Humility Or Vengeance In America’s Leaders?

Jan 20th, 2024 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

I have been reading Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik’s Providence and Power: Ten Portraits in Jewish Statesmanship. It is a remarkable read, for in it he surveys the leadership qualities of King David, Queen Esther, Benjamin Disraeli and Abraham Lincoln, among others.  He makes two profound observations that are so helpful for 2024:

  • Quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Soloveichik observes that there “have been four revolutions in modern times—the Russian, the French, the English and the American.  The first two descended into murder and tyranny, the latter two produced an expansion of liberty.  The driving force behind the French and Russian revolutions was philosophy, secular philosophy.  The driving force behind the English and American revolutions was God.”  Appreciating the difference between the two is central to understanding year 2024.
  • The common virtue for the leaders he surveys is humility: “By humility, we don’t mean passivity.  What we see in the greatest American statesmen is a complex dialectic between bold independent action, on the one hand, and a deep faith and reliance on God, on the other.”  Among those he studies, Lincoln’s humility stands out.  He manifested a “transcendent judgment:” Lincoln’s greatness “lay in his ability to answer the questions ‘What is unique about America’ and ‘Which parts of it must be changed and which parts preserved?’  Slavery had to go, republican government and equality under law would remain.”  Humility, as defined by Soloveichik, is necessary for the politics of 2024.

I have also been reading Tim Alberta’s new book, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism.  It is not a story of the virtue of humility in leadership, as defined by Soloveichik; it is a story of certainty, ferocity and solidarity with a vengeance within evangelical Christianity.  It runs counter to everything Jesus stated when He defended servant leadership (see Matthew 20:25-28).  David French writes:  “It’s a powerful and emotionally resonant account of the transformation in evangelical politics that has brought us to the current moment: A godless man, Donald Trump, may now possess more devoted support from white evangelical Christians than any other president in the history of the United States. And most worrisome of all, that support is now disproportionately concentrated among the most churchgoing segment of the Republican electorate. One of the troubling aspects of the Trump era for me, as a churchgoing evangelical, has been watching the evolution of his support among white evangelicals.”

  • “In 2018, Paul Djupe, a Denison University professor, and Ryan Burge, a statistician and associate professor at Eastern Illinois University, reported that Republican approval for Trump was positively correlated with church attendance: The more often people went to church, the more likely they were to strongly approve of Trump. By 2020, white evangelicals who attended church monthly or more were more likely to support Trump than evangelical voters who attended rarely or not at all.”
  • “For some readers, that might be a head-spinning idea. How on earth could a secular, twice-divorced, philandering reality television star fit in neatly with fundamentalist Christians? It makes no sense until you understand that the true distinction between fundamentalism and mainstream beliefs isn’t what fundamentalists believe but how fundamentalists believe. As Richard Land, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, once told me, ‘Fundamentalism is far more a psychology than a theology.’ . .  I grew up in a church that most would describe as fundamentalist, and I’ve encountered fundamentalism of every stripe my entire life. And while fundamentalist ideas can often be quite variable and complex, I’ve never encountered a fundamentalist culture that didn’t combine three key traits: certainty, ferocity and solidarity.”
  1. “Certainty is the key building block. The fundamentalist mind isn’t clouded by doubt. In fact, when people are fully captured by the fundamentalist mind-set, they often can’t even conceive of good-faith disagreement. To fundamentalists, their opponents aren’t just wrong but evil. Critics are derided as weak or cowards or grifters. Only a grave moral defect can explain the failure to agree.”
  2. “That certainty breeds ferocity. Indeed, ferocity—not piety—is a principal trait of every truly fundamentalist movement I’ve ever encountered. Ferocity is so valuable to fundamentalism that it can cover a multitude of conventional Christian sins. Defending Trump in 2016, Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Dallas, an evangelical megachurch, explained, ‘Frankly, I want the meanest, toughest son of a gun I can find. And I think that’s the feeling of a lot of evangelicals.’
  3. “Yet certainty and ferocity are nothing without solidarity. It’s the sense of shared purpose and community that makes any form of fundamentalism truly potent. There is an undeniable allure to the idea that you’re joining a community that has achieved an understanding of life’s mysteries or discovered a path to resolving injustice. As angry as fundamentalists may feel, at the same time, there is true joy among comrades in the foxhole—at least as long as they remain comrades.”

When you recognize the psychology of fundamentalism, fundamentalist Christian enthusiasm for Trump makes considerably more sense. His fundamentalist supporters are certain that he is fulfilling a divine purpose. For many he is a Messiah-like leader.  There is no critical evaluation of him, his speech or his temperament.  It is a wholehearted embrace of man who stands utterly opposed to everything Jesus stood for.  “They are ferocious in their response to opponents, especially those Christians they believe to be weak or squishes. And they experience great joy in their motivated, activist solidarity.”

But, that’s how fundamentalism fails. Certainty, which gives so much purpose, ultimately struggles in the face of complex realities. Ferocity, which allows fundamentalists to bully and intimidate opponents, also limits the ability to win converts. And solidarity, which creates community, can become stifling, as it encourages conformity and punishes those who raise good-faith questions.  Why do so many fundamentalists love Trump? Because in his certainty, ferocity and demands of loyalty, he’s a far more culturally familiar figure than a person of restraint and rectitude.”

French concludes: “That’s why Trumpism, too, is ultimately doomed to fail. It’s engineered to destroy, not to build. The very characteristics that give it life also plant the seeds of its destruction. And so as we watch the continued marriage between Trumpism and fundamentalism dominate the right, the proper question isn’t whether fundamentalism will permanently remake American culture in its own image. Rather, it’s how much damage it will do before it collapses under the weight of its own rage and sin.”

One of the former president’s political lines is “I am your vengeance.”  In fact, he seems to be building his campaign on a campaign of vengeance.  Interestingly, former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit that he has urged former President Donald Trump to move away from a message of revenge.  “If you want to become president, it has to be about rebuilding, restoring and renewing America,” the California Republican said on Tuesday, recounting his advice to the former GOP president. “If it’s revenge, you won’t get the opportunity.” Trump said earlier this month that he would be a dictator on “day one” of his second term, but not after that.  McCarthy, who has endorsed Trump for president, suggested that the Republican Party has effectively been operating without a leader . . .  “The last two presidential elections were not won by America voting for [an aspiration of] what they wanted their president to be—it was voting against somebody,” McCarthy said. When an election is determined based on people voting against candidates, “you’re kind of leaderless in a way,” he said.

Most of my adult life I have considered myself a principled conservative, which I have believed lines up with the principles articulated in God’s Word.  The Bible also has a great deal to say about leaders and the tragic consequences of poor leadership.  Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s book reminded me once again of the key virtue of humility in leadership.  It also reminded me that the former president of the United States has never evidenced humility.  Instead, he manifests arrogance, and a boisterous, vengeful spirit bent on self-elevation and a desire for revenge.  It is the supreme tragedy that evangelical Christians have nothing critical to say about all this and have never called him to account for what he says or what he does.  For many of them, he can do no wrong!  That is not only unwise, it’s fraught with danger for the survival of this republic.

See David French, “Certainty, ferocity and solidarity define the fundamentalist mind-set” in the New York Times (7 December 2023);  Kristina Peterson in the Wall Street Journal (12 December 2023); and an interview with Meir Soloveichik in the Wall Street Journal (25-26 November 2023.

Comments Closed

2 Comments to “Humility Or Vengeance In America’s Leaders?”

  1. Peter Wiebe says:

    Consider me an old senile foggy if you want, but during my 8-some decades I’ve experienced what I don’t ever want to experience again. I’ve lived under communism and under the Nazi regime and experienced WWII. I don’t ever want to relive those experiences again nor do I want my grandchildren experience what my family experienced. That is why I have to respond to what I see lurking behind some of these comments. Having said that, let me point out a few of my observations. Donald Trump has his faults, and so do you and I. Would I want him as my churches’ spiritual leader? No. Do I want him as the American President? Well, let’s look at the options. Look forget personalities and look at the platforms for the time being. Am I for child murder and abortion? Biden (and the Democrats) but Trump has expressed at the United Nations that every life is a gift from God and is precious. Which side are you on? Biden treats parents who are concerned about the indoctrination of children on sex issues as domestic terrorists. Trump says parents have a right to choose their child’s education. Whose side are you on? The bias and dishonest media labels Trump as a liar but just about everything he has done and said were pretty well right. Biden talks about his teaching days at the university but he’s never taught anywhere. His he called out to be liar? He talks about his son being killed in the war in Afghanistan but the truth is he died tragically of cancer in a hospital in the United States. Is he called out to be a liar? He talks about his feet burning at Ground Zero during 9/11 but the fact is he didn’t get there until ten days later. Is he called out to be lair? I could go on for quite some time but it’s enough to give a glimpse of Biden’s honesty. The Democrats talk about America and the threat to democracy if Trump wins. Who has politicize the whole justice system to go after Trump, after conservatives and after Christians? Biden! Yet there’s just no warning or criticism leveled at Biden! Just to highlight one example. Both Biden and Trump were in possession of classified documents. They’re trying to imprison Trump who had his documents under lock and key with the advice from the National Archivists. Biden had his out in the open, one site was in his garage. There’s no issue made there and it will soon be forgiven and for gotten. Biden and the Democrats pose a threat to our democracy. Christians will soon feel the effects of Biden’s agenda but he’s being shielded and protected. Trump was the President whose Supreme Court nominations have reversed the 50-year Roe v Wade ruling. It never would have happened if the Democrats had won the election. How about some criticism directed towards the Democrats in changing the election rules just prior to elections allowing all kinds of opportunities for fraud? Should there be some semblance of order when it comes to immigration? And then there’s the push to give them the right to vote before they become citizens? Look at all the deaths that are the result of unsupervised illegal immigration! I truly believe that when we face our Maker we might be told that Donald trump was more usable to Him than we were. That we were the hypocrites. You remember what Jesus said about the Pharisee who was thankful for being better than the other fellow? Take a look in the mirror.

    • Jim Eckman says:

      Your comments prove my very point Mr. Wiebe. In my essay I was not giving focus to policy. My point was the character of a leader. You certainly would agree that the Bible has much to say about character in leadership. I did not talk about the character of President Biden or any of the other Republican candidates in the primaries–because most evangelicals support Trump. As my essay points out, it is an uncritical embrace of him without reservation. Humility is the chief virtue of leadership, the Bible declares, not calls for vengeance. Why are you not willing to acknowledge that? Why is it wrong to cite his character flaws, as evangelical leaders consistently did with Clinton, Obama and now Biden, but not Trump? Each of those men had serious flaws and made policy decisions I deplore. I was not unwilling to acknowledge those and so comment. But what evangelicals deplore in these men, they accept with Trump. That is the classic definition of hypocrisy!!