Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Presidential Campaign and the Book of Judges

by John Shelby Spong

A major debate in this year’s presidential election eliciting great emotion and spirited rhetoric relates to “the size and role of the federal government.” A study of American history reveals that this theme has been part of every campaign since our nation’s founding in 1776. It has become a once every four-year ritual, complete with pious clichés that are constantly repeated. It appears, interestingly, to matter very little which party gets elected, since the size of government seems not to change from election to election.

Indeed, studies indicate that the size of the federal government and the amount of the federal debt tend to grow more rapidly under the Republicans, the presumed “anti-big government” party, than they do under the Democrats, the presumed “pro-big government” party. For example, the size of the federal government and the federal debt expanded under Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and contracted under Democratic President Bill Clinton. It expanded again under Republican President George W. Bush until it ended in economic collapse. It has been the role of Democratic President Barack Obama to begin the slow walk back to fiscal balance. A major issue in this campaign is whether or not he has done that task adequately.

The facts of history simply do not uphold the political mantras that the Republicans are for small government and the Democrats are for big government. If this nation was really offered “a stark choice” in every election, as both parties always claim, then why does nothing happen to the size of government no matter who wins? Something is clearly going on in our electoral process that is apparently not rational, something we do not see or do not want to see.  From where then does this false debate arise?  The answer to this question became clear to me recently and it occurred in an unexpected place.

During the year, I teach an adult class at my wonderful church, St. Peter’s, in Morristown, New Jersey, a congregation served by two incredibly gifted clergy. My subject matter for this year’s class is “The Rise of the Prophetic Movement in Israel,” covering 16 books in the Bible, from Isaiah to Malachi. To place the prophets into the story of the Hebrew people I introduced the class briefly to the history of Israel after the Exodus from Egypt, but before the Hebrew people moved to establish the monarchy of King David. That was a time of local government, tribal chieftains and a deep suspicion of all non-local forms of political power.

All of this is reflected in the book of Judges, filled as it is with stories of tribal heroes like Deborah, Jael, Jepthah, Ehud, Gideon and Samson. As I read Judges in preparation for this class, I began to understand the nostalgic roots of my own country and indeed the way all nations have come into being. Nation states with clearly defined federal governments are a relatively recent human phenomenon. Italy and Germany did not become unified until the 19th century. In the Middle Ages, Europe was a continent of local tribes like the Goths, the Franks, the Huns, the Saxons and the Visigoths, who roamed the land with shifting boundaries, cut off from other tribes only by rivers or mountains. I look at Afghanistan today and I see a picture of pre-modern Europe. President Karzai is said to be the elected head of that nation, but the effective power outside the city of Kabul is held by local chieftains. I look at our closest ally, now called the “United Kingdom,” but it still reflects the ancient dividing lines that separated the English, the Welsh, the Scots, the Cornish and the Northumbrians just to name a few of that nation’s tribal parts.

I look at my own nation, born in a revolutionary war in 1776, but unwilling to adopt a federal Constitution until 1789.  No central government in history appears to have been born out of choice, but rather out of some survival necessity. There is in the hearts of human beings an almost universal fear of any external power that cannot be controlled or tempered by local desires. During the period of the Judges the Hebrew people were forced to choose a king only because the alternative was for the individual tribes to be picked off and conquered by the Moabites, the Edomites or the Philistines.

Samuel, the last of the judges, warned the people about the abuses of federal power.  He actually sounds like a contemporary politician. The central government (the king), he said, will draft your sons into its armies to fight its wars; it will tell you what you can plant on your farms, and it will tax you for the support of the government. When Samuel, bowing to pressure, finally named a king, he chose Saul, a member of the small and non-threatening tribe of Benjamin, who suffered from melancholia and was ultimately too weak to solidify his throne. I suspect that was a deliberate choice by Samuel. When Saul was killed in battle, his military captain, David, a powerful personality from the dominant tribe of Judah, moved immediately into the leadership vacuum and created a unified nation.

King David did not end the yearning for local rule, but he and his son, Solomon, did suppress it for 80 years, after which a successful civil war localized the Hebrew people once again until their yearning for survival reestablished itself in 1948 in the modern-day state of Israel.

In America, something quite similar occurred. This nation went from a successful revolutionary war against being ruled from London into a confederacy of thirteen independent colonies each with a ruling governor and a local legislature. Only through a long and difficult political debate that was focused in a series of publications known as the “Federalist Papers,” was the compelling case made for the creation of a federal union. These “Papers” were produced anonymously, but we now know they were written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. They made the familiar case that creating a united country was the only alternative to having the colonies picked off one at a time by the European powers, England, France and Spain.  A Federal Union was a necessity for survival, but it was not something the people welcomed.

Still fearful of federal power, the framers of our national constitution wrote protections into that document for the rights of the states. That is why we have today a balance of power between the House of Representatives and the Senate and why we elect a president through the votes of the states in an electoral college and not by the direct votes of the people. Deep in the human psyche, there is still the memory and the fear of having our freedom oppressed by some power. It was Egypt for the Hebrews, King George III for the Americans. and “federal power” for many today.

The negativity expressed in every national election against the federal government is rooted in this nostalgia, but the reason curbs on federal power will never be successfully implemented is that the America of today could not be governed by the local world view of our romantic past. So we will talk about it in every election, but we will never really do anything about it. Look at the contrasts between the America of 1776 and the America of today. In 1776, this country had less than 3,000,000 people. today we have 350,000,000. In 1776 people grew most of the food they ate on their own land or they killed it in the hunt with their own guns. Today, most of our citizens are separated from the farm by incredible distances, both physically and emotionally.

A massive and non-personal food industry, made up of giant corporate farms, meat packing companies, automated chicken farms, canneries, fisheries and national grocery store chains are required to feed this population. None of these institutions today can be managed or have their quality and safety guaranteed locally. In 1776, people traveled by horse and buggy and seldom ventured more than 25 miles from their homes. Today, we are a nation of highways, gas stations, repair shops, auto dealers, rail lines and bus stations, and airports and air travel, none of which can be organized or governed locally. In 1776, communications were quite primitive. All newspapers were local, there were no telephones, radio stations, television channels or Internet providers.  None of those modern means of communication can be organized or controlled locally.

In 1776 in most homes and public buildings there was no running water, no electricity, no central heating and no garbage collection. Community needs were served rather with individual wells, outhouses, wood burning fireplaces and local garbage dumps. None of the things that we depend on so totally today like water departments, gas and oil companies, electricity providers and waste managements companies could now be organized or controlled locally. In 1776, churches, private charities and people who personally knew the poor took care of those who were in need. The care for the elderly was by and large a family responsibility. There were no hospitals or drug companies. There was no Social Security, Medicare or standardized medical procedures. All of those had to be created, maintained and governed for our well-being outside the local community.

Nostalgia for local rule remains, stories of the good old days abound, but no one will finally return to that era or to those practices because none of them would work in our complex interdependent world. So in our political campaigning, we will continue to run against “big government,” but no matter who gets elected, no clock can ever turn back to the days of local rule and states rights so only the talk will go on.

The reason one knows that this political debate is not real, is regularly demonstrated in that the political party most dedicated to small government is also the same party that wants the government to control the most intimate human decisions in regard to reproduction and family planning. They want no federal control in their lives except for the federal imposition of their own moral code. It does not compute. I did not understand why, however, until I began to read the book of Judges. It is amazing how powerful biblical insights can emerge once one stops pretending that the books of the Bible are the literal words of God and read them for the wisdom they impart.


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