It was November, 1976, and I was very excited by the election results. Our new president was a “born-again Christian”! Having become “born-again” myself at the age of 16 late in 1971, this was the first election where the religious beliefs of a candidate really caught my attention, and Jimmy Carter’s open Christian faith helped put the “born-again” term on the national map. Four years later, he was (quite literally) swept out of office by Ronald Reagan, the darling of the religious right.
Rev. Jerry Falwell, leader of the Moral Majority, which was founded in 1979, had famously declared, “We have a threefold primary responsibility. Number one, get people saved. Number two, get them baptized. Number three, get them registered to vote.” And although Reagan was not known as a deeply religious man, he was a strong conservative and a consistent opponent of abortion. As one report observed, “For the Moral Majority, Ronald Reagan was a modern-day prophet whose rhetoric on family values, school choice, muscular patriotism and personal morality echoed their own view. Both Reagan and the Moral Majority saw American culture as a cesspool filled with sludge by '60s-era hippies, immoral Hollywood directors, civil-rights radicals, abortion-loving feminists, the media and liberals.”
Eight years later, despite the many good intentions of the Moral Majority, despite the clear voice Reagan provided on a number of important moral issues (including abortion), and despite some of the very positive things Reagan accomplished (nationally and internationally), America was still stuck in a deep moral quagmire and the abortion industry continued almost unabated. In fact, according to the Alan Gutmacher Institute, there were at least 1.5 million abortions every year from 1980-1988, the years of the Reagan presidency, showing increase rather than decrease.
Of course, religious conservatives are not the only ones who have looked for a political savior. Need I mention our current president, he of the Greek pillars at the Democratic National Convention, treated like a rock star and hailed as “the one,” as if a quasi-Messianic figure? And need I mention the extreme hostility expressed towards President George W. Bush in the last years of his second term by those looking for “hope and change”? Now the Tea Party has risen up, angered over what they perceive is happening to America, grieved over what they claim is a systematic seizing of our liberties, and determined to see radical change come to our nation.
Not surprisingly, many Tea Party members, along with many other Republicans, are people of conservative Christian faith, and most of the Republican candidates campaigning for the presidency are known for their strong (and, it appears, genuine) faith. There is Rick Perry, who called for a prayer convocation attended by 30,000 before announcing his presidential bid. There is Michelle Bachman, who will now be joined on the campaign trail by her “personal pastor,” Mac Hammond. There is Herman Cain, who was recently quoted by the Christian Post as saying, “My faith plays a very big part in all the decisions that I make. . . . I’ve been involved with the church since I was young.” And always looming in the background is Sarah Palin, baptized in a lake in Alaska after getting “saved” at the age of 12. Perhaps one of these individuals will be our next political savior? Perhaps one of them will ascend to the presidency and bring about dramatic, national changes?
I would suggest we take a more pragmatic approach and not set ourselves up for disappointment yet again. First, the American political system is both complicated and convoluted, totally different than, say, ancient Israel where the right king could bring about national transformation, especially over the course of his lifelong reign. Here we have two major parties (at least), often at war with each, often fighting for what is politically expedient rather than what is best for the country, sometimes internally divided as well. And then there is the ever-present “good old boy” syndrome, with its coalitions and deals and favors. We would be naïve to think that one charmed leader will be able to overcome all this in the short period of time he or she serves as president.
Second, America is a nation of more than 300 million people, and much of the change we need must be grassroots change, from the bottom up more than from the top down. In fact, it is hypocritical to criticize big government and its overreaching arm while at the same time looking to government to save us. Third, our presidents are not superheroes, and once we get past the political panegyric, we are reminded of their humanity.
We would do well, then, to remember the apostle Paul’s exhortation to pray for our leaders, to vote or campaign for those we believe are best suited for the job (even with conviction and passion), without simplistically thinking that the next person we elect will somehow save our nation.
Can we hope for positive change? Absolutely. Can we expect national transformation? That will come from the nation, not just the president.
Michael Brown holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University. He is the author of 25 books, includingLine of Fire. Follow him at AskDrBrown on Facebook or @drmichaellbrown on Twitter.