Herod the Great on How to Deal with the Competition (second in sermon series, “Lessons from Political Leaders of the Bible”)

I.
Well, here we are smack dab in the middle of another election season. It is both interesting and frustrating as well as a reminder of what life in a modern democracy has become. I am not a political scientist, but my general observation of American politics as a diligent voter for about 40 years along with my limited knowledge of American political history lead me to believe that there have been many more campaigns characterized by mudslinging than fact sharing.  In both national and local elections there are few truly clean campaigns. I suspect there are more clean campaigns locally than nationally, but that’s just the hunch. It also seems to me that the higher the office, and therefore the more that’s at stake, the more willing candidates are to diabolically discredit and/or hurt opponents as a means of trying to help themselves get elected.
According to the Lehrman Institute, the presidential election of 1800 is widely taken to have been the nastiest in the political history of our nation.  Political scientists typically point out that nothing about that campaign reflected well on the two Founders of our country who ran against each other.  The race was between Federalist John Adams and Republican Thomas Jefferson.  Adams had been George Washington’s Vice President. Washington, however, died in 1799 and was out of the picture by the time the race between Adams and Jefferson was formal.  Historians at the Lehrman Institute describe the race between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as “raucous, bitter, and unpredictable.”  Professor David McCullough has given us a taste of how the two camps publicly described the other.  Thomas Jefferson was, according to the campaign of John Adams “a Jacobin, a shameless southern libertine, and a ‘howling’ atheist.”  John Adams, said the Jefferson campaign, was a “Tory, a vain Yankee scold, and, if truth be known, ‘quite mad.’”
Historian Joanne B. Freeman wrote: “With partisan animosity at an all-time high and no end in sight, many assumed that Adams and Jefferson were engaged in a fight to the death that would destroy the Union. Of course each side assumed that it alone represented the American people, its opponents a mere faction promoting self-interested desires.”  Jefferson’s biographer, Willard Sterne Randall, wrote: “In the first knockdown, drag-out campaign, Americans proved they preferred newspapers to pamphlets to books, and, further, that they preferred their newspapers crammed with items of scandal. It was the first modern campaign.”
The two candidates, as sometimes happens today, actually agreed on a number of political policies and goals.  There was nothing similar, however, about their personalities described as follows by the highly regarded presidential historian, Joseph J. Ellis:  Adams and Jefferson were the “odd couple of the American Revolution: Adams, the short, stout, candid-to-a-fault New Englander; Jefferson, the tall, slender, elegantly elusive Virginian….Adams, the highly combustible, ever combative, mile-a-minute talker whose favorite form of conversation was an argument; Jefferson, the forever cool and self-contained enigma who regarded an argument as dissonant noise that disrupted the natural harmonies he heard inside his own head.”  Having collaborated on drafting the Declaration of Independence and later having served together or at least at the same time as diplomats in Europe, by the time of the campaign there seemed to be no positive connection whatsoever between them.
In one of several newspaper articles damning Jefferson, a critic asked his readers to imagine what the nation would be like with Jefferson at the helm.  What that journalist saw, he wanted everyone to see.  “In a short time, licentiousness and immorality would meet with the most public approbation, every restraint would soon be thrown off, and men would soon bring themselves to be infamous debauchees, assassins, cheats, thieves, liars, hateful and hating one another, a curse upon the earth.”
Many of us agonize at how religion is used and abused in political campaigns today; well, it’s been going on in this country almost from the beginning.  Mudslinging in the presidential campaign of 1800 began early, and it started at church. On Independence Day, 1798, the congregational clergyperson who was president of Yale University delivered a sermon condemning Thomas Jefferson’s supposed atheism. In this widely circulated sermon, the Reverend Timothy Dwight, President of Yale as we have said, slammed Jefferson.  Dwight was neither widely loved nor widely respected though we do name him when we are listing the great preachers in the earliest history of our country.  Those who didn’t like him frequently criticized his arrogance and his thirst for power; critics often referred to him as “His Holiness Pope Timothy.”  Anyway, his view of a nation with Jefferson as its president, Jefferson regarded as a friend of France, would see this, as Timothy Dwight preached it:  The “Bible would be cast into a bonfire, our holy worship changed in a dance of Jacobin frenzy, our wives and daughters dishonored, and our sons converted into the disciples of Voltaire and the dragoons of Marat….Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, the nation black with crimes.”
The religious divide, and it was very real, ran largely along geographical lines.  Timothy Dwight’s brother, Theodore, wrote in an editorial:  “We want no Southern lights in these parts.  We have Northern lights; we have gospel light and political light sufficient to exterminate Jacobinism.”  Joining in, a minister in New York wrote:  “Though there is nothing in our constitution to restrict our choice, yet the open and warm preference of a manifest enemy to the religion of Christianity, in a Christian nation, would be an awful symptom of the degeneracy of that nation and a rebellion against God.”
The fact is, both Adams and Vice Jefferson were Unitarians by conviction.  Of the two, Adams was more willing to acknowledge the role of religion in public life; in the spring of 1799 while filling out Washington’s term, he issued a call for a day of fasting and repentance that many Presbyterians were pressing him to do. It seemed harmless enough, but the designated day backfired on Adams.  “Fasting and prayer” might have been OK, but “fasting with repentance” was not!  Growing groups of people began to assume that Adams was aligning himself with the Presbyterians even though the Presbyterians wouldn’t have had him.  What the young country feared was movement toward a national church from which many of them had fled in England.  The Revolution barely over, memories of blood in the streets and devastated families still burned painfully in the memories and the hearts of those who had seen more than enough.  I say again, this is not what Adams wanted at all, but he couldn’t beat the perception.  The citizens of this young nation believed a multiplicity of denominations was good for the nation and that it must never fall back into the lack of separation between state church and religious expression.
As election day approached, the attacks on Jefferson escalated. Pay very careful attention to this name I’m about to say.  The Reverend William Linn, Dutch Reformed minister of New York, joined in the frenzy.  The Reverend Linn claimed to have found irrefutable evidence that Jefferson was secretly a Muslim–oops, no wait…I have my elections mixed up–that Jefferson rejected biblical revelation, one example of his skepticism being his refusal to believe in the historicity of a universal deluge in the days of Noah.  Furthermore, Linn kept spreading around, “Jefferson doesn’t even go to church.”  Linn was wrong about that, but right about Jefferson’s skepticism regarding the historicity of much of the Bible.  In any case, Jefferson won the election.

II.
The issue of dealing with the political competition in ancient Israel was influenced by some very interesting dynamics.  Even though the Hebrews by and large believed that God and God alone was the kingmaker, there were those ambitious types who tried to tell God what to do and who, in fear that God might not take their advice, had persons they rejected as suitable to follow them on the throne killed off so that even God couldn’t elevate to kingship someone whom they detested.  That attitude doesn’t seem to square at all with the theology that someone God had appointed to the throne should have held.  Admittedly, the King or Kings of the Jews at least early on had tremendous power.  As there was no separation of religion and state, and none even envisioned, the King automatically called the shots in both realms–not that they were clearly divided in the minds of the people or in practice.  For example, the laws the King was ordained to uphold were religious laws.  There was no separate body of civil laws; everything went back to the developing religion to which they all ostensibly adhered.
Many years later, in England, a Roman Catholic King, Henry VIII, looked back to the pattern of the ancient Hebrews with envy, and when he had a falling out with his pope, Henry with the help of members of his court, notably Thomas Cranmer, established the Protestant Church of England in which the King was head both of secular and religious affairs, and there were distinctions between the two in Henry’s time and place.  Once that was accomplished, Henry leaned back and took a breath of rest and said, “Now THIS is how governments ought to operate.”
Back to ancient Israel.  The first King God appointed for the Hebrews, as the story was told, with many of them begging God in prayer to give them a monarch, was Saul.  Saul had many good qualities, and some not so good.  He will show up again in this sermon series, but one of the words of praise we have to give Saul has to do with his courage and bravery.  He frequently went into the thick of battle with his soldiers to name one of several admirable traits.
Saul liked being King, and he had strong feelings about who had what it took to take over for him when his time to retire came.  What sent him into a rage, however, was that from all indictions both God and Saul’s people–not to mention Saul’s son Jonathan–loved David, Saul’s court musician; and many saw David as heir apparent to Saul’s throne.  The mere thought threw Saul in fits of rage.
As if God had no part to play in kingmaking at all, Saul decided he had to have David killed off, or do it himself, so that he couldn’t be an option from which God could choose.  Pretty sneaky and pretty bold, not in admirable ways.
There are people in our country today who believe that elections are nothing more than dramatics, people foolishly believing that their votes count–even if they’re from Delaware–when God, not any group of humans is choosing leaders, including presidents and popes. Even in a democracy they believe God has foreordained every leader who ever has or ever will serve as Commander of Chief not just in our nation, but in every nation.  And why would Christians not believe this when influenced by the highly influential Apostle Paul?  Paul wrote in what is now called the thirteenth chapter of the letter to the church in Rome that all leaders in power were put there by God Godself–including, apparently, the Emperor who gave Pilate the nod to move ahead with the execution of Jesus.  One wonders if Paul still believed that misguided theological perception a little later when another Roman Emperor had him, Paul, executed.  As he waited to be called to his own execution, did Paul think the Roman Emperor who said, “Today’s the day,” was put into that position of power by the one and only God there is?
One of the key political and spiritual descendants of old King Saul was the King of the Jews in power at the time of the birth of Jesus, Herod the Great. Now, you will know that Rome was ultimately in charge of all Jews during the whole Jesus’ lifetime, but Rome allowed the peoples over whom it ruled to have their traditional religious opportunities as well as community practices and structures so long as they did not interfere with what Rome wanted.
In the case of the Jews in the time of Jesus the Jews were allowed to have a king, as long as that king didn’t upset any of Rome’s applecarts.  Herod the Great was happy to oblige and in effect was little more than a puppet king, although in fairness we would have to say that in relationship with the Romans and perhaps because of some persuasive powers for influencing them he was able to accomplish some amazing things for his people most notably the restoration of the Great Temple in Jerusalem.
As Herod aged, he became increasingly jealous of his position as King of the Jews and equally as paranoid about anyone who might someday have the position and the throne he cherished.  He must have come to believe that he would never die and that no one would ever sit on that throne but him.  If he thought for even a second that someone was plotting to take his throne, that person was dead within hours; I don’t know how many total there were of those, but I do know that two of them were his own family members–his wife, Miriam, and her brother.
He was at his peak of angst, paranoia, and publicly acknowledged insanity when the Magi arrived from the East about the time of Jesus’ second birthday and made the horrible mistake of going to King Herod and asking a question with these particular words, “Where is he who has been born to be King of the Jews?” Immediately Herod knew he had a threat to his throne that had come into his space without his knowledge.  He decided to play along with the Magi as if he too were interested in knowing where this person was so that he like the Magi could offer his respects.
When the Magi realized what a crazy politician Herod was, they visited with toddler Jesus and left without saying another word to Herod.  Herod was irate, as usual, and he computed that based on what the Magi had told him, this one born to be King of the Jews must be about 2 years old so he ordered the executions of all little boys in around Jerusalem, 2 years of age and under.  He did not have the authority from Rome to pronounce the death sentence on anybody, but the truth was Rome wasn’t going to be concerned about the death of some few baby boy Jews. If they even heard about it they would turn their heads.
This horrific historic episode nicknamed “The Slaughter of the Innocents” didn’t involve masses of children–fortunately just a few, but one dying at the hands of a paranoid, power hungry madman was one too many.
You may know the details of the story and how Jesus escapes Herod’s death squads. According to one of the Gospel writers, Joseph, Jesus’ father, was warned by an angel of God in a dream to get Jesus and Mary out of there and that led to a rapid road trip, which also got nickname, “The Flight to Egypt.” Sunday school teachers in the modern world have had great difficulty telling the story to children using traditional language, which by the way they shouldn’t be exposing children to in the first place.  Anyway, when “The Flight to Egypt” is mentioned, children in our time can’t help seeing Jesus, Mary, and Joseph boarding a plane from Nazareth to Cairo.

III.
We have all noticed and responded differently, according to our political tastes, to the ludicrous comment by Mitt Romney’s campaign indicating that they refuse to run a campaign influenced by fact checkers.  I can’t think of any way that can be a positive, sensible statement, but I could certainly be missing something. To me what the campaign is obviously saying is that they are going to use whatever lies are necessary to discredit President Obama and apparently to help Romney and Ryan look a bit more on the up and up.  They especially want to help the vice-presidential choice for the Republican Party who has a history in the development of the Tea Party of being able to change reality in his own mind and/or simply to alter, based on non-facts, the way large groups who listen to him think.
Now I ask you not to take offense to what I say today on the basis of political commitments.  I hope those of you who know me know me well enough to be assured that if somebody on the Democratic side made the same comment about the irrelevance of facts the way Romney’s campaign has that I would be equally as critical. Those are matters that reflect the lack of moral fiber–whatever political party they may be attached to.
Robert Reich wrote in a Kansas City newspaper:

A half-dozen fact-checking organizations and websites have refuted Mitt Romney’s and Paul Ryan’s claims that President Barack Obama removed the work requirement from the welfare law and will cut Medicare benefits by $716 billion.  The New York Times even reported that Romney has been “falsely charging” President Obama with removing the work requirement.  USA Today calls the Romney campaign’s claim that Obama has “funneled” money out of Medicare to pay for the federal health care law a “false line of attack” that’s directly contradicted by Medicare’s chief actuary.  Most political campaigns are guilty of exaggeration. Some distort the truth. But rarely if ever has one resorted to such bald-faced lies.  It is not okay to sling mud if the mudslinging is based on lies. It might be okay to mudsling if the mudslinging is based on truth. I’m not sure about the latter of those in the political arena. In Christian theology and ethics we have learned to be influenced by the primary desire to be forgiving and to see others in the best possible light, even if they have a done a wrong.

What about the time coming when there’s nothing left of any positive light in which to view a political candidate?  In a democracy why would people elect or allow a liar to stay in office, someone who blatantly misled them repeatedly? But that’s not today’s issue, really; today’s issue is how should a political leader deal with the competition.  Regardless of whether or not your ethical and moral values are based in any kind of faith tradition surely lying is not an acceptable alternative.  I say this despite the fact that some political observers of this country say it is impossible to get elected without telling a few lies, that the highest principled politician cannot promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth all the time but most of time if possible.
I know of a few people who were unaffected by the choices President Clinton made regarding his personal life while he was the President of the United States. I see a very valid argument to be made for the personal lives of our leaders being none of our business or at least the relational lives of our leaders.  Once the cat was out of the bag, though, with reference to President Clinton’s involvement with an intern, people could not help but respond, and I can’t think of anybody who defended the President’s behavior. I can think of many people who agreed with me, and I don’t often have that experience, that the news flash was not our business and had no impact on President Clinton’s ability to be an effective leader. Of course, I say that aware of people here and elsewhere who didn’t and don’t think Clinton was an effective president.  If Clinton were to run for office of some sort again, you absolutely can bet your bottom dollar that the Lewinsky connection would continue to come up in news reporting and campaign debating, not to mention in the political speeches of opponents. This is true although similar activities we’re going on it and around the White House with other presidents long before anyone ever heard the name “Bill Clinton.”
I was painfully disappointed with the behavior of Mrs. Dole during her run for the North Carolina Senate seat. What she chose to make an issue was the religious commitments of her opponent, Kay Hagan, who ended up winning, and she may have ended up the winner because a number voters were disgusted with Mrs. Dole’s accusations, which were blatant lies, that her opponent was an atheist. It should be perfectly all right for atheists be elected to office in this country, and I think it’s going to take that to break the power of the religious right trying to erase the separation of church/synagogue/mosque and state, causing them to believe and behave in ways that are in their minds God’s will.
If you keep up with politics away from Delaware and Capitol Hill you certainly knew about this contest and that the dignified, compassionate Elizabeth Dole allowed her supporters to have her calling her opponent, who is a person of faith and very active in her church by the way, an atheist.  Part of their rationale was that Jesse Helms made an art of lying that kept him in his Senate seat for a surprising number of years.
Religion as a point of contention in politics is still ever present.  Kennedy the Catholic. Lieberman the Jew. Romney the Mormon. Jimmy Carter the born-again southern Christian incapable of understanding a world outside Plains, Georgia.  I nonetheless salute Jimmy Carter as the president in my years of voting with the highest consistent degree of integrity before, during, and after his term.
Religion should not be a part of the campaign and should not be a part of how we deal with the opposition, but there are contingencies.   Kennedy’s opponents and the undecided voters in that election were not sure to what degree Kennedy would allow the pope or the bishops and archbishops closer to home, well-connected to his family, to influence him and call the shots because of the strict hierarchical nature of that religious movement. People naturally wondered what kinds of special devotion and additional support Lieberman would be arranging for Israel because he is a Jew. Most people know very little about Mormons except that Donnie and Marie Osmond are in that camp.  I don’t know exactly what to make of Mormons; there isn’t just one kind of Mormon.  Perhaps people know that one time it was legal for Mormon men to have multiple wives. In most places that is not legal any longer. This not to say that the practices have been given up altogether. Romney has only one wife as far as we know.  I’m more concerned about the branch of Mormonism fixated on the end of the world and the life beyond for Mormons only.  I don’t know where the Governor stands on that.
We have moved from cultures that literally saw political opponents killed to a culture in which we kill with words and do so proudly if it helps our woman or our man get into office.  Giving up the murder of opponents is a step in the right direction to be sure, but the truth is still lost in the confusion.  Ultimately, all that can matter is the truth.
Amen.

Advertisements

Comments are closed.