"Let's make this a year of action," President Barack Obama exhorted the Congress in his 2014 State of the Union address.
Be afraid. Very afraid.
Activist presidents give us domestic policy boondoggles and foreign policy adventurism. They confiscate private property, tax our sweat equity, trample on state and local governments, take over the classroom, presume to dictate ethics to religious bodies, stifle the independence of the judiciary, and bulldoze the legislative.
That's just for starters.
No wonder presidential activism provokes angst in those who think about it at all. Angst deepens into downright foreboding when one gets beyond the merely political and contemplates the presidency on the level of the spiritual. This is because of the nature of authority and power, an issue at the core of presidential activism.
Full disclosure: I was schooled in the Nixon White House, and that may tinge my view. But I also worked in Congress, and that world had the same reek as the big power center at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
A spiritually sensitive leader who was counselor to several presidents told me there seemed an alien "presence" in every White House. I understood: it was as pervasive as the odor of a decaying bird-corpse in an attic smelling up the whole house. One could sniff it in the halls of Congress as well as the corridors of the White House – though there it was much stronger.
The rot that corrupts presidents, lawmakers, and judicial authorities is raw power. That's why when President Obama calls on Congress to join with him in "a year of action," and if they don't he will bypass the Legislative Branch, there should be much concern. And much prayer.
The American Founders understood the balance of powers. When that Constitutional principle is discarded – as President Obama threatens – darkness shrouds governance and casts the nation into chaos.
"America does not stand still – and neither will I," said the President, in the State of the Union message. "So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do," he continued.
In other words, this activist president will seize power where constitutional authority obstructs his agenda. This is fundamentally a spiritual matter.
In the biblical worldview, true power is the derivative of genuine authority. In the Bible as well as the Constitution, authority flows from the Highest Source to the lowest. The Constitution, informed by the Bible, sees God as the Highest Source and the people at the bottom as the recipients. Citizens, therefore, are given the authority by God (as the American Constitution recognizes) to entrust power to representatives they select, up and down all levels of government.
This means only those under authority are granted authority and entrusted with power. King Saul learned this lesson the hard way. He jettisoned authority, sought power without it, and lost his kingdom.
Raw power can be seized by those with enough muscle. But the only way to sustain such power is through more muscle in the form of manipulation, intimidation, condemnation, and domination. That's why North Korea's current power-holder, Kim Jong-un, has to maintain his nation as a vast prison and slaughter-house. He demonstrates that authoritarianism is not the same as authority, but simply another word describing distorted power.
"Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," said Lord Acton, an English Catholic historian, politician, and moralist. This inevitability is because power is the fundamental temptation. Human tragedy began the moment Adam and Eve rejected God's authority and tried to seize the power for themselves and their posterity.
All else that has been proposed as the essence of evil is simply the offspring of the corruption of power – greed, sexual disorder and other forms of human exploitation, abuse of the environment, and other sins.
Proper power is constructive, healing, and edifying. What makes it proper is that it functions under genuine authority. Demons run from authority, as their encounters with Jesus show, but they cluster at centers of power. CEOs, heads of households, university presidents, editors, and all others holding power are surrounded by the powers of darkness. They even cluster around church offices.
The White House is viewed by many as the seat of the greatest human power in the world. The demons cluster there in droves. The President of the United States needs much prayer because he is tempted constantly to abuse his office through severing power from authority.
The establishment elites who should be watching and warning us – mainstream academia and media – are too often the cheerleaders and propagandists for the power-grab. The pulpit that should be thundering prophetically is sagging into a mere chat-room in too many cases.
Political leadership involves spiritual warfare, and we need God fighting for us, not against us. That means humility must replace hubris, because "the eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His," and though He "resists the proud, He gives grace to the humble." (2 Chronicles 16:9; James 4:6)
America does not need authoritarian control, but leaders with true authority. Politicians, beginning with the President, need much grace and the humility to recognize that their power is a privilege granted, not a hammer to be seized.