There’s a story in the Bible about a man named Rehoboam (1 Kings 12). Rehoboam was born with all the privileges anyone could want. His father, Solomon, was the King over all Israel. His grandfather, David, had established the dynasty by fighting a giant, overcoming attacks from King Saul, and putting down any threats to his reign. Solomon inherited peace and when God promised to give him whatever he wanted, Solomon asked for wisdom. God gave him wisdom, as well as riches and fame. Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem for God and a palace for himself. Rehoboam was set to inherit all of this.
Let’s be clear: Solomon was not perfect. The text speaks of importing the worship of the gods of his many wives. There are other hints of problems with his reign. To complete his building projects, he had hurt a good many people. Using cheap labor and taking advantage of workers was a practice 3,000 years ago as much as it is today. One of these workers, one of the leaders, Jeroboam, had fled to Egypt. Later, when Jeroboam heard Solomon was dead, he returned and led a group of men to confront Rehoboam. They asked if Rehoboam would be kinder to the workers and other average people than his father had been. Rehoboam consulted his father’s advisors and they told him to tell the people he would indeed ease their heavy burdens. But then Rehoboam went to his friends and sycophants. They told him to get tough and tell the people he would make them work so hard that Solomon’s rule would seem easy. Rehoboam listened to the new guys and talked big to Jeroboam and his followers. To make a long story short, Jeroboam led a rebellion and became king over 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel. Rehoboam was left with only 2.
Now there is also a bit in the story about a prophet telling Jeroboam he would become king as God would tear away a portion of the kingdom as punishment for Solomon’s sins. But this doesn’t remove the reality of Rehoboam’s responsibility in the story. Simply put, he exhibited bad leadership in listening to the new guys rather than the experienced experts.
From Rehoboam to Trump
We see some lessons about leadership in this story, especially as we compare how Rehoboam acted with how our current president is acting. Some of President Trump’s Christian supporters have claimed he is another “Cyrus”. Cyrus was a pagan king who treated the Jews well and is thus remembered as God’s chosen instrument for a time (this was over 500 years after Rehoboam’s time). The thinking goes, Trump may not be a model Christian but he’s good for God’s people (as Cyrus was). I think Trump is much more like Rehoboam: ignoring experts, listening to people who say what he wants to hear, talking big but not following up on it.
Its tempting to say, “Come on Dave, why get political? We’re in a crisis.” I understand that sentiment. But I do not believe Christians, or anyone, can avoid “getting political”. Its impossible to not be political. It is possible to avoid being partisan. We must hold all of our leaders, regardless of party or religion or gender or anything else, to the same high standards. It shouldn’t matter whether we voted for a leader or are a member of a party. When actions are taken that harm people, we should have the courage to speak out. To be partisan is to only speak out when its someone on the other side who is wrong. We can, and must, avoid that. But speaking out against wrongs and injustices no matter who does them is something that all Christians should be able to agree on and do.
We see this in the prophets. They spoke words of truth and called for justice from the leaders. From time to time they criticized the leaders of foreign nations, but they had their harshest words for the leaders of their own nation (as Jesus would, in echoing them, centuries later). There were plenty of people who might have told the prophets, “Don’t be political, don’t criticize the king. We need unity right now. We need to be patriotic!” But the prophets were called to speak truth to power. And they did it.
We may not be prophets, but I believe we are still called to speak truth and call for justice. Actually, as far as Christians believe in the full revelation of God in Jesus, we possess a fuller understanding of who God is than even those amazing prophets. Following Jesus, we recognize our primary allegiance is not to any nation, political party or group. Our primary allegiance is to Jesus and his leadership and lordship is the light we hold up against any other leader. We do this, once again regardless of party. If you are a left-leaning Christian you ought not be blind to the failings of leaders on the left. And if you are a right-leaning Christian, you ought not give Trump a pass.
Here’s the point then: if someone was writing a book on leadership, practically every one of President Trump’s actions in relation to the Corona Virus would be in the “examples of bad leadership” chapter. The Obama administration warned Trump’s people that an epidemic like this could happen (I even heard one Obama adviser say it was the one thing that kept Obama’s people up at night). Trump responded by firing the Global Pandemic team in 2018. The USA and South Korea both had their first positive test for Corona Virus on the same day. South Korea immediately, listening to experts, instituted wide ranging testing and other actions to slow down the spread. Trump, and his friends in the media, spent a month calling it a hoax. He even said, when there were 15 cases, he expected it to be down to zero soon. Now its in the tens of thousands. All this despite being warned early on that it would get bad.
In one of the most disturbing displays of non-leadership, when a reporter asked Trump what he would say to the millions of frightened Americans, Trump berated the reporter. This was a softball question and one that would be asked of any leader in a crisis. “You’re the top guy and people are scared, any words of comfort?” That’s easy to answer, just offer some comforting words. But Trump, as a narcissist who really only cares about himself, is unable to provide any sort of strong leadership.
Finally, Trump even argues with his own experts. Anthony Fauci was seen shaking his head and covering his face as he listened to Trump talk about the virus. Here Trump might most be like Rehoboam: instead of listening to the experts, he listens to those who tell him what he wants to hear.
American Skepticism of Experts: Its Our History
Maybe we can understand Trump here, for this is the way our culture has been for a long time. In America, as rugged individualists, we don’t like listening to people. Heck, our country was started by people who threw off the yoke of church authorities and believed that any person could interpret the Bible for himself. Who needs a priest or a bishop or an academic to tell us what the Bible means? We’re all equal and the meaning is plain. Historian Mark Noll writes about this in his book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis:
“On the eve of the Civil War, interpretations of the Bible that made the most sense to the broadest public were those that incorporated the defining experiences of America into the hermeneutics used for interpreting what the infallible text actually meant. In this effort, those who like James Henley Thornwell defended the legitimacy of slavery in the Bible had the easiest task. The procedure, which by 1860 had been repeated countless times, was uncomplicated. First, open the Scriptures and read, at say Leviticus 25:45, or, even better, at i Corinthians 7:20-21. Second, decide for yourself what these passages mean. Don’t wait for a bishop or a king or a president or a meddling Yankee to tell you what the passage means, but decide for yourself. Third, if anyone tries to convince you that you are not interpreting such passages in the natural, commonsensical, ordinary meaning of the words, look hard at what such a one believes with respect to other biblical doctrines. If you find in what he or she says about such doctrines the least hint of unorthodoxy, as inevitably you will, then you may rest assured that you are being asked to give up not only the plain meaning of Scripture, but also the entire trust in the Bible that made the country into such a great Christian civilization.”
From the beginning, we Americans took pride in overthrowing and ignoring any authority. Unfortunately, this appears to have become a complete devaluation of expertise and a cynical anti-intellectualism that elevates the mob and ignores those who actually take the time to be experts.
We have seen this for years in regards to climate change. People ignore the warnings of scientists about climate change because, “well, yesterday it snowed where I live!” Why trust the experts?
We see this in one of the weakest critiques of the theory of evolution, when young earth creationists respond to scientific evidence by saying, “well, were you there?” In other words, why trust the experts who study this stuff for life when your brief lived experience has not seen it?
We saw this a few weeks ago when people ignored the warnings of the Corona virus because “there have only been five cases!” Who cares what experts who study this stuff for a living say when no one I know is suffering. The attitude, again, seems to be, I have not experienced it personally so its not really a thing.
Our president is a symptom of our cultural devaluation of expertise. He can go on TV and say whatever he likes, and a whole lot of people will think he’s right because he’s on their team. A chilling example of this is that after he suggested a certain drug would help fight the virus, a man died in Arizona by ingesting it. I get it: arrogance and confidence is more compelling to many of us than humility and uncertainty. Its hard to admit you don’t know everything. Its hard to admit that maybe that expert (be they a Bible scholar or a scientist) might know more than you. Yet, we listen to experts all the time: when we go to a mechanic to fix our car and a dentist to fix our teeth. Likewise, we should listen to the doctors and scientists when it comes to how to handle an epidemic.
The Leader is Always Right!?!?
In the last few weeks, I read Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. It is a phenomenal book documenting the roots of totalitarianism and anti-semitism in the 1800s and their full flourishing in Hitler and Stalin. We in America are thankfully far from totalitarianism. At the same time, quotes like these, when read today, are chilling:
“A mixture of gullibility and cynicism had been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of the masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. The mixture in itself was remarkable enough, because it spelled the end of the illusion that gullibility was a weakness of unsuspecting primitive souls and cynicism the vice of superior and refined minds. Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness…The essential conviction shared by all ranks, from fellow-traveler to leader, is that politics is a game of cheating and that the ‘first commandment’ of the movement: ‘The Fuehrer is always right,’ is as necessary for the purposes of world politics, i.e., world-wide cheating, as the rules of military discipline are for the purposes of war” (382).
We live in just such an ever-changing world. Observing our country, we have just such a mixture of gullibility and cynicism. When our leaders lie then change to a different lie, it barely garners notice. One day the president says there are 15 cases of coronavirus and soon it will be zero. A week later he declares a national emergency, and his followers do not question his about face. After all, the President is always right! Right?
Wrapping Up: An Article and a Question
If you have time, read this article from The Atlantic: How Will The Coronavirus End? It touches on the issues I have mentioned, such as poor leadership and ignoring of expertise:
Partly, that’s because the White House is a ghost town of scientific expertise. A pandemic-preparedness office that was part of the National Security Council was dissolved in 2018. On January 28, Luciana Borio, who was part of that team, urged the government to “act now to prevent an American epidemic,” and specifically to work with the private sector to develop fast, easy diagnostic tests. But with the office shuttered, those warnings were published in The Wall Street Journal, rather than spoken into the president’s ear. Instead of springing into action, America sat idle.
People have been warning of this sort of epidemic for years. The President did not want to listen to them even when the epidemic began and the warning bells began to ring. If this is not an absolute failure of leadership, then nothing is.
Rehoboam should have listened to the experienced and expert counselors that had worked with his father. Good leadership is knowing what you do not know and how to find those who do. Trump has demonstrated, every step of the way, that he is not a good leader. Forget his name, forget his party, forget everything you know about him and try to look at everything that has happened as objectively as possible. If he was your employee and had failed every step of the way, shown no remorse or willingness to get better or learn, would you rehire him?