The Brown University Chorus will perform the first part of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” Friday evening in Sayles Hall. I plan on attending. Even though I’m not religious, the music of the two-and-a-half hour oratorio moves me every time I have the pleasure of hearing it. As I look ahead to tomorrow’s concert and the spiritual sentiment of the holidays overall, I feel inspired to reflect upon the various messiahs of modern society — secular messiahs, that is. During this time of global transition — with jolting elections from the United States to the United Kingdom, France and Italy — I, along with many others, am searching for answers about the present and the future. To whom can we turn to assuage our fears and steady the rocking ship on which we find ourselves?
Outgoing Vice President Joe Biden revealed Monday that he may run for president in 2020, though like any good politician, he’s not making any promises he can’t keep. Upon hearing this piece of “news” I immediately rolled my eyes in exasperation. It seems that the media, caught in a desperate clickbait race for viewers and subscribers, has already transitioned to the next presidential election — even as recounts for the latest contest are still underway. Biden can be forgiven for contemplating his future during this period of personal and public upheaval. But it’s ridiculous to think that disappointed voters who did not support President-Elect Donald Trump might take comfort in the fact that Biden will swoop in to save the country. Biden is not the American messiah.
Trump is not the messiah either. Former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and even U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-VT, too, could not have filled that role. During the election, people on both sides pinned their hopes and dreams, fears and prejudices on their chosen candidate. If our candidate could win, we thought, all would be right with the world. Perhaps this is an exaggeration — voters were well aware of the flaws of both candidates and the obstacles they would face in implementing their respective platforms. But the fever pitch of the campaign and the urgency felt by both Trump and Clinton supporters reflect the enormous weight American society places on the symbolic value of the presidency. Regardless of the real power wielded by the president, the mythology of the highest office in the land has transformed the leader of the executive branch into the supposed savior of the country.
This phenomenon didn’t appear out of thin air in 2016. President Barack Obama ran for office in 2008 with the slogan “change we can believe in.” If ever there were a messianic message for a candidate, that was it. But the zealotry displayed by supporters of Trump and Clinton during this cycle seemed to exceed anything with which I, at least, am familiar. Christian news sites have written that Trump was elected “by divine intervention.” Conversely, Clinton supporters devastated by the election results are still struggling to remain optimistic about the future, as if the destruction of their candidate’s political aspirations meant the destruction of everything they believe in.
To some extent, Americans are right to invest so much energy and faith in the presidency. It is, after all, a position of incredible power, combining in one head of state, head of government and commander-in-chief of the world’s largest military and economic power. The president’s actions affect, to a greater or lesser degree, people of all backgrounds in all aspects of their lives in all countries of the world.
But that power derives from the office of the presidency and not the supposedly messianic characteristics of the person who inhabits it. All presidents who have preceded Trump have been humbled by that office and, in turn, by the voters who placed them there. Regardless of Trump’s inclination to ignore democratic values — namely, the freedom of the press and freedom of expression — he, too, will ultimately be humbled by the grave responsibility that he must bear for the next four years. In the end, a president is limited by his own flaws and desires. He is not a king by divine right, nor the savior of his people. He — or she, hopefully, one day — is an elected official to whom we have entrusted some of the most challenging decisions for our country.
Whether you’re rejoicing or despairing over the outcome of this election, bear in mind that power is all around. It lies with our senators and representatives, our governors, our state legislators, our mayors and our city councils. But it also lies with all of us, who have the capacity to shape in big and small ways the present and the future we experience together. At this pivotal moment in time, let’s seize every opportunity we have to define our own world and to empower those around us to do the same. In doing so, perhaps we can cure some of the social ills that have only worsened as we have fallen ever deeper into the trap of presidential worship. We cannot hide behind a figurehead to avoid owning up to the power that we wield over ourselves and our neighbors.
If you’re looking for a savior, look no further than the mirror. This holiday season and beyond, be your own secular messiah.