“Now that you are old, and your sons do not follow your example,” said the people to the prophet Samuel, “appoint a king over us, as other nations have, to judge us” (1 Sam. 8:5). We generally look retrospectively at this decision as a mistake, made evident by the stern warning the Lord gives to Samuel, through which he makes known the future lot of the Israelites as subjects to the king. Kings would inevitably become selfish, oppressive, and adopt “hawkish” foreign policies, to use the parlance of our times.
Heeding this warning, conservative Christians have learned our lesson. We don’t need a king, we don’t want a king, and we certainly know what to expect from kings, if and when they happen to come to power. Conservatives cite this passage as evidence to why we want less power in the hands of our leaders, and more power in our own.
On the other hand, progressives have tended to accept, and even support, the bequeathing of more power to politicians and bureaucrats. Since people can’t really govern themselves, they say (or at least imply), those enlightened few with social engineering degrees should do it for them. Ironically, progressives have coupled their inclination to vest more power in the state with the idea of democracy; its modern application (i.e. everybody should have a say, in equal measure) being a far cry from its traditional meaning (i.e. everybody should exercise their responsibilities, in a measure befitting their role).
Christians too have often joined this modern “democratic” movement. Even as religious conservatives we have fallen for the “right to vote” rhetoric. We think “power to the people” sounds like a good way to counterbalance the centralization of power. We have plenty of historical fodder for our distrust of kings. They confirm our suspicions and fears, and reinforce our inclination towards the “less is more” approach to heads of state.
The historical anomaly, though, is that Catholics also have a great tradition of Christian Kingship. At the heart of Christianity is a proper understanding and appreciation of hierarchy, which exalts the beauty of complementarity and cooperation, rather than the false utopia of egalitarianism. As Christians we know that rule by the masses most often ends in rule by the mob. Democracy, after all, was the system that selected Barabbas over Jesus. The American founding fathers knew this too, and for this reason established a republic. Today, they would no doubt be labelled as elitists, as would the rest of us who believe in truth, justice, and the common good.
Charlemagne and the Ideal King
The notion of Christian kingship is a perennial one in English literature. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, is a story of the restoration of rightful kingship. Joseph Pearce has written about the importance of hierarchy in the mind and work of J.R.R. Tolkien. Pearce mentions Charlemagne as a historical example for Tolkien’s mythical narrative of kingship, as “the true king,” who “unites all the people of Christendom, as Aragorn unites all the free people of middle earth.” Pearce suggests that Tolkien’s Catholic sensibilities and his knowledge of English history manifest themselves in his theme of the return of a king in exile, perhaps drawing upon the history of the Jacobite kings, loyal to the Catholic James II, driven out by William and Mary in 1688. Tolkien’s mythology took for granted both the fallen human condition (our tendency towards sin, when left to our own devices) and God’s providence (the primacy of grace, through which all evil can be re-directed for good purposes: e.g. Tolkien’s literary interest in “eucatastrophe”). It envisioned a ruler of men, necessary in a fallen world, who could unite and lead in pursuit of goodness and righteousness. These words of Charlemagne seem to fit the bill:
I desire to establish an inviolable treaty … in accordance with the help of divine goodness, outwardly to defend by force of arms the Holy Church of Christ in all places from the incursions of pagans and the ravages of infidels, and inwardly to fortify her with our confession of the Catholic faith. (Addressed to Pope Leo III, winter 796.)
The reign of Charlemagne was characterized primarily by protective service. His ministry to the empire was done mostly on the move; spreading religion, letters, and arts to the barbaric German tribes, and creating a rampart which would prove capable of withstanding the impending Eastern attack on Christendom. Hilaire Belloc described the life of Charlemagne in this way:
It is spent almost entirely in the saddle. One season finds him upon the Elbe, the next upon the Pyrenees. One Easter he celebrates in Northern Gaul, another in Rome. The whole story is one of perpetual marching, and of blows parrying here, thrusting there, upon all the boundaries of isolated and besieged Christendom.
But wouldn’t a king be antithetical to the principle of Christian freedom, and violate the demands of human liberty as benefitting of man’s dignity? While the secular world fears obedience, the Church embraces it as a means to greater freedom, and ultimately to salvation. Charlemagne, for example, demanded oaths of obedience from his subjects, made not only to him, but also explicitly to the service of God and for the care of widows, orphans, and strangers, who were considered to be under the special protection of the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne’s leadership.
In his tome on Church history, Warren Carroll wrote that Charlemagne “would not have the powers of Nero, nor even those of Constantine the Great and Justinian. He would not dominate the Church, but had the duty of protecting the pope its head, and Christendom its product. The Sovereign Lord of the universe would judge the sincerity and sufficiency of his effort to protect them.” In Dynamics of History, Christopher Dawson pointed out that the medieval empire and medieval kingship were not considered to be secular institutions, but spiritual institutions that “were the leaders of the Christian people and the defenders of the Christian faith.” According to Dawson, “it was to them rather than to the papacy and the priesthood that the government of Christendom as an historical ‘temporal’ order had been committed by God.”
Power, Politics, and Pursuing the Good
Pope Pius XI spoke of true kingship in his 1922 encyclical Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio. In the disillusionment following the Great War, he taught the world about authentic leadership, which could not be found in charismatic leaders or shallow alliances. Among the evils plaguing the world at the time, Pius included “contests between political parties” and “the desire for power” (para. 12). And here we are brought to perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to finding true leadership in our current political climate: the true leader is not one who desires power and seeks it out, but who accepts his power with humility, and exercises it with righteousness. Later in the encyclical, Pius spoke of the dangers of false peace which come from “the weakening of the binding force of law and lack of respect for authority, effects which logically follow upon denial of the truth that authority comes from God, the Creator and Universal Law-giver” (para. 39). Political leaders can and must have temporal authority, but it is only valid and fruitful when it comes from God, and is understood and acted upon as such by the leaders themselves and the people in their charge. Three years later, the Pope would further his teaching on hierarchical leadership when he initiated the Feast of Christ the King with his encyclical Quas Primas. Christ is the King of the Universe, with all earthly kings subject to him. His kingship doesn’t destroy all notions of earthly kings and kingdoms; it ratifies, clarifies, and charges them with new importance and vigor.
Our current menu of candidates offers nothing that might revive in us the hope for a wise, honest, and trustworthy leader. Both leading candidates for the presidency, despite the denials of partisans on both sides, are considered unworthy of the office by a majority of American voters. Critics say, for example, that both candidates exhibit authoritarian personalities. They are likely to rely on their will as the sole determiner of action. In contrast, virtuous leaders act with prudence; first among the cardinal virtues, which enables a man to subjugate his will to the way things are, and the way things ought to be. The most virtuous leader is, quite simply, the one who is best attuned to reality. He is realistic, not in a pusillanimous pragmatic sense (courage is still required, even supernatural courage that sometimes must go against the easy, practical advice of the day), but in a sense that he has a clear vision of what is true, and of what is false.
The responsibilities of the king, or emperor, or prime minister, or president sometimes include doing the unpleasant things that others do not want to do, and that others have not been given the authority to do. Chesterton was opposed to the female suffrage movement, for example, and many called him a chauvinist. He was quite the opposite. Women, to Chesterton, were not below politics; they were above it. He respected women to such a degree that he did not want their hands to be sullied by the dirty business of politics. To decide to put a man to death or to declare a war for the sake of justice are not fitting for the delicate and beautiful nature of the fairer sex, in Chesterton’s mind. To implicate them in it by sending them to the ballot boxes was a violation of his sense of chivalry. A knight protects his lady from danger and disgrace, whether at the hands of ruffians or politicians. A king does the same, in a sense, for his people.
Where Do We Go From Here?
And so we return to the First Book of Samuel. Israel’s desire for a king was prompted by the failure of Samuel’s sons: “His sons did not follow his example, but sought illicit gain and accepted bribes, perverting justice” (8:3). “There must be a king over us,” the people said. “We too must be like other nations, with a king to rule us and to lead us in warfare and fight our battles” (8:19-20). Is it possible that the people were right?
We were given an earthly king because we needed an earthly king, and there are some who still hold out hope that a king could do us some good. Our thoughts on politics in twenty-first century America must take into account, of course, that our diverse religious population requires a separation of Church and state to secure the fruits of religious liberty. However, our historical memory of Christendom, and the political and religious ideals that inspired it, can still inform our contemporary political choices.
We currently have poor candidates for president because our moral fabric is unraveling and our political standards and expectations are on a downward spiral. We can’t identify a true leader of men if we don’t know what leadership entails or what man needs to live the good life. Judging by the ineptitude of our political class that prepared the ground for our current crisis and the inadequate civics education of many voters, the system may well need to be shaken up before authentic political leadership can emerge once again. The system is what it is because we tolerate it. Change will come when we change ourselves, beginning by asking who we are and what is required for human flourishing. A citizenry that can answer those fundamental questions correctly will be able to choose a leader worthy of public trust.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Charles the Great, king of Franks” painted by Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier in 1840.