Sean Palmer is Lead Minister at The Vine Church in Temple, TX. Read more from Sean at The Palmer Perspective (www.thepalmerperspective.com), follow him on Twitter: @seanpalmer or follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpalmerwriter.
Four years ago I was feeling a patriotic deficit. I didn’t feel “American” enough, which was strange. Before becoming a school administrator, my father was a band director and American History teacher. I grew up immersed in the stories that shaped our country – both the myths and the realities. I love American history. Yet somehow, I came to feel disconnected from our story.
I did what I always do when trying to solve a problem: I read books. I started with biographies of each of the Founding Fathers, then Jon Meacham’s American Gospel. I moved on to other favorite presidents – Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and George H.W. Bush. In total, I’ve read biographies of nearly half of U.S. Presidents. In all that reading, there is one constant: History is gracious to presidents.
If you’ve tuned into your preferred news outlet or read your favorite newspaper this week, you’ve seen the reviews of President Obama’s State of The Union Tuesday night, as well as, the response to it. Writing this before either, I can tell you this about both speeches; depending on who you are, they were great or terrible. I can also tell you this, in 30-years, last night’s State of the Union will be viewed with grace.
In 30-years, the elected officials and talking heads harping this news cycle will know more than they know today. In 30-years, we will understand that every president was weighing factors we couldn’t imagine, had more information than we knew existed, and said what they said the way they said it due to circumstances and situations that will make much more sense in review. Grace comes more easily with time. As St. Paul tells us, today we see through a glass dimly.
When asked whether his legacy was good or bad for America, George W. Bush (43) responded, “I don’t think anyone will be able to say for a long, long time.” He is right.
Earlier this week, I heard a Representative speak about his expectations for The State of the Union. He said, “He (Obama) won’t change…” and then continued to list every perceived deficit of the President. After hearing him, you might suspect Barack to come to house, beat your wife, and shoot your kids up with heroin. It was a drastic, disproportionate barrage on Obama so vicious one would suspect only Satan could caste the 65-million votes that elected him.
This man’s words were anti-grace. Why? Because grace is simply impossible when you are committed to the narrative that the other side is always wrong.
I seriously doubt this Representative will say the same things in 30-years, or even 365 days. And party affiliation matters little. Democrats who railed against W. seemed to have found some goodwill for him. It’s not that humans can’t be gracious; we just choose not to be right now.
That’s not to say that presidents are flawless. Washington rotated his slaves between Virginia and New York so they couldn’t be emancipated according to New York law. Teddy Roosevelt believed America needed reoccurring wars in order to know itself and keep men strong. How can we forget Kennedy’s indiscretions? It is, however, to say that the tone of politics we chose and the venom we spout is a choice toward ugliness that Christians don’t have to make and won’t always make.
Christians who add voice to the cacophony of acrimony and mercilessness will eventually choose to see every president with some measure of grace. Those who don’t – like people who are still red-faced about Nixon’s dirty tricks or Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – will be viewed as folks with mental incapacities or as wholly backward.
That being true, wouldn’t it be a better reflection of Jesus to view our presidents with grace now? Why wait?
All this may be self-serving. As a church leader, often when I’m faced with criticism, I think, “Oh, but you don’t know what I know. If you did, you’d be kinder.”
Gracious people shouldn’t find it difficult to recognize that presidents may see the world differently than they do, weigh evidence differently than you, yet are doing their dead level best to aid human flourishing. When you read history it is obvious that leaders deal with a level of complexity and seriousness most of us never will. And when you read your Bible, Jesus doesn’t wait 30-years before seeking forgiveness for Pilate.
If you’re a Christian and want to be politically active, here’s a great place to start: Grace for the president.