I've noticed something over these last four weeks: both George W. Bush and Al Gore want very, very, very badly to be president of the United States.

They want to sit in the Oval Office. They want to fly on Air Force One. They want four years of being greeted by ``Hail to the Chief'' everywhere they go. They want Secret Service protection and limousine rides. They both want to be the most powerful man in the world, and only one of them can be.

Of course, the two candidates have policy goals as well. They want certain tax policies, military policies, environmental policies, abortion policies, health policies. They don't just want to have power, they want to exercise power. They want to leave their imprint on the nation and the world.

The quest for power is a fascinating part of human life. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche celebrated what he called the ``will to power'' and described it as fundamental to human existence. Christian theologians, too, have noted the deep desire on the part of most human beings to expand their influence as broadly and widely as possible.

We--most of us, anyway--want our lives to have the largest and deepest possible impact. We are all naturally inclined to the busy expansion of our personal kingdoms, whether we measure success in terms of money, influence, position, fame, authority, or some other parameter.

Yet the author of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that the quest to build our own kingdoms is ultimately in vain: ``Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.''

It's more like building a sand castle, really; we think we have created something sturdy and substantial but it washes away with the next high tide. Today George W. Bush and Al Gore capture the headlines, their every word scribbled down, their every gesture plumbed for significance.

Some day, not so long from now, people will struggle even to remember the names of these two men who fight so furiously today for the keys to the White House.

One of the most notable elements of this overtime presidential election streetfight is the transparent use of high-flown principles to mask the raw quest for power. Both candidates, and their retainers, speak the language of democracy, justice, rights, fairness, and so on. Who knows, perhaps they even believe the words they are saying.

But what they really want is to win.

What we have here is an election that was too close to call. It fell within the range of human and technological error that exists in any human endeavor. So what remains is the mad and ruthless scramble to count as many of our votes and disallow as many of the other guy's votes as possible. To that end, hordes of lawyers and activists and spokespeople have pounded the state of Florida like a hurricane.

All speak the language of principle but all want to win more than anything.

What is truth? Whatever helps my guy win. What is fair, what is constitutional, what is just? Whatever helps my guy win. Would the world fall apart if the players just said that, instead of cloaking self-interest and partisan interest in the language of principle?

Christian theology diagnoses what is really going on in human life. It penetrates the lies and the spin to the truth about the human condition and that is that we are a vain and foolish species, looking always to secure our own significance through the expansion of our personal kingdoms, and looking always to find ways to lie about this to ourselves and others.

There is another kingdom, and it transcends the push and pull we watch in Tallahassee, Fla., and Washington and Austin, Texas. It is the kingdom of the one true God, who lives and reigns forever and forever, sometimes laughing, sometimes weeping, as he watches the tragicomedy that is human life.

David P. Gushee is Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy and Senior Fellow, Center for Christian Leadership, Union University.
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