January 26, 2009
"I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." (1 Timothy 2:1-2 NIV)
It's official. Barack Obama is the new President of the United States. All of the excitement, angst, and exhaustion of the presidential race is behind us, and we are on the threshold of four years under a new national leader.
Mr. Obama's inauguration was a momentous occasion. As our first African-American President, his election serves as a great encouragement that our country is moving towards a more complete embrace of one of its great founding principles: the equality of all men. As President of our country, Mr. Obama deserves our respect and needs our prayers. But some, in their excitement over the historic nature of his election, appear to offer him their adulation. We would all do well to realize, however, that he is just a man—fallible and flawed like other human beings. President Obama will inevitably stumble, he will not live up to all of his promises, and he will not be able to solve every national crisis. In the midst of the Inauguration hoopla, let us pause to recognize the limitations of his humanity and his post.
In reality, no one man can save a nation. A number of voters who placed such great hopes in an Obama Presidency have already been disappointed—and he has only just taken office. His decisions during the Presidential transition period raised many questions and much commentary, but one thing is clear: even before he took office, people's illusions about Obama were fading. He left many of his most fervent supporters wondering why he appeared to be waffling on his campaign promises.
Realism is the grease of the gears of politics, so it should not surprise us that President Obama has already been qualifying his previous campaign promises and dampening the hopes of his supporters. Regardless of their political stripe, no politician ever fulfills every campaign promise. The wheels of Washington grind much too fine for that. Those who put their dreams in the hands of politicians inevitably will be disappointed.
We would do well to remember that President Obama is merely a civil servant. He operates in the political realm. Having just taken office, he is confronted with an array of national problems, including disintegrating families, an ailing economy, a two front war, and a bubbling cauldron in the Middle East. Many of these problems have roots that extend far beyond the political realm. They involve cultural, moral, and spiritual issues. As the nation's top political leader, Mr. Obama will not be able to address the root causes of many of our problems. To the extent that these problems have political dimensions, our new President can and should address them. But beyond the civil realm, other cultural institutions (church, family, local communities, etc.) must take the lead.
For too long, Americans have looked to the President to solve all of our country's social and moral problems. In particular, many Christians have succumbed to this temptation. They have moved from a proper desire to work for social good to a misguided trust in the power of politics to change culture. This intense—nearly religious—hope in the President is misguided. There are limitations to what we should expect to achieve through the political arena. Augustine of Hippo maintained that believers, who look forward to the "heavenly city", could hope for no more than peace in what he called the "earthly city": "This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace." No President can save a nation from its moral and spiritual deficiencies. The Kingdom of God will not be ushered in on the wings of Air Force One, as Chuck Colson often reminds us.
A sober realism should moderate our expectations for President Obama's administration. In an article published in Slate Magazine, Rachael Larimore recently explained how her conservatism tempered her own expectations of Obama: "But, at the end of the day, he was still—in my eyes—just a politician, and, perhaps more distressing to his legions of fans, a human being. My hopes and expectations for Obama, therefore, are much more reasonable, and I will be able to take in the history and the pomp without the accompanying anxiety that Inauguration Day will bring to my more liberal friends." All American citizens would do well to take Larimore's words to heart. Barack Obama cannot be our nation's savior—only Christ can truly save the moral and spiritual failings of a people. We can only encourage the new President to execute his office faithfully. We have a duty to maintain a respectful dissent when he errs and offer our enthusiastic support when he works towards proper goals.
President Obama is not a miracle worker. Many of the problems he faces will only be overcome through real cultural change, and such change may take months, years, or even decades to achieve. We should not put so much faith in a single man. Despite his considerable political gifts and the high office which he holds, President Obama cannot change our culture. That work is left to all of us, and it will only come to fruition through the grace of God.