Two days ago, I posted a piece urging that Donald Trump should be removed from office as President of the United States (in a postscript, I deferred to the view that the time may be too short for a proper impeachment process and that his resignation or confinement would be preferable). I got some blowback to my essay. There were two main charges, so far as I can see.
One charge was that I was angry at Donald Trump. Sure, who wouldn’t be angry and grieved over the damage he has caused over the past two months? But the point of my essay was just the contrary, that Donald Trump abused the office of the Presidency, to which he had ascended in our constitutional republic, and that this same Constitution provided a remedy for such abuse, namely impeachment and removal from office.
The second charge was that I had unfairly accused Donald Trump with inciting the crowd which had proceeded from the Ellipse and attacked the Capitol, and, rather, that every violator was personally responsible for his or her own actions.
These charges of guilt are not incompatible. True, the prophet Ezekiel said: “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezek 18:20), but he also pours contempt on the leadership of a faithless nation – the princes, priests and prophets – who have corrupted the land and provoked God’s wrath (Ezek 22:23-31). And surely Donald Trump had orchestrated the event as his own personal vindication. The crowd was waving American flags (plus a Confederate flag or two) and Trump banners (and a Jesus banner or two) as if they were interchangeable. They just knew in their hearts that Trump had won by a landslide, that the election had been stolen, and that the Electoral College was bogus – all this with or without evidence. Where did they get that idea?
Did Donald Trump instruct the crowd to march down to the Capitol? Yes. Did he intend the crowd to intimidate Mike Pence and the Congress? Yes. Did he want them to invade the Capitol building and threaten the lives of legislators? Probably not, but that’s what juiced-up crowds tend to do, and Trump had been juicing up his base for two months. Was he horrified when he saw it happening on TV? Did he immediately tweet STOP THE VIOLENCE? Did he rush to the scene and interpose his body betwixt the crowd and the sacred halls of Congress?
Let me return to my main point, which is that he had violated his oath of office, in fact that he could not conceive of the Presidential seal as anything but a personal seal of approval. A week ago and prior to the latest debacle, the conservative columnist Andrew McCarthy assessed the “risky wager” he had taken in supporting Donald Trump:
Trump … is maddeningly indifferent to what makes the presidency the presidency. He seems to think it is indistinguishable from the elected person — particularly when that person is Donald Trump. He just does not see the presidency as a national treasure, independent of any incumbent’s personal and political interests; as something to which every incumbent owes study, decorum, and honesty; as the office of Washington and Lincoln that every president is honor-bound to preserve.
For Trump, the only criteria for legitimacy is whether you support him or not. Take Vice President Mike Pence, one of the few of Trump’s colleagues who has been loyal to “this President” for four years. But where does Pence’s loyalty lie: with Trump or with the Presidency?
Here’s Trump’s view: “I hope that Mike Pence comes through for us. He’s a great guy. Of course if he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him quite as much.” On Wednesday Pence put this question to rest: “It is my considered judgement that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not.” To which Trump tweeted: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.”
In Trump’s mind, loyalty to the Country and Constitution and loyalty to Donald Trump are one and the same. That’s a lack, morally and biblically, and it leads to a crowd of lackeys.
Like a lot of people these days, my wife and I have been quarantining by watching shows in the evening. Some friends recently recommended “The Office,” so we tried out the UK version – once and only once. What a pathetic exhibit of snarky nihilism! If you must watch this kind of humor, try reruns of “Yes, Minister.” In any case, it has nothing to do with “the Office” I am referring to. We have also been watching “The Crown.” Whatever one thinks of the producer’s take on individual persons and events of Elizabeth II’s reign, the idea behind the Crown and the persona of the Queen as one who bears the burden of her office is compelling. Four hundred years earlier, Shakespeare’s Henry V put it this way:
Upon the king! Let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
Shakespeare was too wise to believe in the divine right of kings per se, but through Henry he did honor the office of monarchy as a form of divine institution worthy of respect and sacrifice.
One evening we turned to Paul Scofield in “A Man for All Seasons,” based on the Robert Bolt play about Sir Thomas More. In his preface to the play, Bolt declares himself “not a Catholic nor even in the meaningful sense of the word a Christian” and asks: “By what right do I appropriate a Christian saint to my purposes,” as a hero of conscience. For More, Bolt says,
an oath was something very specific: it was an invitation to God, an invitation God would not refuse, to act as a witness and to judge; the consequences of perjury was damnation, for More a perfectly specific concept.
Bolt considers the idea of an immortal soul “a resort to magic,” but nevertheless wants to salvage its ghost in terms of the self: “Though few of us have anything in ourselves like an immortal soul which we regard as absolutely inviolable, yet most of us still feel something which we would prefer, on the whole, not to violate.”
In the play, More is finally doomed to death by the perjured testimony of Richard Rich, one of his former acolytes, which leads to this classic exchange at the trial:
More: I have one question to ask the witness. That’s a chain of office you are wearing. May I see it? The red dragon. What’s this?
Cromwell: Sir Richard has been appointed Attorney General for Wales.
More: Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales?
The oath of office and the chain of office hold together only when one believes the office has been ordained by God and that He judges those who hold that office.
Needless to say, there are many Richard Riches in history down to the present, who prospered in life and died in their beds. Robert Bolt thought the existentialism of Albert Camus might serve as a substitute for Christian conviction. Not so, I would judge (cue “The Office”). How often does one hear a public figure who has been exposed in a major moral or political scandal read some lawyered statement like this: “I take full responsibility for my action.” Only they don’t. They don’t resign, they just “move on” with their careers. Contrast this with Thomas More’s handing over his chain of office when he knew he could not consent to the King’s oath.
The weightiness of an oath of office depends ultimately on the supernatural reality of God as King and our accountability to Him. The Bible is aware, of course, of the pretensions of the kings of the earth, who take counsel together against the Lord and His Anointed (Psalm 2); ultimately such pretensions are a mockery. The final judgment comes when Jesus stands before Pilate, who asks: “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answers him: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:10-11). It is on this basis that the Apostles urge believers to “honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17).
At the same time, it is the office of the Church to remind civic rulers of the delegated nature of their authority. Clergy are “ordained” into that office with a vow of their own, preceded by a solemn exhortation from the bishop:
Ye have heard, Brethren, as well in your private examination, as in the exhortation which was now made to you, and in the holy Lessons taken out of the Gospel, and the writings of the Apostles, of what dignity, and of how great importance this Office is, whereunto ye are called. And now again we exhort you, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye have in remembrance, into how high a Dignity, and to how weighty an Office and Charge ye are called: that is to say, to be Messengers, Watchmen, and Stewards of the Lord; to teach, and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.
If the terms of this vow sound archaic, I submit it is a sign of how far the Church has departed from its calling to obey Him to Whom all authority in heaven and earth is given.
I have called for Donald Trump to be removed from his office for his manifest rejection of his oath to the Constitution and the Presidency. It would be less than fair if I did not note that on January 20, a new President will place his hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution “so help me God.” Joe Biden, the so-called good Catholic commended by the Pope and praised by the Presiding Bishop, will likely proceed to oversee an Administration as hostile to the Christian faith and the First Amendment as any in our history. I do not know how his Presidency will end, but I do know that God will not be mocked. He might take a sober look at the vacuous end of his predecessor and the lackeys who followed him.