When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. 3 Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice. 4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah 5 and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. 7 And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. 9 Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” – 1 Sam 8:1-9
The Kings They Asked for, and Deserved …
Having led the children of Israel out of Egypt too the doorsteps of the promised land, which he could not enter, Moses prepared to die and left his followers with a template for succession of leadership: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” – Deut 18:15. Leadership wouldn’t follow simply from family lineage, or even necessarily by assignment from previous leaders – but God Himself would elevate prophets amongst the people who would show them the right way to go.
And so it went for a little while, from Moses, to Joshua, and on to the Judges, but things started to fall apart, as noted in Judges 17:6 – “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” But the Lord didn’t abandon His people, and eventually the prophet Samuel came along and ruled in righteousness and justice. When he was older though, Samuel turned the reigns over to his sons, who were less than scrupulous – “taking bribes and perverting justice” (sound familiar?). So, the people demanded a king, like the other nations have.
On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to the people who complained that Samuel’s sons were not walking in Samuel’s ways. But they didn’t ask for different judges, they asked for a king. To this the Lord commanded Samuel to pick out the best king he could find (Saul), while at the same time pointing out that the Israelites had rejected Him (God) as king. This brings up an interesting debate about God’s perfect will versus His permissive will. For now though we simply note that God gave the Israelites a king, and warned them at the same time that kings would do bad things to them.
Over the generations the Israelis had some good kings (e.g., David & Hezekiah) and some wretchedly awful ones (e.g., Ahab). It has been discussed amongst Christian theologians for some time whether these kings led Israel to good or bad behaviors and outcomes, or whether the Lord was simply giving them kings that were well suited to their own dispositions. That is, when the people were ready to do evil, an evil king would come, and when they were ready to do good, a good king would come.
The Leaders We Asked for, and Deserve …
Whether this is truly how it went down with Israel is certainly fair to debate (can we really know exactly what the hearts and minds of the average Israeli were at the time of each king?) – but I propose that it almost has to be true in a democracy with a sufficiently fast feedback cycle (elections). That is, the leaders we have are a modestly accurate facsimile of our aggregate policy preferences rolled together and, where they are contradictory, pushed to some confused amalgam that tends to upset everybody.
I’m not just talking about those politicians who are chameleons, becoming whatever policy expressions they think will garner the most votes, and making policy based on whatever will keep them in power. But, there is certainly a lot of that going on. It was Newt Gingrich who once said: “What is the primary purpose of a political leader? To build a majority. If voters care about parking lots, then talk about parking lots.” Got that? Talk about whatever most voters want to talk about, and sound reasonable … and get elected. (To be fair to Newt, there is another reading of this that does make some political sense: don’t talk about issues that voters don’t care about, there are plenty of issues they do care about that we can use to make a case. Ron Paul could have used this lesson in 2008 when he made a speech on the presidential primary trail denouncing laws requiring milk pasteurization – as if anybody cared.)
There are also principled politicians on both left and right that stand for certain things regardless of the political winds. I’m thinking here of folks like Rand Paul on the right, or Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader on the left. But these people never rise to political success unless a sufficiently large swath of the people also support their principles, in some way or another.
Whatever the American political mind is in the future, there will arise politicians who will give expression to it in the public arena – and win elections to manifest its policy preferences. (Regardless of whether they adhere to those policies from principle, or from a desire for power.)
The Logical End …
“But large majorities hate congress, and hate the policies that come out of it!” Very true. And yet I maintain that these policies are inevitable based on the system that we have enacted.
As a detour, consider the corruption of corporate influence in politics. Major corporations have used massive sums to bribe and coerce congress to enact policies favored by the corporations – policies that allow the corporations to operate with larger profit margins and less competition. Do Americans support these policies? Probably not in particular, yet this is the logical end of the system. If the government has the authority to require that you behave in this way or that economically (and economic freedom is every-bit as much a part of freedom as speech or religion), then it is absurd to think that corporate megaliths won’t bribe their way to bigger profits.
“Well we should get the money out of politics!” – you’re missing the point. There is no getting the money out – influence always finds a way to creep in. Asking it not to is as logical as asking water to flow uphill.
In the end, so many of the policies that we all hate are a logical outcome of our aggregate voting preferences painted against the backdrop of fallen humanity and our pretensions that we are better able to live the lives of our neighbors for them (despite the fact that God Himself entrusted them with the life to live).
We The People …
In some way I suppose that I write these things in defense of those poor bedraggled politicians who get pilloried on a daily basis. The true blame lies elsewhere.
We have become a nation of self-worship. To an astounding degree we, as a people, see no problem with elevating ourselves as king (and even god) in the lives of our fellow men. We see no problem in using force to affect our “perfect will” in the lives of our neighbors.
Make no mistake, any law that has an enforcement mechanism carries with it the implicit threat of force; force that a Christian man thinks ought to be used sparingly, humbly, in the fearful recognition that there is One to Whom we answer. And He judges righteously. Imagine how you (or I) will answer on that day. “Did you threaten your neighbor with force to [insert seemingly benevolent end here] while you personally did nothing to help?” … “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” – Matt 23:4.
I suppose we very much have the leaders we deserve. It is useless to think we can just pick out more of the same and hope that we will get a different outcome. Water doesn’t flow uphill. The “change” we seek has to start with We The People. The politicians will follow.
Or, to put it another way, we are not victims of the government. If we are victims at all, then we are only victims of each other. This is a democracy, after all.