President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv today ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Pictures emerged this morning of the president walking alongside Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky as they inspected a memorial wall dedicated to those killed fighting Russian troops since 2014.
Mr. Biden’s visit to Ukraine comes on Presidents’ Day and highlights the power of his office to make global headlines.
Today’s federal holiday was established in 1885 in recognition of President George Washington (whose birthday is on February 22) and was later expanded to include Abraham Lincoln (whose birthday is on February 12) and eventually all presidents. However, presidential historian Alexis Coe claims in the New York Times that our first president “would hate Presidents’ Day.” I will summarize her argument into three assertions.
The first is ironic: while we celebrate our presidents today, no president was actually born on February 20. The second is more practical: several states don’t recognize this day at all and many do so only sparingly, with Southern states typically omitting Lincoln from their observances. A third assertion is especially relevant, however: “The president, senators and representatives . . . serve at the American electorate’s pleasure, and not the other way around.”
In other words, the more we depend on a single person to lead and protect our nation, the more we slide from democracy into demagoguery. As we will see, this is a principle of special relevance to evangelical Christians today.
Jimmy Carter has entered hospice care
On one level, we all know that our presidents are mortal.
As a recent example, the Carter Center announced on Saturday that former President Jimmy Carter, at ninety-eight years old the longest-lived American president, has entered hospice care at home in Plains, Georgia. The news followed reports that a small lesion was removed from President Biden’s chest during his latest physical exam, though he otherwise was pronounced “healthy” and “vigorous.”
On another level, however, it is human nature to seek and then trust those who can do things for us we cannot do for ourselves. This starts as children who depend on our parents and older siblings. As we grow older, we come to appreciate soldiers who defend us abroad and police who defend us at home. We become grateful for doctors whose medical expertise exceeds our own and supports our health. We learn to trust counselors who can advise us in areas of finance and relationships and mentors whose wisdom can guide our path.
This tendency to trust our leaders is especially central to evangelical Christianity. Unlike those whose faith story began with the collective sacraments and catechisms of the church, many of us came to Christ through the influence of a pastor, youth minister, or Bible teacher. Unlike churches whose worship centers on the collective liturgies of church tradition, ours focuses on the “preaching of the word” and thus the preacher who delivers that word to us.
Many of our churches place the pulpit or lectern at the center of the platform and thus the preacher at the center of the service. In many evangelical churches, the pastor announces our faith to the congregation, baptizes us, marries us, and buries us.
This is all well and good unless we forget the example set by our first president.
“The greatest man in the world”
After leading America to victory in our Revolutionary War, George Washington voluntarily chose to resign his military commission. When King George III of England was told of Washington’s intent to step down from power, he said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Over the years, Washington refused numerous attempts to make him more a monarch who would rule the people than a president who would serve them.
His popularity could have made him president for life, but he feared that if he died in office, Americans would view the presidency as a lifetime appointment. Accordingly, he chose to step down following his second term.
His example is especially relevant for evangelicals at this cultural moment.
In Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church, Katelyn Beaty defines “celebrity” as “social power without proximity.” She means that in large churches and ministries, leaders wield enormous influence but without the restraints and accountability of smaller churches in which pastors are known much more personally by those they serve.
Beaty wisely warns: “To have immense social power and little proximity is a spiritually dangerous place for any of us to be.” Many of the clergy scandals she discusses in her book have their origin in this fact.
“Attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric”
Two conclusions follow.
One: We must daily surrender our lives and influence to the Holy Spirit so he can manifest his servant love for our Lord and our neighbor in and through us (Galatians 5:22; Matthew 22:37–39).
Jesus set the example when he washed the feet of his followers and commanded us to do the same (John 13:14). I heard a preacher say: “When you stand before the Lord, he will not examine your title but your towel.”
Two: We must pray for our leaders to live and lead by biblical truth and morality (1 Timothy 2:1–2). The more they deviate from God’s word, the more they need the intercession of God’s people.
In his 1796 Farewell Address, George Washington made this clear and prophetic pronouncement: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”