When the prophet Samuel grew old, he made his sons the leaders of Israel in his stead. But his sons were corrupt, and the people were soon discontent with their unjust rule. “Give us a king to lead us,” the elders said. Samuel was offended, but he took the request before God.
“It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king,” God replied, giving Samuel a solemn warning to pass along to the people before the deal was done: The king will conscript your sons to his armies and your daughters to his household. He’ll tax away the best of your harvests and lavish the fruits of your work on his friends. He’ll take whatever he wants from you and require your fealty, and when you “cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day,” because such abusive authority is a result of a fallen, human king (1 Sam. 8:1–22).
The contrast in God’s admonition isn’t between kingship and some other form of human government. Rather, it’s between a king who rules as he pleases in his own right, and a prophet-judge who acts under delegated temporary, limited authority from God. But God’s warning to Israel about concentrated, unchecked power holds true today, and it’s a characterization that keeps coming to my mind as we approach the one-year anniversary of the Capitol sedition on January 6, 2021.
Politics is most basically about power, of course: who holds it and what they do with it. But the way Americans have talked about power over the past year is unusual for our country in living memory. We were trending this way already, yet January 6 feels to me like a tipping point.
The Atlantic’s January cover story, for example, is headlined, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun.” Many left of center fear a right-wing coup, with some saying that January 6 was just a foretaste of things to come. Next time will be more organized, the thinking goes, more violent and less absurd. Next time, former President Donald Trump might commandeer the unmatched might of the American military to successfully steal an election he’s lost. Next time he gets power, he’ll never let it go.
The mirror fear on the right, meanwhile, is that a left-wing coup is already accomplished. Everyone who could do something about it—Congress, the media, the courts—refuses to notice. Some believe the 2020 election was successfully stolen, but by the guys in suits, not shaman horns. A few hours of chaos on January 6 were merely a petty distraction from the real threat to American freedom. Others say it was a “false flag.” Even if the 2020 race wasn’t provably fraudulent, our whole constitutional system has been undermined by people who are seeking power for their own ends.
Maybe you find yourself in one (or neither) of those camps and see the other (or both) as ridiculous—so ridiculous, in fact, you struggle to accept that proponents seriously believe what they’re saying. It’s just a ploy, right? Just the latest scheme to keep the base riled and the money coming?
Undoubtedly there’s some of that among professional pundits and activists. But I can assure you these are real beliefs. Over and over, in conversations with family, friends, and writers whose work I edit, I’m struck by how very real these fears are. Not always real in the sense of reflecting reality, but real in the hearts of those who hold them. America’s political anger, resentment, and discontent is widely observed in our political discourse. Much of our politics is fueled by those feelings, but it may be even more driven by panic over concentrated and unchecked power in opponents’ hands.
Are we stuck with panic politics forever?
Fear of unchecked power likely can’t be assuaged by political means—“perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18), and perfect love can’t be legislated. Yet there is something legislation can do. We can’t pass a law to stop Americans from being afraid of each other’s designs on power, but we could make the power far more limited, diffuse, and constrained.
The power of the presidency has grown far beyond its original boundaries over the past century to become a sort of rule by fiat. A journalist named Charlie Savage has been presenting presidential candidates with a list of questions on this subject for years, first at The Boston Globe and later at The New York Times, and it’s a good place to start for those new to the subject (I’ve linked to President Joe Biden’s answers in 2007 and 2019, which are illuminating).
Curtailing the presidential power could look like this: allowing presidents to be indicted for criminal offenses; permitting Congress to prosecute the president for abuse of official power; returning almost all decisions to use military force to the legislative branch, where the Constitution originally located it.
It could include, as Savage argues, constricting, if not eliminating, presidential power to use the military against US citizens; curbing the “ability of a president to declare a national emergency and activate various standby powers, and to invoke national-security exceptions to various legal prohibitions”; allowing the “application of the Freedom of Information Act requests to White House records, which are currently exempt.” To this list I’d add limiting the scope of executive orders––the pseudo-laws presidents now routinely use to circumvent Congress but which have no constitutional basis.
A weaker presidency wouldn’t make us coup-proof, of course. But it would preclude much of what Americans fear, keeping power from the hands of would-be oppressors (Ecc. 4:1), making it more difficult to pervert justice (Lev. 19:15), reminding Christians not to put “trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save” (Ps. 146:3).
We easily remember our political opponents are sinful and can’t be trusted with immense power, but we can’t seem to recall the same about ourselves, which we must in order to make restrictions that would apply to our side, too.
“Power always thinks it has a great soul, and vast views, beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God service, when it is violating all his laws,” John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson. But if we’re honest, each of us may be thus “deceived as much as any of them,” as he added, and that is why “power must never be trusted without a check.”