Demythologizing the Presidency

It’s amazing the way Catholicism has these scholars who are almost bookends to each other. For instance, you have William Cavanaugh and then on the opposite side you have Michael Novak. Whereas Cavanaugh invites us to think theologically about politics, Novak seems to say, “Be realistic. This contemporary emperor cult is just the way of things. Wishing it weren’t so will do nothing. Be an American and quit your crying. Vote your conscience and take the bad with the good.” I was thinking about the symbolic power of the Presidency just the other day, and in doing a google search of “demythologize” and “President” google books popped up this page from a 1974 book by Michael Novak. I felt as though Novak was grabbing me by the scruff of the neck three decades later to say, “Stop this demythology nonsense. You have no hope. This office is all powerful. There’s nothing you can do.”

“The character of the president in office sets the terms in which intellectual debate about the state of the nation is established. It is not necessary to accept the symbols generated by a president’s words and actions; to tear them to shreds bit by bit is sufficient evidence of engagement. Thus, talk about “doing away with the cult of personality” or “demythologizing the presidency” must be taken as gestures toward an unrealistic rationalism. The president dominates not only the news, but also the language of policy, the shape and pace of legislation, and the spirit of appointments to the federal courts. His idiosyncrasies, ambitions, and failures dominate more conversation than those of any other citizen—as truly if he is unpopular as if he is popular.

Let us be as skeptical as may be, we are living in a symbolic world over with the president as unparalleled power. To cease believing in his power will not make it go away. To say we must not vest our hopes or fears in him runs counter to the plain fact that he has nuclear power at his fingertips, more police power than any sovereign in history, more power to dominate the organs of public opinion than any other human, more power in defining who are the nation’s enemies, more power over the military and the making (if not the declaring) of war than any citizen or group of citizens.

Thus, the president is rather more like a shaman than we might wish. Our lives do depend on him. A person with power over life and death is raised above a merely pragmatic level. He is surrounded, as it were, with a nimbus of magic.

He necessarily lives on a level that must seem to him “above” that of other humans. The fact that he is human gives a sort of reassurance about which we endlessly read—that he eats breakfast food, prefers mysteries, listens to Bach or Lawrence Welk. But our survival is linked to his deeds. Our lives participate in his. His nerves, his wisdom, his panic, his steadiness make us vulnerable. Even if we have contempt for him, he has power over the shape and direction of our lives. If he decides that the great moral conflict of our time is permissiveness or the need for individual selfishness, not only must those who disagree fight against the ordinary tides of evil, they must also fight against the respectability the president gives their opponents. If he symbolizes an America we despise, he divides our own hearts against themselves. . . .

Thus, the president enters into the innermost symbols by which we identify ourselves. We do not think about him all the time; on many days we give him not a thought. It is the property of basic symbolic forms to influence us even when we are not conscious of them. When the president acts as president, he acts in our name. He is us. If he goes by a way we do not approve, he uses us against ourselves. This alone is a remarkable power.”

(Michael Novak, Choosing Presidents: Symbols of Political Leadership, Second Edition, 1974.)

This just makes me all the angrier and all the more resolute to demythologize this office of Presidency. I look to the frustrated nations of Haiti and Palestine for comfort. Their people are in pain nationalistically. They yearn to be countries with honor and yet the years have taught them that they will continue to be ignored and that their national leaders will continue to disappoint. Even so these nations have people of faith who pray and are the Body of Christ. This Body lends its voice, its prayers, its time and money in spite of government support. The Christians in these nations illustrate for me a faith that is ambivalent of the symbolic power of their leaders. They pray for their leaders and do not worship them. They set their expectations low and they pray and work. And this is what we should all do.


1 Comment

Filed under books, Politics, theology

One response to “Demythologizing the Presidency

  1. Michael Harris

    Well said Chris. The more I read of Novak the more I think he’s a devoted fan of the anti-christ. How can he be so influential? Or at least he’s loud, and maybe that’s the same thing in America.

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