Americans have a tendency to give our elections religious significance. During the presidential primaries I took a trip to the beach passing a truck stop with a big marquee that read, “In God and Trump We Trust.” Four days later it simply said, “In God We Trust,” leaving no explanation for why God might jettison his running mate.
This tendency to infuse our elections with sacred meaning can distort exactly what an election is. On November 8 we elect a president. We do not anoint a messiah. Even so messianic hopes often become attached to political candidates across the liberal to conservative spectrum.
This elections season I’ve seen Facebook posts by Republicans, Democrats, Green Party, Libertarians and Independents presenting a candidate as the Second Coming. Like the truck stop owner most of us eventually learn to dial back our enthusiasm either before or after Election Day.
If someone is going to be our savior then someone else has to be the Devil. For the record, I met Hillary Clinton in the 1990’s. Later media accounts notwithstanding I can say from direct personal experience that she does not have horns, tail or carry a pitchfork. Although I’ve never met Donald Trump from what I do know about him I gather he does not have a halo.
And I have deep sympathy for Jill Stein, candidate of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, because as the youngest of 5 children I know just how hard it can be to get any attention in a crowded field of candidates. Ditto for everyone else on the ballot.
But as much as I love the song, “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” I predict that none of us are going to be singing it when the new Congress convenes and a new president is inaugurated. By January I think it will be very clear, if it is not so already, we are electing candidates and not consecrating saints.
When we attach messianic hope to a political leader we end in disappointment. Indeed, one of the reasons that Jesus was crucified is because he did not live up to the expectations of those who thought he would make their nation great again. So from an orthodox perspective, not even the Messiah can live up to everyone’s messianic expectations.
For those of us who have lived through Bush fatigue and Obama disillusionment this will come as no surprise. We have yet to see a candidate who is truly All-Wise and All-Knowing. High hopes come crashing down. Too often we are shocked when human beings prove to have human limits. Then, more often than not, the date for the arrival of a new messiah gets postponed to the next presidential election. Thus the cycle continues.
This is why I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai who once said, “If you are planting a tree and someone tells you the Messiah has come, finish planting the tree, then go greet the Messiah.” So I encourage you to vote. However, if you are engaged in meaningful work when the networks call the election, continue your work until it is done, then go hear the outcome.