The head of state is, in many ways, the one to whom desperate and hopeful citizens turn. Having made promises of plentiful bread, stable roofs, and general contentment in life, the head of the state, particularly in a free democracy, such as that of the United States (U.S.), is only in that position of power due to such assurances and promises. It is only fair that the general public turns toward them in times of need. Sometimes, the promises are so beautiful and full of hope that the material reality becomes irrelevant.
At times it seems that even if there is no bread, the roofs are leaking, and even if a spiral of discontent is settling in, one should not complain; he who made the promise is working tirelessly to fulfill it, and the citizens of the nation should be grateful that they have a figurehead to look over the wants and needs of each individual. Sometimes, as an individual, you feel that the promise has not been fulfilled because you are not adhering to the norms and conventions that the state requires of you. The head of state remains, as ever, untarnished. The dangers of this are self-evident. Any leadership which considers itself above accountability acquires free rein to do as it wishes.
Of course, a 100% approval rate is impossible to achieve, even for the most benevolent and selfless politicians. Errors and oversights will be made by even the most well-intentioned human beings. But it is the constant need to defend the indefensible that should raise alarm bells in any forward-thinking democracy. The politics of personality cults are reigning supreme in many modern nation-states, with the U.S. entirely in tow.
Coming up to a year now since the infamous storming of the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021, it is long overdue to ask the question ’Who is worthy of worship?’ The treatment of political figures, including, though not limited to, former President Trump, shows an immense confusion as to what the role of a politician is versus what the role of a deity is. The actions of the rioters in January 2021 were as passionate as a believer wishing to defend his God. Acting as Crusaders and spurred on by their idol, the perpetrators considered no implication nor consequence and resorted to force and violence to reinstate who they believed to be the ‘chosen one.’
Whether considering Trump to be a legendary figure like King Arthur of Camelot, to some, a Messianic figure like Jesus (as) himself, or one step further and an absolute deity, the occasion was ultimately a colossal display of idolization of man by man. It rested on the idea that this man alone is he who will save this nation from ultimate ruin.
The irony barely slipped anyone’s notice, of the idolization of President Trump by the Christian right, who although professing to act in God’s name, quite literally re-enacted the moment in Abrahamic scripture where Moses descends from Mount Sinai after a period of secluded prayer, to see that the Israelites have created a golden calf to worship.
At the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a golden statue of Trump was unveiled, and it seemed that the entire conference was held in his honor.
It is easy to consider this a strange and elaborate display of the former President’s hubris and the cultish behavior of his followers. Seeing the forest for the trees, however, it appears that this is not a singular event. The wheels had been set in motion, so to speak, for many years, and in fact, these are wheels that know no pause. The very slogan ‘Make America Great Again,’ implying a past of greatness and honor, is already reminiscent of the sort of language which dominates the religious discourse, particularly that of Christianity.
It simultaneously slanders the present as something not only less than great but something in dire need of salvation from the current status quo. It suggests that the incumbent leadership has driven the country to ruin and that one figure, the chosen one, is the one to recognize the cancer of society, diagnose it, and perform the surgery to remove it. There is also just enough hope in the words, America will be great again; we need the right guy to make it so. Unlike the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in Jerusalem, God promised the land.
Such rhetoric and allusion to a great past are not exclusive to the Trump presidency. We saw and heard of similar hopes for a ‘return to normalcy’ with President Biden; again, political discourse was dominated by the idea that only a Democratic leader could save America from the chaos and confusion of the Trump administration. Such polarization is a necessary tactic to rely on, particularly in a two-party system, which the U.S. has become, whether intentionally or coincidentally. A narrative of “Us versus Them” is what gets votes, and, with that, it is necessary to portray ‘Us’ as the savior, regardless of who ‘Us’ is. Again, it is worth mentioning that this is not new at all. After the assassination of John F Kennedy (JFK), his widow, Jackie Kennedy, stated:
“There’ll be great Presidents again […], but there will never be another Camelot again” (1).
The placing of JFK in the shoes of King Arthur – also a Messianic figure for whom some in England still wait – to be her savior in her darkest hour, again leads us back to the issue that politics is very much built on the idolization and deification of political figures.
Such politics imply that inevitably the idolized figure can avoid any accountability. Religious scripture and discourse place God outside the human realm, His will is accepted without question because it is widely understood that He knows what we do not. This rationale makes sense for believers, for it justifies their belief in God as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. The danger arises when we allow politicians the same trust that God is granted, despite not being omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent. Their job description does not concede to them as deities; instead, they are, primarily and ultimately, civil servants. In forgetting that they are the ones who serve, they allow their ‘chosen one’ ideals to motivate their agendas which rarely put the country’s good first.
This is not exclusive to any one politician or any one political system. The deification of political figures is as ancient as time itself. From the Pharaoh’s pyramids to a dictator’s monuments, the desire to be revered even beyond death is deeply rooted in a God-complex which seeks to cement the belief that this individual alone is the one who brought peace and prosperity to the nation, despite all external intentions to destroy the culture and norms of the country. After all, if God is eternal, the deified politician must also seek eternal glory if they cannot achieve physical immortality.
The reality, however, is that greatness cannot be achieved in a nation or a society if the leadership does not actively practice humility and grace. If we contrast the state of leadership today with the teachings of the Holy Qur’an, we will learn that we have already been warned of such damaging leadership. It is stated in the Holy Qur’an:
“And indeed some men from among the common folk used to seek the protection of some men from among the Jinn, and they thus increased the latter in their pride” (2).
Here we learn of the way misguided leaders use the protection of other misguided people to cement and uphold their authority. Thus, we see it is only through such idolization that corruption is fostered.
Let’s compare this to an example of genuine humility. It is most pertinent to look toward the model of Hazrat Umar (ra), the second Caliph of the Holy Prophet (sa), who would himself be dressed in torn robes if it meant that the people under his jurisdiction were clothed and fed well. Introducing a range of ‘welfare’ reforms, to use today’s language, his compassion and fear of God guided him toward good leadership. He was ultimately mindful that he was the caliph of a people, and that God would question him one day over any tearful eyes or hungry stomachs.
The question of humility was so deeply ingrained in his way of life that it is narrated that once, someone saw Hazrat Umar (ra) carrying a water-skin and asked him why he was carrying it himself? Hazrat Umar (ra) responded that some people had come to see him and had shown the utmost obedience to him. This led him to feel important, and to rid himself of this feeling and humble himself; he decided to carry the water-skin on his own. Thus, we see incredible self-awareness which he understood to be directly impactful not only to his spirituality but also for the long-term good of his people. Instead of indulging in it as he could have, he sought to remedy even the slightest creeping of self-importance.
Ultimately, the idolization of political figures is perfectly comparable to the scriptural account of the Israelites creating the golden calf; during the time that Moses (as) secluded himself for prayer and communion with God, they looked for guidance elsewhere. They built an inanimate object upon which to rest their hopes, even if it did go against their religious teachings prohibiting blasphemy, the very first of the Ten Commandments.
Today, nations are equally lost, and they build their hopes and aspirations of an all-powerful being who will be the force for good, around one figure, or a select few. We are left with not only a golden calf but also a whole herd of fallible idols. To reconsider the question of accountability, it is very easy for leaders in today’s world to consider themselves above it. But it would be wise to consider oneself not only accountable to the people they serve, but more importantly to God, whose justice will be enacted, regardless of whether legal justice will be.
1. White, Theodore, Life Magazine, 6th December 1963, p159.
2. Holy Qur’an (72:7), English Translation by Maulvi Sher Ali
Last modified: January 2022