There are two psalms that speak to the politics of our day, as they have to the politics of ages past: Psalms 45 and 72. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that Trump is the 45th president, but it’s a coincidence worth pondering.
Psalm 45 is a song of praise not to God, but to the king as if he were a god. Psalm 72 is a prayer of blessing over the king, asking that God guide him in ways of justice with special concern for the most vulnerable.
The sycophantic writer of Psalm 45 can hardly contain himself as he heaps praise on the king, whom he declares to be the most handsome, graceful and blessed of all men. He assures the king that his enemies will be defeated by the king’s skill and power because he has been anointed by God. Although the king is surrounded by adoring women, including his queen, an unnamed girl is urged to forget her family and let the king have his way with her. Why? Because it’s a great honor to be had by the king. Then follows a parade of young women filled with joy at being in the king’s presence. With a final fanfare, the psalmist proclaims the king’s name will be praised forever.
It’s the kind of thing one reads about in the histories of caesars, sultans, and kings who claimed to rule by divine right. It’s not the kind of thing one expects to find among modern democratic leaders of the world’s largest and most powerful nations. Even corrupt dictatorships maintain a certain distance from flagrant shows of obsequious support. But not our current president. He is a living enactment of the scene in Psalm 45 – a man who cannot be praised enough, who needs reassurance from bevies of attractive people proclaiming his greatness, a man who cannot be held accountable, and who, as chosen by God, is indisputable. He is the living replica of a Mel Brooks sketch.
Psalm 72 is also about the king, but this time it’s a prayer beseeching God to make the king just, so he can serve the people righteously, especially the poor. It asks for prosperity for the people during his reign, and strength for the king to defend the poor. It asks for the king’s long life, his dominion over large areas, peace for his people, and honor given him by surrounding kings, and why? Because he delivers the needy when they call, the poor who have no helper. He redeems those who are oppressed or abused, and holds their blood to be precious in his sight. And what is the source of all this goodness? The Lord, who alone does wondrous things.
It’s a prayer that acknowledges our human desire for honor, even fame. It recognizes that we organize societies to give tremendous power to certain leaders, entrusting them with the authority to rule. At the same time, it boldly proclaims the standards God expects rulers to live up to. The purpose of ruling authority is to establish godly justice for all, with an emphasis on the most vulnerable. It is not a question of being liberal or conservative. For us it is what God expects, and what we are required to pursue to the best of our ability.
Americans long ago rejected monarchal rule. We did not reject the need for rulers, but created a new form that divided and limited ruling authority with the clear understanding that it was to “…form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence (sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” (From the preamble to the Constitution).
Limited executive power for a limited term is vested in an elected president who is not a ruler, but a presider over one branch of government. His or her only honorific is Mr. or Ms. President. Customs of respect have developed over the years, but not obeisance. Presidents have come and gone. Some were dedicated to the welfare of the nation, some to their own welfare, some honest as Abe, some corrupt as Harding. None were perfectly wise, all had faults, and each was a reflection of the social and moral values of their time. For each of them, Christians have been encouraged to offer prayers for national leadership like those of Psalm 72.
Things have changed. Our 45th is a Psalm 45 president, and more than a few well known religious leaders chant it to him. His only acknowledgment of God has been to claim God anointed him with the right to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. He believes Article II and God have made him the nation’s ruler. There is no evidence he has the slightest knowledge of, or concern about, the poor, needy, and oppressed. He believes justice is about clearing the way for those who are able to make as much money as possible at the expense of others, never mind the cost. He offers lavish promises and outlandish entertainments to the masses, many of whom, at least for the moment, seem to be satisfied with it, even as he fails to deliver. Though United States was held in high esteem by the rest of the world before his election, he said it needed to be made great again, and only he could do it. Now he says he needs to be reelected to keep it great. By every measure, he’s squandered the esteem with which it was held, making it an object of ridicule. World leaders snicker behind his back. He greatly enriched the already rich while convincing the working poor it was all for them. In the name of freedom, he relieved business and industry of regulations protecting the environment, working conditions, and public safety. He has not only continued his lifelong pattern of corporate and personal relationships lacking integrity, but has boasted about it as the way winners win and losers lose.
It would be easy to claim that he is the nation’s problem, but he’s only a symbol of what we have allowed ourselves to become. He emerged from seed long sown in fertile soil. Too many have been deluded into thinking government is the problem, that individualism by itself is the solution, that taxation is theft, and that extending rights to those long denied them means taking rights from “us.” We’ve come to believe a playing field tilted toward the rich is right, and to level it would be to “redistribute wealth” from those who’ve earned it to those who haven’t. Frighteningly, many have convinced themselves that suppressing the vote and accepting authoritarian rule will protect their rights and freedoms. A neighbor recently passed on a “survey” from Hillsdale College that inveighed against socialism in favor of American democracy without explaining what socialism is, while promoting a sanitized version of America’s glorious history of freedom for all. Socialism, apparently, is anything right wing libertarians don’t like. It’s part and parcel of the soil within which the seed of a Trump could grow.
We have a lot of work to do if we’re to implant the godly ways of Psalm 72 into he toxic soil that has given rise to a Psalm 45 president.