Should Questioning and Challenging the President be Illegal?

Chris Matthews of MSNBC made a statement about how President Obama should have been treated by presidential challenger Mitt Romney in their second debate. It was the fact that Gov. Romney actually challenged the President that led Matthews to go Gestapo on him:

“I don’t think he understands the Constitution of the United States… He’s the president of the United States. You don’t say, ‘you’ll get your chance.’”

The President is an elected official. He’s supposed to be bound by the limitations of the Constitution. The freedoms that are listed in the First Amendment — religion, press, speech, assembly, and political criticism — apply to all government officials, including the President of the United States. The state governments wanted these rights spelled out to insure that they would never live under a king who believed that just being king legitimized his power to squelch political opposition.

It some nations, criticism of the president can lead to severe punishment. Try criticizing the government in North Korea or Thailand. In Thailand, to criticize, insult, the king, queen, royal heir apparent, or regent is punishable by up to 15 years in prison for each offense. China has a number of speech restrictions to protect the government from political assault:

“References to democracy, the free Tibet movement, Taiwan as an independent country, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Arab Spring, certain religious organizations and anything questioning the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China are banned from use in public and blocked on the Internet.”

When my wife and I spent 10 days in China, we noticed that our group was sometimes followed by civil officials. At one gathering, the government had a photographer taking pictures. They were looking for anything that we said that could be construed as being critical of the Chinese government. Is this what Chris Matthews wants to happen in America?

When German anti-Nazi theologian and pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) used his pulpit to expose Adolf Hitler’s radical politics, “He knew every word spoken was reported by Nazi spies and secret agents.”1 Leo Stein describes in his book I Was in Hell with Niemoeller how the Gestapo gathered evidence against Niemoeller:

“Now, the charge against Niemoeller was based entirely on his sermons, which the Gestapo agents had taken down stenographically. But in none of his sermons did Pastor Niemoeller exhort his congregation to overthrow the Nazi regime. He merely raised his voice against some of the Nazi policies, particularly the policy directed against the Church. He had even refrained from criticizing the Nazi government itself or any of its personnel. Under the former government his sermons would have been construed only as an exercise of the right of free speech. Now, however, written laws, no matter how explicitly they were worded, were subjected to the interpretation of the judges.”2

In a June 27, 1937 sermon, Niemoeller made it clear to those in attendance had a sacred duty to speak out on the evils of the Nazi regime no matter what the consequences: “We have no more thought of using our own powers to escape the arm of the authorities than had the Apostles of old. No more are we ready to keep silent at man’s behest when God commands us to speak. For it is, and must remain, the case that we must obey God rather than man.”3

A few days later, Niemoeller was arrested. His crime? “Abuse of the pulpit.”

Matthews wasn’t the only one who took offense of the debate interchange between President Obama and Mitt Romney. Actor Mark Hamill, of Star Wars fame and the voice of the Joker in the animated Batman series, “appeared on CurrentTV’s ‘The Young Turks’ and said that while he really does want an open forum, Romney was ‘harassing’ the President. He concluded that when Romney was pressing the President to detail certain statistics that it was ‘bullying of the highest degree.’”

Elected officials are not kings with a divine right to rule. They are just like us. There is no kingly pedigree. They are required to answer for their actions. Pressuring a president to answer in a debate format is a perfect way to get to the truth when the media refuse to vet the most powerful man in the world.

  1. Basil Miller, Martin Niemoeller: Hero of the Concentration Camp, 5th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1942), 112. []
  2. Leo Stein, I Was in Hell with Niemoeller (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1942), 175. []
  3. Quoted in William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), 239. []