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June 21st, 2010
photo credit: AnamolousNYC
Few things are more damaging in politics than to elevate an imperfect individual to the status of a demigod whose proposed policies will solve the nation’s every problem. Yet for whatever reason, there exists near-idolization of presidents both past and present who are thought to have been the governmental equivalent of miracle workers. Messiah complexes abound in positions of such prominence and power.
These complexes, though, are only enabled by the willing devotion of the masses who place the individual into office with some supposed “mandate” to which they claim they will adhere, but which is often cast aside and whose abandonment is often justified with whatever reason is determined to best placate those who are paying enough attention to see the change and complain.
Barack Obama, for example, was seen by his followers as somebody who would change the myriad abuses propagated by the Bush administration, especially in regards to foreign policy, civil liberties, Guantanamo Bay, the military offensives in the Middle East, and the domestic surveillance of American citizens in the name of fighting a “war on terror”. In office, however, he has exchanged his “change” for a healthy dose of status quo, not only maintaining but also exceeding the abuses of his predecessor.
On the other side of the false left/right political dichotomy, we have Ronald Reagan—he whose name is too often repeated by conservative candidates hoping to embrace his mantle. Here we have a president who was a gifted orator (did they have teleprompters back then?) and claimed to adhere to lofty ideals and near-libertarian philosophies, but whose programs and proposed laws hardly reflected the bill of goods sold to the American people along the way. Reagan’s political dissonance (some might call it hypocrisy), though well known to those who objectively study history, was summarized in a recent Newsweek article:
The RNC based its purity test on Ronald Reagan’s “principles”—chief among them a belief in “smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits, and lower taxes.” But although the Gipper slashed taxes dramatically during his first year in office, the rest of his fiscal record directly violated the very rules the RNC created in his honor. During the Reagan years, federal employment grew by more than 60,000 (in contrast, government payrolls shrunk by 373,000 during Bill Clinton’s presidency). The gap between the amount of money the federal government took in and the amount it spent nearly tripled. The national debt soared from $700 billion to $3 trillion, and the U.S. transformed from the world’s largest international creditor to its largest debtor. After 1981, Reagan raised taxes nearly every year: 1982, 1983, 1984, and 1986. The 1983 payroll tax hike even helped fund Medicare and Social Security—or, in terms today’s Tea Partiers might recognize, “government-run health care” and “socialism.”
Previous presidents—notably, FDR, JFK, “Honest” (Heh) Abe Lincoln, and others—have likewise been glorified, and their multitudinous political sins shoved down the proverbial memory hole. (God bless the internet, may she be kept safe from all those who would do her harm.) This is a significant disservice to those who will be voting for future presidents, where understanding the repeated failures and entrenched establishment corruption found in both parties and almost all presidents, to one degree or another, would help one realize why the system itself must be reformed.
American idolatry is manifested not only for singers and dancers on cable television, but for hollow rhetoric and false promises lavishly distributed by aspiring political candidates on the campaign trail. Patriotism at its core demands the defense and support of key political principles—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness among them—and the refusal to justify any deviation therefrom. Certain presidents may have had endearing personalities, witty rhetorical mastery, or profound knowledge on public policy, but elevating them to celebrity status and glorifying them with praise, while refusing to admit their many follies, is disingenuous at best, and idolatrous at worst.
17 Responses to “Presidential Idolatry”
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Amazing article, as always. I remember witnessing people cry during Obama’s inauguration speech. I think I’m finally able to see Reagan’s era in the same light. They sure were some great speeches though (Reagan’s, that is).
Would you place George Washington in the same category?
I appreciate the (meh) about Lincoln. It is so hard not lash out when I hear people at church praising the man as if he were a saint, but then again that is the point of your article, isn’t it.
Thank you for pointing out that Reagan is not a “Reagan Conservative”! I’m so tired of people quoting Reagan’s 11th commandment, which in my words is, “don’t tell the truth about a Republican candidate or the party might not be able to keep screwing us over”.
The Ten (pseudo) Conservative Commandments:
1) Thou shalt not take Reagan’s name in vain.
2) Thou shalt call it ‘socialism’ whenever the democrats do anything.
3) Thou shalt trade thy liberty for “security” and call it freedom.
4) Thou shalt be loyal to the republican party NO MATTER WHAT!
5) Thou shalt spread peace and liberty across the globe by the barrel of a gun.
6) Thou shalt defend thy 2nd amendment rights but ignore the rest.
7) Thou shalt defend life, liberty, and property… Unless a corporation is abusing these things (they have immunity because they create jobs…)
8) Thou shalt rely on Fox, Hannity, Beck, Limbaugh and conservative talk radio for thine information. Anything more or less than these cometh of evil.
9) Thou shalt not question how thy government uses the military. Thou shalt “support the troops”.
10) The last commandment is like unto the first- Thou shalt NOT elect anyone unless they recite the words of Reagan.
I’ve never seen that Jim! That was great. And I completely agree with Andrew. Thanks for lumping Abe in there (the man who ended nullification…)
Great post Connor!
You are so right on the money about the false messiah aura the surrounds some politicians – and the historical amnesia that people have when it comes to their favorite pols.
This works in both a positive and a negative sense. In the same manner that people placed utterly unreasonable expectations and unfounded faith on our current president, others have been every bit as unreasonable in their denunciations of him.
It wasn’t long after Obama’s inauguration before my inbox started getting hit with all sorts of emails from people forwarding Birther theories or warning me of pending legislation that would confiscate our guns away or double our taxes to give it to illegals, etc. Of course all of this was demonstrably false and even the most cursory fact checking could disprove it. Neverthless, I was amazed at how many people took these things at face value and would forward them along to everyone they knew.
So what is the truth? I’m sure that our president is neither the messiah that his most ardent supporters wanted him to be, nor is he the totalitarian that his haters would like to make him out to be.
I recall a similar blog posting on lewrockwell.com a few weeks ago that compared a time to when Teddy Roosevelt had mud slung at him while leaving church (with, amazingly enough, no arrests and no charges of “terrorism”) vs. another article where someone was actually PRAYING to him.
Thanks for the great reminder that far too often we hold up our political figures based on party ‘purity’ and fail to see the intrinsic humanity with-in a person, i.e. political figures have failings… ALL of them, yes even Washington was not perfect. Though I must conjecture that there have been less corrupt Presidents to be sure (especially in the distant past), still Presidents/Politicians are human, and thus prone to error. NO single political figure should be assumed to have ALL the answers, and therefore be the one-best-answer to all the countries problems… more likely a combination of involved citizens – perhaps – might come close to having most of the right answers. Thanks Connor for reminding us of that!
And the vilified “conservative” Richard Nixon had one of the most liberal records ever.
Good article. Maybe I am wrong, but has the Republicans, when controling the presidency, ever been fisically conservative? I am glad that someone, within the conservative movement, can recognize faults to fix the future. Interestingly, David Brooks, has addressed these issues of fiscal irresponsibility for years; especially during the Bush 2 years, with conservative backlash.
As always, great article Connor!
Yes, Reagan needed his teleprompter too, but his career in Hollywood gave him a bit of an edge that most politicos simply can’t match. He generally did have a genuine belief in his talking points and could make people would forget he was reading.
Also, those commandments are awesome Jim. 🙂
Great post, I whole-heartedly agree with you on most points.
Do you see a similar “idolatry” with future Senators from Utah? How many times have we been told that a particular candidate will “restore” the Constitution or even “our liberty?”
Sorry, but the Mike Lee/Tim Bridgewater hype has been fueled by an almost religious zeal… this kind of fervor is almost always dangerous when injected into politics. Obama is practically worshiped by many on the Left, and yet here in Utah, Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater have attained sainthood by promising to deliver the nation from evil.
I have seen some degree of “idolatry” when it comes to any political leader but campaining for someone is not the same thing as idolizing them. Granted there is a fine line between the two.
The way I look at it- it’s ok to support/admire a public figure to the extent that we don’t sacrifice our loyalty to truth/principles in the process.
I love reading your blog, Connor. You are one of the most original and creative thinkers around, and I agree with most of what you write. However, although I agree with your conclusion in this article, I must take exception with your using the quote from Newsweek to prove that Reagan was somewhat “disingenuous” and should be “blamed” for increasing taxes and the size of government while he was president, and Clinton should be “credited” for decreasing the size of government while he was president.
For me, people “blaming” or “crediting” presidents for the growth of government, an increase in taxes, or an increase in the national debt is misplaced. In my opinion, the bigger “credit” or “blame” belongs to Congress—and, more particularly, when it comes to financial issues and revenue-raising bills, the “blame” or “credit” Constitutionally belongs mostly to the House of Representatives. For that reason, it is instructive to know that the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives all eight years of the Reagan presidency, and that the Republicans essentially controlled both the House and the Senate during the Clinton presidency.
Not to diminish the Republicans responsibility for the socialistic mess we find our government, it is interesting to note that the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives only once in 50 years, from 1945-1995, and that the Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress during the last two years of the Bush presidency. I just wish the Republicans, tea-party people, and all other non-Democrats would bring that up every time the Democrats blame Bush for the financial mess that came to fruition in September 2008!
What about religious leaders?
I completely agree about FDR and JFK. I personally feel that FDR was one of the worst presidents in history. Not only politically, but morally he was not a good person as well. JFK wasn’t as bad as FDR politically, though he certainly swam in the same sess pool of personal moral depravity as FDR. JFK also didn’t receive as much ire from Church leaders as did FDR, who literally drove Heber J. Grant out of the Democratic party. I agree with President Grant’s classification of FDR as a “neo-Socialist.” I also agree, however, with the following statement from President Grant, who expressed sentiments echoed by other prophets:
“Every Latter-day Saint believes that Abraham Lincoln was raised up and inspired of God, and that he reached the Presidency of the United States under the favor of our Heavenly Father. . . …We honor the man that God honors. We honor Abraham Lincoln because we believe absolutely that God honored him and raised him up to be the instrument in His hands of saving the Constitution and the Union”
Abraham’s Lincoln’s legacy is indeed being hijacked by modern scholarship, as has happened to every Founding Father in various generations. Lincoln, however, has won nothing but praise from many Church leaders alike. In the past 50 years, there have been over 200 references to him in Church magazines, manuals, and General Conference (56 alone), and none have been negative.