One thing that has gone tragically wrong with American politics over the past eight years is that the electorate has admitted into the highest reaches of national life a man obviously lacking in the moral temperament, training and character required of a national leader. Just barely, this man became president. Somewhat less barely, after four chaotic and terrible years, he lost reelection.
Impeached for inciting the January 6, 2021, insurrection, a mere 10 more Republican votes in the U.S. Senate would have banished this man from any legal possibility of ever becoming president again. The courage required for those votes was not found.
And so — 32 months later, now indicted and out on bail in four different jurisdictions — Donald J. Trump continues to haunt our politics. He dominates the Republican race for the presidency, for the third time in a row. His supposed GOP competitors are, with only two exceptions, unwilling to challenge his fitness for democratic leadership. At last week’s debate, six of them agreed if he gets the GOP nomination, they will support him for president — even if he is convicted of one or more felonies.
With “challengers” like these, who needs supporters?
I am working my way through the classics of the Western political tradition. Currently this places me in conversation with the brilliant Renaissance Christian humanist thinker Erasmus (1466-1536). Among the significant works of Erasmus is one called The Education of a Christian Prince.
Written in 1516, this small book was dedicated to Prince Charles, the future Habsburg Emperor Charles V. It fits into a genre of “advice-to-princes” books that flourished during the Renaissance, when philosophers sought to engage both ancient Greek and Roman writers about politics and to bring Christian insights to bear, in order to shape the moral vision and character of Europe’s many monarchs.
This genre, at least in the hands of a thinker like Erasmus, had the aim of softening the absolutism of monarchs and warning them off the path of vice and tyranny.
One might see this work as a kind of proto-democratic effort, in three senses.
Erasmus claims (in 1516!) that a ruler’s legitimacy comes from the consent of the governed.
His exalted depiction of the moral seriousness, virtue and wisdom of the just Christian ruler still can serve as a model for anyone in authority today, including a democratically elected leader.
The strenuous virtue required to govern the behavior of an absolute ruler also suggests the wisdom of the later democrats’ decision to build in serious checks and balances on power, given the likelihood that most rulers would not be people of such virtue and wisdom.
I want to unpack four key themes in this book.
Theme one: Political leadership requires great virtue.
A kingdom is best entrusted to someone who is better endowed than the rest with the qualities of a king: namely wisdom, a sense of justice, personal restraint, foresight, and concern for the public well-being.
Theme two: Intentional moral training is essential for future political leaders.
The chief responsibility of a good prince is this, to see to it that there cannot be a bad one. Conduct your own rule as if you were striving to ensure that no successor could be your equal, but all the time prepare your children for their future reign to ensure that a better man would indeed succeed you.
Theme three: Political leaders should be taught that the external trappings of power are a distraction from what really matters.
A prince’s prestige, his greatness, his regal dignity must not be established and preserved by noisy displays of privileged rank but by wisdom, integrity, and right action. … Consider how ridiculous it is to be … decked out with jewels, with gold, with the royal purple, with a train of courtiers, with the rest of the physical decorations, wax images, and statues … and yet as regards the real riches of the spirit to be seen to be inferior to many from the very dregs of the people.
Theme four: Political leaders teach the people by example, so watch out for the character of leaders.
“The corruption of an evil prince spreads more quickly and widely than the contagion of any plague.”
Just as there is nothing more beneficial in life than a wise and good monarch, so, on the other hand, there can be no greater plague than a foolish or wicked one. The corruption of an evil prince spreads more quickly and widely than the contagion of any plague. … The common people imitate nothing with more pleasure than what they see their prince do.
Only a people already failing in virtue would ever have allowed someone as poorly formed and unvirtuous as Donald Trump to get even a sniff of political power. The U..S electorate (that is, just under half of it) is to be indicted for ever confusing Trump’s wealth and luxury with fitness for any public office. Having obtained the highest office in the land, Trump has predictably corrupted Republican politics and threatened our democracy.
Erasmus seems to have known what he was talking about. Are we listening today?
David P. Gushee is a leading Christian ethicist. serves as distinguished university professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, chair of Christian social ethics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and senior research fellow at International Baptist Theological Study Centre. He is a past president of both the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Christian Ethics. His latest book is Introducing Christian Ethics. He’s also the author of Kingdom Ethics, After Evangelicalism, and Changing Our Mind: The Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta. Learn more: davidpgushee.com or Facebook.
Author’s note: I am gathering a launch team for Defending Democracy from its Christian Enemies, my book releasing Oct. 3. Just preorder the book and apply to join, and you’ll get access to an exclusive Facebook community, an advance digital copy and a live book discussion where I’d love to see you. Sign up here.
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