The presidency and sacred kingship

Christianity Today recently ran an item giving three views on whether there is anything wrong with voting for a Mormon for president of the United States.

The second (and, to my mind, the most insightful) of these was from Lutheran journalist and blogger Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, who pointed out that the problem isn’t having a non-Christian as president, but regarding the presidency as a spiritual office:

It’s good to heed the apocryphal quote summing up Martin Luther’s understanding of civil governance: “I’d rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian.” For some voters, though, there is still danger in casting such a vote. That’s because they confuse the role of a President with the role of a pastor. […] No matter which man wins the office, it’s vitally important that Christians understand that his authority is limited to the secular realm and he should not be viewed as a spiritual leader.

I suspect, though, that the perception of the presidency as a spiritual office will be difficult to eradicate. The notion of “sacred kingship” is deeply embedded in human societies, not least western societies, and the US presidency inherits at least some of the aura of sacred kingship.

Why is this? To answer that question, we need to return to the theories of René Girard. As a brief reminder: Girard’s theory is that human desire is mimetic, so that our desires imitate those of others. This inevitably leads to rivalry and ultimately to the war of “all against all”. What prevents this war from tearing societies apart is the second element of Girard’s theory, the scapegoat mechanism, in which the warring society finds itself uniting against a single, arbitrarily-chosen victim, who is killed or expelled: the war of “all against one”.

In prehistoric societies, Girard argues, the resulting restoration of calm and unanimity was then attributed to the victim, who eventually came to be seen as divine. This then led to the development of religious rituals to recreate the process that had led to the original restoration of unanimity. This process became increasingly attenuated during late antiquity, the middle ages and modernity (mostly, in Girard’s view, as a result of the rise of Christianity), but has not been lost entirely.

One important example of sacred kingship is the Roman emperor (or Caesar). In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard attributes the sacred status of the emperor to the original Caesar, Julius. The civil wars that threatened to tear the Roman republic apart were ended when the war of “all against all” became a war of “all against one” in the assassination of Julius Caesar. The resulting restoration of calm and order in the new empire was then attributed to Julius Caesar, who came to be regarded as a god – as were his successors.

No one sees the US president as literally a god, of course (well, almost no one…). However, as Mollie Hemingway points out, for many people the presidency does carry an aura of spiritual authority; or, we might say, an echo of sacred kingship.

Where does this echo come from? A few speculative thoughts. The first factor is a deliberate appropriation of the iconography of Rome, whether in Washington DC’s classical architecture or in terminology such as “senate”. Every western empire since Rome has sought to cast itself as the inheritor of Rome in some sense, and the American empire is no exception.

Second, the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, while not the “mob lynchings” of Girard’s scapegoat mechanism, seem to have added to the mystique of the presidency. Lincoln’s assassination is inseparable from the reunification following the Civil War, while the assassinations of Kennedy and his brother Robert bookend the civil rights developments of the 1960s. Again, the Girardian mechanism is too attenuated in these cases for anyone to confuse Lincoln or the Kennedys with actual gods, but some echoes of the link between sacred kingship, blood sacrifice and the forging of social unity can be heard.

(Incidentally, this leads me to wonder whether one reason for the lack of any equivalent aura around the British prime minister is the fact that the role of prime minister lacks that element of “blood sacrifice” through assassination. It is interesting that the two prime ministers who have seemed most “larger than life” in the past century are probably Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, both of whom underwent a political “assassination” – Churchill’s 1945 election defeat, Thatcher’s “defenestration” in 1990. In addition, Margaret Thatcher had survived the most serious assassination attempt on a prime minister in living memory, and Churchill would clearly have liked nothing better than to sacrifice himself for the sake of British victory in the second world war. Indeed, it was only with some difficulty – and the intervention of King George V – that he was dissuaded from participating in the Normandy landings! Of course, the fact that Britain already has a “sacred monarch”, thus separating the “symbolic” from the “practical”, is also a factor.)

Finally, and probably most importantly: if Girard’s theory is correct, then social unity and our sense of the sacred are inextricably entwined, sharing a common origin in the unifying effects of the scapegoat mechanism. This means that we have a predisposition to sacralise that which unifies us. It is therefore not surprising that the office of US president, acting as a symbolic focal point for the nation (even though the actual incumbent at any time may be seen as highly divisive and polarising), should attract something of an aura of sacredness: or at the very least be capable of being confused, by many people, with an office of spiritual leadership.

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4 thoughts on “The presidency and sacred kingship”

  1. This is right on. The President seems to function as the Chief Scapegoat. He also attains a sort of sacredness after he leaves office (figuratively dies). Reagan was demonized by liberals for years, but few dared say anything profane about him when a passed away a few years ago. That would be very bad form. Bill Clinton was similarly demonized in the 1990s but except for an occasional jab regarding his last sex scandal, conservatives usually give him a respectful distance.

    1. Re-reading the relevant section, I’ve slightly misrepresented Girard’s argument concerning Caesar. He doesn’t imply that Julius Caesar’s assassination led immediately to peace; rather that subsequent emperors claimed the mantle of Caesar as a divinised victim of collective violence.

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