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Trump's Immunity and the Moral Dilemma of Leadership
Posted by Temmy
Wed, July 03, 2024 4:20pm

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that Donald Trump is entitled to “a presumptive presidential immunity from prosecution for all his official acts.” However, it added that a president “enjoys no immunity for unofficial acts, and not everything the president does is official.” The case now returns to a lower court to assess whether Mr. Trump’s January 6 actions were official or private. President Biden responded last night, warning that the decision means there are “virtually no limits on what the president can do.” Other reactions were swift and mostly on partisan lines.

However, here’s the foundational issue no court or law can resolve unilaterally: whether the actions of a president—or anyone else—are moral.

Harry Truman acted within his powers as commander-in-chief when he decided to drop atomic bombs on Japan, though historians continue to debate the morality of his decision. Presidents from George Washington to Joe Biden have been disparaged for actions that their critics considered to be wrong but were not illegal.

The obvious reason laws cannot ensure morality is that we can neither make a law for every ethical issue nor enforce every law we make. Unless people, including American presidents, are innately moral, no human court can make them so.

Our most perceptive scholar of culture
This week, as we celebrate our nation’s independence, I am focusing on paradoxical reasons for which I am grateful to be an American. Today’s news leads me to such gratitude through a profoundly significant interview.

I consider University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter to be the most perceptive evangelical scholar of culture in America today. His 1991 book Culture Wars framed many of the fundamental questions with which our secularized society continues to grapple. His 2010 book To Change the World was instrumental in forging our ministry’s strategy of equipping Christians to utilize their influence for Christ.

I have just begun reading his new book, Democracy, and Solidary: The Cultural Roots of America’s Political Crisis. In a recent interview, he was asked about the book’s assertion that the US has until fairly recently been held together by a “hybrid-Enlightenment.”

I’ll abridge his brilliant response as follows.

“A symbolic and cultural annihilation”
Hunter begins: “All healthy societies are bound together, not by the power of a state and its military, but by the power of a culture.” In America’s case, our culture was a hybrid mix of Enlightenment sources such as individualism, self-government, and especially the reformed traditions of Protestant Christianity.

In his view, “this hybrid-Enlightenment was the source of political solidarity at the time of the founding.” It worked because it was opaque in that “people could read their own tradition and communities into it.” The result was a “practical morality”—a “similar, even if vague understanding of family life, the gender roles, work, civic decency, public responsibility, and the relative importance of faith and the practices that went along with it.”

In recent decades, however, polarizing issues have fractured this moral consensus. Abortion, gender roles, sexuality, and the authority of religion became “mainstream causes of public and political contention.” Consequently, cultural competitors “have largely stopped trying to legitimate their positions through an appeal to common American traditions of political philosophy.” Rather, “the only thing that matters to each is defeating their opponents.”

Today, we are seeing a “narrative of injury” whereby an adversary is not a loyal opponent but an enemy. The result is a “shared cultural nihilism” that is “fundamentally oriented toward dehumanizing the opposition; it is fundamentally about a symbolic and cultural annihilation.”

“All the words that the L??? has spoken, we will do”
In light of Dr. Hunter’s dire analysis, why am I grateful to be an American today?

I believe the hybrid Enlightenment that produced America’s practical morality was foundationally flawed: it produced a society in which many confused a religion about God with a transforming relationship with him. Church attendance and acquiescence to basic religious tenets were widely and erroneously equated with genuine discipleship.

But, as we have seen today, laws—even those championed by religion—cannot change hearts. For example, the Jewish people enthusiastically pledged their loyalty to the law as given by Moses: “All the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words that the L??? has spoken we will do’” (Exodus 24:3). However, Moses warned that a day would come when they would “surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you” (Deuteronomy 31:29a).

As a result, “in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the L???, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands” (v. 29b). Tragically, his warnings came to pass as they fell into idolatry and immorality and their nation was destroyed.

Similarly, the practical morality of America’s hybrid Enlightenment has been fractured by our escalating sinfulness. The question that remains is whether we will turn to the God who alone can transform our hearts before it is too late for our nation.

What the Constitutional Convention produced
Here’s why this state of affairs leads me to gratitude: the more we recognize our desperate need for God, the more likely we are to turn to him. As Jesus noted, “Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor; the kingdom of heaven belongs to them!” (Matthew 5:3 GNT).

As a result, I am hopeful that America’s Christians will:

o See the immorality of our culture as an urgent summons to pray and work for moral and spiritual awakening, and thus
o Settle for nothing less than a daily personal experience with the living Christ, seeking the character he alone can produce, and thus
o “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
o When asked what America’s Constitutional Convention had produced, Benjamin Franklin famously answered:

“A republic, if you can keep it.”

Will we keep it?


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