our political leaders in a time of great peril. And pray to our Father in heaven to maintain Lordship over our lives.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."