Only three presidents have been impeached, and none of them have been removed from office, so there will be little precedent to guide the Senate when it convenes to consider the case of President Donald Trump.
Impeachment is such a rare occurrence that historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said that the American public needs a “giant civics lesson” about it.
My Faith Votes, a nonpartisan group that calls Christians to “pray, think and vote,” issued a four-page guide to the impeachment process, saying that “Christians must be informed and committed to faithfully praying for our nation during this process (1 Timothy 2:1–2).”
So that we might be better informed Christians, let’s discuss why the Founding Fathers included impeachment in the Constitution, what merits removal from presidential office, the Christian foundation for the impeachment process, and what Christians can do during the impeachment process.
Then we can use our knowledge as the basis for our prayers, remembering that prayer for all of our nation’s leaders is a biblical mandate (1 Timothy 2:2).
What is impeachment?
Our lesson today will begin with the key passage in the Constitution that deals with impeachment and removal from office: “The President, Vice President, and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The use of impeachment as a way to remove corrupt officials from office dates in British history to as early as the fourteenth century. Although treason and bribery are familiar concepts, constitutional lawyers disagree about the meaning of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and some think that the Framers of the Constitution intended it to be vague, leaving room for Congress to interpret it.
In Impeachment: An American History, Dr. Jeffrey A. Engel wrote that the word “high” indicated crimes against the state or its people: “This is … why the absence of virtue – evidenced by a president’s concern for his own welfare above and beyond the public’s, whose fate he is entrusted to preserve – is the best sign we have that the founders would have wanted him impeached.”
That was Engel’s take on a murky phrase as it applies to all presidents facing impeachment. David C. Iglesias, a former US attorney, offered another: “Some legal scholars argue the phrase means felony level offenses constitute a ‘high crime’ whereas a ‘misdemeanor’ would be given its common meaning which is a minor criminal offense in which the maximum length of incarceration does not exceed one year,” he said.
In 1970, Gerald Ford, then the House minority leader, led a failed attempt to impeach Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. At the time, Ford said, “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
What merits removal from presidential office?
For more insight, let’s return to the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787, when fifty-five delegates met at the old Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall) in Philadelphia.
Despite the heat, they kept the doors and windows closed to ensure that the proceedings were conducted in secret. But records of the proceedings did survive.
Engel, the founding director of the Center for Presidential History at SMU, said that George Washington was the delegates’ ideal when they created the presidency.
“Many in the room had personally seen him stumble, lose his temper, or choose the wrong course,” Engel wrote in Impeachment. “Yet none had ever seen him put his own needs above the nation’s. Consequently, any future chief executive who demonstrated the opposite – placing personal aggrandizement or malfeasance above their sense of duty to the people at large, perhaps even damaging the republic’s future in the process – would be so unlike the president they envisioned as to warrant removal and dishonor. When considering what the Constitution’s authors thought about which acts or defects might warrant a president’s impeachment, therefore, one shorthand explanation can be found in asking what would George Washington not have done?”
Why impeachment was included in the Constitution
Although the delegates feared that future presidents would fall short of Washington’s high principles, accounts of the convention show that impeachment was the subject of some debate.
Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania at first opposed impeachment because of the principle of separation of powers, saying that if a president committed a crime, he could be removed from office by not being reelected.
George Mason of Virginia disagreed. “Shall any man be above justice?” he asked. “Above all, shall that man be above it who can commit the most extensive injustice?”
Benjamin Franklin preferred impeachment and removal from office to the alternative for corrupt officials. He asked, “What was the practice before this in cases where the chief Magistrate rendered himself obnoxious?” Then he answered himself: our “recourse was . . . assassination.”
The delegates ultimately voted to include impeachment in the Constitution as a legislative check on the powers of the executive and judiciary, part of our system of checks and balances. Pennsylvania’s Morris changed his mind. “The people are the king,” he explained, not the president.
The Christian foundation for impeachment
Dr. Peter Lillback, president of the Providence Forum and an expert on our Judeo-Christian heritage, said in a recent interview that Christian principles influenced the decision. Most of the Framers were Protestants, and all of them would have been aware of the potential for those in power to descend into what Lillback calls “political depravity.”
Iglesias, Director of the Wheaton Center for Faith, Politics & Economics, pointed out that the delegates were biblically literate.
“The Founders would have read the account of King David’s commission of murder and adultery as described in 2 Samuel 12:1–15,” he said. “King David was subject to God’s law, and the Prophet Nathan confronted him about his sins. Indeed, Nathan saying to David, ‘You are the man’ is one of the most dramatic confrontations of power in the Bible. Nathan did not bow to David’s power or give him a pass because he was the King, rather, he held David to the same standard that would have been used for non-royal Israelites. I view this as a check on the power of the King in much the same way as Congress can check the power of the President.”
What can Christians do when a president is impeached?
Although Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached, they were not removed from office, and the Senate is unlikely to convict Trump because of its Republican majority.
But Christians can do a few basic things to be good citizens at this historic time for our country:
Pray. This is the best way to influence the proceedings on a daily basis.
Read the Constitution, particularly these relevant passages:
- Article 1, section 2, clause 5;
- Article 1, section 3, clauses 6 and 7;
- Article 2, section 4; and
- Article 3, section 2.
Contact your senators. You can be sure they are tracking what their constituents think.
Have an open mind, or at least be willing to change your mind. “The fate of the country may well hang, the fate of the Republican system may well hang, on the people who are willing to admit that their minds have been changed,” historian Jon Meacham said.
Balance truth with love: Be civil to others with opposing views and vote your conscience in the fall.
Remember, we are “one nation under God.”