Sunday, June 01, 2008

On American Leadership

My conception of Quakerism has always placed a premium on the tenet of the Ministry of all Friends.

I'm old school, I suppose. I have seen firsthand the problems created when one central leader proposes to speak on behalf of all church members and gathered believers.

When it comes time to select a leader, any leader, particularly in a congregational setting, often no one gets exactly the minister they'd like. There's a rough kind of compromise often hollowed out between members and the demands often placed upon any leader in a such proceeding.

So it is that today I wanted to comment a bit about this dynamic, as we see it heavily in play in the Democratic primary for President.

"I'll preach to the joys of wine and drink"--that is the kind of drunken, lying prophet that you like.

These the words of the prophet Micah.

The people liked the false prophets who told them only what they wanted to hear. Micah spoke against prophets who encouraged the people to feel comfortable in their sinful lifestyles. Preachers are popular when they do not ask too much of us, when they tell us our greed or lust might even be good for us...But a true teacher of God speaks the truth, regardless of what the listeners want to hear.

In searching through a college history textbook I found an interesting addendum to the text.

Labeled "Why Great Men Are Not Chosen President", it was written by Lord James Bryce of Great Britain in 1888. As I read over it, I was reminded of how little the European perspective of our chief executives has changed over the years. And certainly the Chief Executive of our country has more than a few similarities to the Chief Executives we set up to represent us in our gathering places.

American politics and government were subjects of great interest to Europeans. Accustomed to monarchs, prime ministers, parliaments, and efficient civil service bureaucracies, they found perplexing the decentralized American system of federalism, the emphasis on localism and laissez-faire, and the popular frenzy and organizational thrust of partisan politics. Nothing was more fascinating than the character of American political leaders, who seemed to Europeans to be consistently unimaginative and dull. As one noted, "the only thing remarkable about them is that being so commonplace they should have climbed so high."

"Europeans often ask," Bryce observed, "how it happens that this great not more frequently filled by great and striking men?" This seemed particularly puzzling given that the United States boasted of an open society which rewarded ability, not one bound by the hereditary distinctions of aristocracy.

Most important in explaining the absence of "brilliancy" among American presidents, Bryce ventured, was the political system of the United States, with its party-dominated politics and its limited government.


In America party loyalty and party organization have been hitherto so perfect that any one put forward by the party will get the full party vote if his character is good and his "record", as they call it, unstained...

Even those who admit his mediocrity will vote straight when the moment for voting comes. Besides, the ordinary American voter does not object to mediocrity. He has a lower conception of the qualities requisite to make a statesman than those who direct public opinion in Europe have. He likes his candidates to be sensible, vigorous, and, above all, what he calls "magnetic", and does not value, because he sees no need for, originality or profundity, a fine culture or a wise knowledge...

After all...a President need not be a man of brilliant intellectual gifts. Englishmen, imagining him as something like their prime minister, assume that he ought to be a dazzling orator, able to sway legislatures or multitudes, possessed also of the constructive powers that can devise a great policy or frame a comprehensive piece of legislation. They forget that the President does not sit in Congress...submit bills nor otherwise influence the action of the legislature. His main duties are to be prompt and firm in securing the due execution of the laws and maintaining the public peace.

Eloquence...imagination, profundity of thought or extent of knowledge...are not necessary.

This was his take, over a hundred years ago. Have we changed much since then?

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