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The Presidential Campaign and the Book of Judges

Friday, October 12, 2012

I want to share an interesting comparison of the Presidential Campaign and the Book of Judges by a retired Bishop of the Episcopal Church...

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.

~John Shelby Spong
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    In order to chose the one that is the best, it would mean that we, as individuals, would have to study the choices with incredable intenseness and devote a great amount of time with them in order to understand them, when they are not putting up their persona they wish us to see, in other words, how they are at home and what they truely believe. I do not believe people in that position could be that relaxed around an individual studying them and no one, under a microscope looks good. We all have imperfections and who has the time to devote to the hunt? That's why most of us are full of apathy about the people who run for government, local, state and federal. Our criminal judges are the same. Who knows what they are like and you are expected to vote on them to stay in position or oust them, then what happens - do we vote in a new one? Usually they are ousted by us and a new one is appointed by our "leaders" but did we vote those leaders in and what do we do if we do not like those that were voted in because we had apathy and voted for the female over the male or the male over the female or the one with the name we remembered because we have seen their name along the sides of every road we have traveled for the past several weeks. I have helped someone through several campaigns to be elected and re-elected and I understand a lot of the "behind-the-scenes" crap. I don't understand why anyone would run for election and deal with the crap you have to deal with in order to even run, never mind get elected.

    Washington DC is a different place and if you are not involved in the politics of that city on any level, even working with an elected official, you do not see the underpinnings, what makes it run. What you see is only what you are allowed to see. It works very much like a metropolitan theatrical company. You never see the guy who turns the lights on or off, up or down, the person that opens the curtains or the guys who go out in the dark or behind the curtains to change the props or scenery. You only see the actors in costume as they want you to see them. You have no idea what they are like behind the scenes or in their real lives.

    Make up your own mind and has been pointed out, someone said, don't be swayed, but another said that was an attempt as swaying us. It is, but it was an appeal to you to study the candidates and vote for the one that you feel is going to do the best job, but as written in the original blog here, those that want the least government or a small government want the most scrutinized and the most control while the other side wants more government but have a basic attitude of "let the people live without all the rules and regulations." One party has an attitude of "do it now and worry about collecting enough taxes later to pay for it," while the other wants the money up front. They both have to collect taxes to pay for what we want.

    I find it interesting that the blog say, truely that George W Bush was in power until it collapsed in economic desaster. Then states that Obama is walking slowly to recovery. My thought is, if we put ourselves in debt until we don't have enough money to pay for all the stuff we own, which a great many of us have done, (they call it living above our means) then it takes awhile to get out of debt. And the first thing we have to do is stop buying all the stuff, and then pay off those debts. It isn't an overnight deal and it takes us years to pay off our debts (does this sound like the voice of experience?), you bet! You sell things to others that want it and you take what you can get for it to help pay off those debts.

    This country is in that mode and to expect one person to get this country out of debt, while at the same time reducing the income of the country (our taxes) and still give us everything we want is not a smart concept. We have to give something and we have to spend a lot of time working to pay off the debt. That is our task now.

    I know there is no way I would have run for election especially after seeing the economic disaseter our country was in and if you won the election it was going to be your neck in the block with the blade dangling above. Not me! I'll work my part to help pay off the debt, provide what I can to others that constantly need without the means to buy what they need but eventually I will run out of steam and it won't matter who is up there in the blocks with the blade over them. It won't be me and that's what we are all thinking. So chose who you want! I hope it's the guy I want, but I can only control my vote and I would fight to make it so you can chose your guy, even if he isn't the guy I want. It is our right and it was given to us by a bunch of people that paid a lot more than I will ever pay to make it happen for us and keep it that way. Shake their hand and thank them and then go home and do what you want cuz it's your right and I don't think we should get bogged down in the semantics. Just vote!

    Sunshine65, Thanks for the thoughts, the ministry, and the "debate". It is appreciated and it was hard work on your part to put it there for us. Job well done!

    1983 days ago
    A very well written and intelligent look at not just the language used during elections, but also at our history.

    I must say that the woman who said not to be swayed by others obviously wishes to sway the rest of us. Lol.

    Thanks for sharing this Sunshine.
    1983 days ago
    One person's opinion. We need to study well what each stands for, their back grounds, etc. Don't be swayed by others.
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