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We elected our king, and he is us

Frederick Niedner

Frederick Niedner

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Updated: March 19, 2012 8:03AM



No one wants to read another opinion piece about the alleged assault on religious freedom in the Department of Health and Human Services’ recent proposals regarding women’s health care coverage. Unless, of course, the columnist agrees with what we already believe.

When it comes to the five areas of sacred discourse — sex, religion, art, politics, and sports — we all have our minds made up. I have my views, you have yours, and nothing could prompt either of us budge an inch. Somehow, HHS managed to mire itself in three sacrosanct arenas at once, and the air has gone thick with arrows.

That’s how we like it.

By chance, my day job this week had me studying ancient political theory with a classroom of 20-year-olds. As the Bible tells it, some 3,000 years ago, when the whole planet had barely more than the current population of California, the elders of ancient Israel grew weary of tribal in-fighting and harassment from technologically superior rivals, so they made a drastic move. They asked the day’s pre-eminent prophet, Samuel, to appoint for them a king who could form a central government and get them organized. Anything would be better than this, they thought.

Samuel asked for a moment to check with his higher power, then returned sounding for all the world like Dwight Eisenhower. He’d find them a king, all right, but having a king was a terrible idea, Samuel said, somewhat like spitting in God’s face. “The king will draft your sons into the army. He’ll build armament factories, hire lots of accountants, and recruit your daughters to be his bakers and perfumers. To pay for it all, the king will tax you heavily, and eventually you’ll work for him, not him for you. Then you’ll be sick of the whole idea. When that happens, don’t come whining, because God won’t listen.”

Government — we can’t live with it, and we can’t live without it. We think we want to be a nation of laws, not of some tyrant’s whims, but each of us wishes to be an exception to the law, a dictator in our private kingdom. We think we can gain from sharing liability and protection from vulnerability, but none of us actually wants to pay for such things. We think we agree that everyone deserves equal opportunity under the law, and so long as we ourselves enjoy a slightly better-than-equal opportunity that works nicely.

Within three generations, the ancient Israelites tired of their golden boy, King Solomon. The majority seceded, then chose their own king. Despite such lurches, the system lasted for twice the current tenure of the United States. When it fell apart and the nation went into exile, who took the rap? Yup. The king.

We don’t have a king to blame for our troubles. “We the people” have formed this union. We are the government. To paraphrase Pogo, we have met the king, and he is us.

Not everyone recognizes this. Newt Gingrich prophesied this week that if President Obama is re-elected, he will declare war on the Catholic Church the next day. If Gingrich had his wits about him, he’d realize that he’s watching us all, a complex and diverse population, trying to make things fair for everyone and sometimes running afoul of special interests or someone’s religious sensibilities.

When we settle this HHS flap, we’ll immediately find something else over which to grouse. We love feeling besieged, anxious, and certain we’ve suffered at the hands of unjust arbiters.

Why else do we attend ball games, or linger near the water cooler hoping for gossip?



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