Election years bring their own unique brand of inflated language to our national conversation. “This election is the most important of our lifetimes!” “No, it’s the most important ever!” “Our very democracy is at stake!” “We’re electing the most powerful man in the world!” The stakes appear to rise every two to four years. We seem to be running out of superlatives.
As much fun as it can be to hyperbolize and hyperventilate, let’s all take a collective deep breath and re-assess the situation. The importance of elections is best judged in retrospect, so it’s hard to say in the moment which will have the most impact long-term. No matter whom is elected, our democracy is unlikely to collapse in the next four years, and especially not due to the influence of a single individual. Surely we must give our Founding Fathers and the framers of the Constitution more credit than that. And, really, from a higher view, the President of the United States is not the most powerful man in the world. He’s not even the most powerful man in Washington.
Perhaps we should start like good Aristotelians and define our terms: what do we mean by “power” when we call the president the “most powerful”? What sort of power is it that the president possesses to the maximal degree? It’s not legal power, since the presidency is only one branch in a three-branch system—presidents (theoretically) can’t make laws or interpret them on their own; rather, Congress passes laws, the courts interpret them, and the president as head of the executive branch enforces them. Presidents don’t have supreme power over the economy, or culture, or other aspects of life in our nation, let alone the whole world. What power do we mean, then, when we use this phrase?
To be blunt: the power of force. The president is the Commander-in-Chief of the most awesome military force the world has ever seen. The United States has 10 aircraft carriers in service; the next closest nation is Italy, with 2. The United States has 800 overseas military bases in 80 countries; China has none. The reach of our ships, planes, and tanks is global. The destructive power of our weapons is unprecedented in history: a single bomb can annihilate an entire city. The threat of such force, the capacity to deal death on such a scale, is unmatched by any other nation at this or any period in time. This is the massive power the president possesses.
Yet, and this may seem an odd question, is this the power that matters most? At first glance, the power to kill would seem the greatest: it’s so final, so definitive. But as Christians, the conviction at the core of our faith is that death is not the last word, that it is neither final nor definitive. Christ has conquered sin and death, and at the fulfillment of time we will be raised from the dead into new life. Our death in the body is not the end. From Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas to Hitler, Stalin, and Mao: all of these bought into the idea that death was the greatest power to wield. Yet Christ’s resurrection from the dead put the lie to that notion, giving hope to the world, especially to the oppressed.
In this light, the people who truly possess the most power are those who can affect not just our earthly life, but our eternal life. Those who convey to us the means of grace, who restore us to God’s friendship and strengthen that bond—these possess true power, meaningful power, eternally meaningful power. Priests who forgive sins and give us the Eucharist; bishops, cardinals, and popes who ordain priests and grant indulgences that help speed our way into the heavenly kingdom; these are truly the most powerful men.
Who’s the most powerful person in Congress, then? It’s not Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell. It’s Fr. Patrick Conroy, SJ, chaplain to the House of Representatives—because Congress could declare a war, but Fr. Conroy can forgive your sins. Who’s the most powerful man in Washington? It’s not President Obama, but Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., who not only can forgive sins in confession, but who can multiply priests who can do so as well. Ultimately, the most powerful man in any nation is Jesus Christ, our living Lord and Prince of Peace, who defeats death and calls us to new life in him through his grace. The power to bring grace into people’s lives: that’s real power. It’s found in bread and wine transformed, not bombs and planes locked and loaded. It’s not in the shedding of the blood of enemies, but the shedding of the blood of the Lamb. The power to make Christ live in us—that’s real power.