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Rev. Dr. George Hancock-Stefan

One of my daughters who lives in Philadelphia recorded her street exploding with cheers when former Vice President Joseph Biden was declared the 46th President of the United States. The joy and enthusiasm were infectious, as people rejoiced because the candidate they voted for had won the election. While President Donald Trump has not conceded yet, it is expected that he will concede by the time the electors meet in December.

Because the debate about who won this election seems like it will continue for some time, I decided to write about the historical ways that people chose their leaders. One of the oldest and most popular methods was the casting of lots. Lots were cast in the time of Moses, in the time of King Saul and David, and even by the sailors who traveled with Jonah. It is also the way the disciples chose Matthias to replace Judas. In each case, whether the lots were cast by the Jewish people, the Greeks and Romans, or the Apostles of Christ, they prayed first so that the Divine would guide the results.

In a conversation between Daniel and King Nebuchadnezzar, the prophet countered the king’s assertion that he gained the throne through wisdom, cunning, and military genius. Daniel knew that God had determined that Nebuchadnezzar would reign, and praised God with these words: “Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others.” (Daniel 2:21). When Daniel interpreted the king’s dream, he told Nebuchadnezzar, “Therefore, O King, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sin by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.” (Daniel 4:27) Nevertheless, just 12 months later, we find the king boasting, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30) It is at that moment that he lost his kingdom and was driven out to live in the wilderness.

The same concept was used by Jesus in his conversation with Pilate. When Jesus did not answer his questions, Pilate boasted, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you realize that I have the power either to free you or to crucify you?” (John 19:10) Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it was not given to you from above.” (John 19:11)

Within the last two millennia, there has been an interplay between the will of God manifested both in the church and in the leader/king/president. On December 25, 800 AD, Charlemagne (Charles the Great) came to Rome to be crowned. While the Roman Empire had long been mighty, this was the first time it would be an empire of the church. Charlemagne would be crowned the Holy Roman Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and Pope Leo III, in loco Christi (in the place of Christ), was the one who crowned him. No matter how great and powerful Charlemagne was, he received his authority from the pope.

About 1000 years later, the pope traveled to Paris to crown Napoleon as Emperor. Napoleon was aware that if he were crowned by the pope, he would be under the pope’s authority. So Napoleon crowned himself and had the pope crown his wife Josefina. In one moment, Napoleon changed the dominance of the pope that had lasted for 1000 years. 

When John Kennedy ran for the office of president, he knew that no Catholic had ever been elected because the American public believed a Catholic president would be under the authority of the pope. He traveled to Texas and delivered a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960. In this speech, he told the pastors that he would not be under the authority of the pope. Instead, he would be under the authority of the Constitution and answer to the people who elected him.

On the other side of the leadership spectrum is the assertion that a monarch is uniquely qualified to rule. Egyptian pharaohs declared their descendance from Ra, the Sun God. In Europe, the claim of kingship became known as the divine right. French King Louis XIV was known as Louis the Great or Le Roi Soleil (the Sun King). When King Charles was condemned to death by Oliver Cromwell and the British Parliament, he requested to be judged by a court of his peers, namely other kings. Cromwell replied that he was a regular citizen, and the king was tried by the commissioners of the court. Today, no monarch rules because of divine right.

The concept of the popular vote has at least three possible origins. One source is ancient Rome, where the term vox populi, vox deus originated. It means that the voice of the people is the voice of God. At some point in the history of the Roman Empire, the concept that God determines human affairs changed to the idea that the people determined their own affairs. While the Caesar and the Senate held the power, they were careful to stave off rebellion by giving the people enough bread and circuses to keep them full and entertained. The second possible source is the French Revolution with its emphasis on liberte, fraternity, and egalite (liberty, brotherhood, and equality). The French fought for people other than the king to make choices for their nation. But church historians argue that the Roman Empire was forced to give rights to the population and the French Revolution happened later in history. They proudly proclaim that the Protestant Reformation was the first time anyone proclaimed the dignity of the individual. It gave birth to a fledgling democratic system where each member of a congregation could read the Scriptures for themselves and vote within the church.

The story of voting in the United States is a long and tumultuous one. In 1776, only white men over the age of 21 who owned property were able to vote. In 1856, the right to vote was extended to all white men over 21, and in 1870 African American men gained the ability to vote. In 1920, white and African American women were allowed to vote and in 1965, the Voting Rights Acts removed many of the barriers that prevented people of color from voting. In 1971, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. One could argue that voting in the United States is the best it has ever been; in fact, the highest percentage of Americans ever voted in the 2020 election.

This has been an accelerated exploration and it does not go into depth about the ways we choose our leaders. But it is good to remind ourselves that the right of citizens to vote has changed over the millennia, and it will continue to change. As we tweak our democracy and our methods of choosing our leaders, it is good to remember the words that Winston Churchill said in 1947: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others.”

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