As the story goes, in 1928, as soon as Herbert Hoover knew that “Silent Cal” Coolidge was not running for re-election, that he tossed his hat into the ring to acquire the power and prestige of the presidency. As the only engineer to ever win the presidency (although Abraham Lincoln is still the only president who had his own patent), Herbert Hoover thought that he could bring the power of his rational mind and compassionate heart to make the world a better place. He was wrong. Instead of having his faith in his own powers of reason and persuasion and his own good intentions validated, his reputation was ruined and his character was maligned and caricatured for decades as an unfeeling and incompetent bungler.
No entirely sane or rational man would seek the office of the presidency. The lure of the power or prestige of being “the most powerful man in the world” aside, who in their right mind would want to seek an office whose inhabitant is expected to keep natural disasters away from the United States, make sure that everyone has a good job and low taxes and plenty of government benefits (while also making sure to hold gas prices low and avenge the honor of the United States against all of the terrorists that threaten it). On the face of it, our expectations of our leaders seem a bit unrealistic. As powerful as our elected leaders are, they are heavily constrained in what they can do–both because they desire friendly relations even with their rivals for spoils, because they are men (and women) of limited imagination (which is probably a good thing in most cases), and because they share the somewhat misplaced optimism of the people that the problems we face as a world can be fixed by laws and regulations so long as the right party or the right person is in power.
We think of these as American or modern sentiments, but this is not necessarily the case. In the Bible, for example, there are two stories of the “people of the land” (whomever they were) choosing the king of Judah. In 1 Kings 21:24, in the aftermath of the assassination of wicked King Amon, the people of the land chose the young Josiah to be ruler over Judah. He only proved to be one of the most all-time righteous rulers of Judah and Israel (along with David and Hezekiah), a devout man and religious reformer whose fatal flaw was a loyalty to his Babylonian allies. Upon his death, the people of the land chose one of his sons, Jeohoahaz to be king. Jehoahaz was a wicked king, reigned only three months before being deposed, and died unmourned in Egyptian imprisonment. Clearly mere voting or popular support does not confer divine legitimacy. Whatever process by which leaders are selected, no process can ensure the leaders will be of high character. And even if they are, even character and competence alone cannot guarantee success, if the will of God is to punish or discipline a wayward nation for its rebellion against His ways. Barring a widespread repentance, I feel it is safe to conclude that our nation merits such discipline for our own misdeeds, of which we all are at least a small part responsible.
Therefore, I am not one of those who believes that elections can save a nation. Quite frankly, the problems that we face are beyond human remedy. They always have been. What is becoming increasingly true, and increasingly alarming, is that the leaders of nations seem somewhat quicker to admit this than the people. It is not a promising development when the expectations of the voting public for hope and change and improvement in our conditions meet up with a sense of fatalism that one gathers from the pronouncements of global leaders that nothing can be done to help the lot of the common person. After all, those who believe that nothing can be done to help themselves or others will do nothing. Hope that one’s actions could make a difference is a necessary precondition to active effort. A belief that action is futile will lead to a complete absence of action. Yet I am not one who believes that action is futile–merely that our actions are not sufficient and that it is yet unclear if there is time to avert our judgment. While there is still time, I hope we may all become better people, developing our talents, and also developing patience and our capacity to be content with whatever God wills, even as we work hard to do our best. Let us hope that is enough, come what may, in the stormy course of our existences.