by W. Jackson Watts
(this essay first appeared on the Helwys Society Forum on November 16; It has been republished here with permission)
In the days following the election of Donald Trump, thousands of opinion pieces have appeared in newspapers, periodicals, and online news outlets. Such pieces range from the jubilant and finger-wagging to the angry and finger-pointing. Some are analyzing the data gleaned from exit polling, while others are scrutinizing the counties that flipped from Obama to Trump.
However, one sentiment that has emerged since around the midnight to 1am hour (CST) on Wednesday is fear. Such fearful disbelief was seen on the faces of disheartened young volunteers at Clinton headquarters, in celebrities’ tweets, and in pundits’ commentary. Fear is certainly not all that is on display; anger is, too. The anti-Trump protests certainly reflect deep anger toward the president-elect, those who elected him, and the campaign that swept him into office. Fear and anger often go hand-in-hand.
But the fears concerning Mr. Trump are most troubling from the standpoint of our republic, and certainly from a deeper religious perspective. Fear often betrays deeply held beliefs, emotions, and commitments, which may hinder our thriving as human beings and as a nation. Here I’ll focus on two problems that our current fears reveal.
(1) Our Vision of the Presidency
Ever since the Progressive era (circa late 1800s to 1940), a vision of the Constitution arose that viewed it and its signatories as being out of touch with the demands of modern times. Underlying this vision were several beliefs, among them being an evolutionary view of human thought and history. The thought goes something like this: “The founders couldn’t have envisioned the complexity of modern civilization, or intended that the Constitution not occasionally undergo revision or reinterpretation.”
Fast-forward to our present day, and we find ourselves living in the wake of several progressive presidencies (some democratic, some republican), which did much to expand the executive powers beyond their constitutional limits. Our system was designed with a separation of powers, distinguishing the executive branch from the legislative branch, the legislative branch from the judicial branch, and the judicial branch from the executive branch; equal, but separate. Such an arrangement was intended to provide checks and balances against any one branch or leader assuming power that wasn’t properly granted to them— an important reminder Matthew Bracey alludes to in his recent essay.
Why, then, is such fear present not only among ordinary citizens, but also among elites in the media, entertainment, and sports? Certainly wealth insulates some from many of the vulnerabilities typical of middle-to-low income Americans. This fear must be rooted in something besides party affiliation: Many believe we’re about to have a dangerous president.
This fear should first cause some anti-Trump persons to give pause, and remember the manner in which they ridiculed and dismissed the fears of anti-Obama persons over the last eight years. Obama advocates assured their fellow citizens that they were being unreasonable, unfair, and just plain wrong. So there seems to be some inconsistency here. As one journalist recently put it, separation of powers is suddenly en vogue again!
I would be chief among those who would name President-elect Trump’s flaws in terms of character, views, and preparedness to lead our country. However, our political system was designed precisely to protect citizens from flawed leaders. If there was ever evidence in recent history that our vision of the presidency has been compromised, it is the widespread fear. Our views of the executive branch and its power have grown to unhealthy and dangerous proportions. Conservatives have warned of this for years, though in truth, some were less troubled by it when purported conservative presidents were in office.
In 2014, columnist George Will explained the phenomenon of progressive presidential leadership in an excellent PBS documentary on the Roosevelts. He explained that the presidency is like a warm, leather glove. Each president who’s been elected has put that glove on. However, each successive president (at least every few anyway) has a larger hand, and thus stretches the glove just a bit larger.
Most conservatives would agree with these observations. However, Christians in particular should recognize that some who are fearful genuinely don’t know how to process the fact that the newly-elected president has sounded at times like a racist, misogynist, and/or any number of other despicable things. When we encounter such feelings, we should reassure fellow citizens that we’re just as committed to protecting their legitimate constitutional rights as we are our own.
Even assuming that the worst is true of Mr. Trump’s character and intentions, that one man could singlehandedly provoke, antagonize, or do legal harm to citizens belonging to any other nationality or religious group says something much worse than we know. It tells us that the executive branch—and the presidency specifically—has departed from its proper place, that it’s not a co-equal branch of government, that it doesn’t have checks and balances.
Christians have something significant to say to these concerns. We not only should reaffirm the constitutional separation of powers, but we must point to the larger metaphysical claim upon which this arrangement is based: there is such a thing as human nature, and it isn’t good. No doubt the founders’ beliefs differed about some of the specifics of human nature. It’s fair to say that though they weren’t all Reformed, they understood that too much power given to any one individual or institution could and would lead to lawlessness and tyranny. Believers can refine this insight with verses like Romans 3:10: “There is none righteous, not even one.”
A strong doctrine of sin is critical to preserving the integrity of limiting mechanisms within our social, civil, and political institutions. These mechanisms ensure that one bad man or woman cannot, in fact, take what is not theirs to take, or give what is not theirs to give (cf. Mk. 12:17).
The Bible has much to say about sin and its attendant components—guilt and depravity. Where we have sometimes failed is by stressing the individual dimensions of sin at the expense of the institutional or structural manifestations of sin, a point that mainline theologians have more often stressed. Biblically, sin is explained as an individual and corporate reality, but the discerning person recognizes that individual and corporate wickedness also manifests itself in the institutions humans create. In fact, such a claim may help explain why many suddenly find themselves so fearful about the presidency: we’ve turned a noble, limited office into a scary, unlimited office.
(2) Our Faith in Men
A second issue surrounding present fears is where the dangerous expansion of presidential power takes us. If we believe the office itself has the symbolic, political, and legal power to do such great harm, it becomes critically important that we have complete faith in the person elected, as well as the populace which does the electing. As many are learning now, hell hath no fury like a Clinton-voter scorn. But it isn’t the usual type of frustration. It is a sense of betrayal: “How could you put America in the hands of this person?”
Voters bear some responsibility for allowing and sometimes encouraging presidents to attempt to fix things that either they cannot fix, or should not attempt to fix. Good intentions or not, the blurring of proper boundaries sets dangerous precedents. That we allow this reveals beliefs we have about people that never serve us well in the end. Whenever one has an unrealistic and unhealthy (not to mention unconstitutional) view of presidential power, it fosters and then reveals a misplaced confidence in political leaders. This is true whenever we weep for joy when our candidate is elected, or weep fearfully when another chosen. We feel vulnerable to the whims of the elected, and the electorate.
Christians are warned of this type of false confidence, notably in two psalms. “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes” (Ps. 118:8-9). Then again, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish” (Ps. 146:3-4).
In both passages, the psalmists warn about the folly of trusting in earthly rulers. These serve as cautions for those Christians who may have unwavering confidence that President-elect Trump will make good on all his promises they liked. If this isn’t enough of a caution, it may be healthy to revisit some of the fearmongering among evangelical Christians prior to the election. One would have thought that Mrs. Clinton’s status as the antichrist (or next to it) rose to the level of biblical revelation for some.
No doubt this was an important election, in ways still unknown at this point. For this reason, Christians still have responsibilities beyond the voting booth. Yet the fears of our current national moment are instructive about human nature, the lessons of history, the problem of double-standards, and the need to trust the one who sits on heaven’s throne, not who occupies the Oval Office.
 My remarks on fear in this piece are not intended to apply to an otherwise biblical and prayerful concern that we might exhibit towards our nation and our times. Rather, my focus is more limited to the reaction of many to the outcome of the election and what it reveals.