Are There Lessons That Modern Americans Can Learn From Ancient Israel? (Part 2)

November 20, 2018
Last week, I presented 1 Kings 12 as a case study for how the Bible might speak to the current political situation in the United States. I briefly explained why I am so concerned about the country that I have called home for my entire life. Then I laid out four features of Israel’s history that contributed to the division of its monarchy.

Now, I want to explore how each of these four elements of Israel’s story may be part of our own story, too. I readily admit that I am not a political scientist or a sociologist, but I hope that my observations will help us see our situation more clearly. And if we see our situation more clearly, we will be better equipped to develop and implement solutions that will actually make a positive difference.

Ethnic and Geographic Tensions

The presence of ethnic and geographic tensions is the most obvious parallel between ancient Israelite history and our own story as a nation. The old divisions between north and south still persist, even 150 years after the Civil War. Likewise, our nation is filled with ethnic tensions. But there are other divisions of this type. For example, people in rural areas tend to have different values and voting patterns than those who live in cities, and people on the coasts generally have different values and voting patterns than those who live in the interior of the country.

These tensions breed mistrust. Obviously, there are genuine historical reasons for this mistrust. African-Americans, for example, experienced four hundred years of state-sponsored oppression. Who could blame them for being cautious about how much faith they put in the goodwill of their fellow citizens, especially those citizens who do not share their ideology? But I think that another factor is that we continue to experience life in different ways than those who do not share our ethnic or geographical identity. Either way, mistrust tends to shift our focus away from things like truth and shared values and towards the acquisition of power.

There are ways, of course, in which our situation is different than that confronted by ancient Israel. For example, in ancient Israel, the tribal differences were closely linked to the geographical differences that existed, whereas, in our society, the connection is not so clear. But such differences only complicate the challenges we face. For example, rather than dealing with ethnic and geographical differences as a single issue, we have to deal with them as separate phenomena (each with its own related but distinct matrix of causes).

Irreconcilable Ideologies

The complex matrix of ethnic and geographical tensions that defines our common life as a nation is overlaid with deep and irreconcilable ideological divisions. The rise of capitalism and Marxism virtually ensured the ideological bifurcation of the American electorate, but the problem runs much deeper even than the conflict over the role of government and the propriety of market-driven economics. Os Guiness has recently argued that Americans are really fighting (often without knowing it) over the true nature of freedom, which he contends is the most foundational value in the grand experiment that is the United States of America.

But the situation is more dire than any bifurcation scheme can adequately communicate. The fact is that Americans possess and defend a wide variety of ideologies, and many of these are mutually incompatible with one another. In order to illustrate this point, let’s look at the mess in which the Republican Party finds itself. The party has, for the last fifty years, been the representative of ideological conservatives. Its primary factions within the party have been religious conservatives, who cared more about social issues, and economic conservatives, who cared more about limiting the government’s intervention in economic issues. But the two groups worked together relatively well, and so they tolerated one another’s presence. (There were, of course, also a number of ideological moderates in both parties. This, too, is no longer the case.)

This relative unity began to come unraveled (at least in the mind of this untrained observer) during the administration of President George W. Bush and accelerated dramatically with the election of President Donald Trump. Now, the party is made up of traditional conservatives, libertarians, and populists, with a re-energized white nationalist minority pounding on the door for admission. It is difficult to overemphasize the extent to which these ideologies are incompatible with one another.

Similar dynamics can also be found in the Democratic Party (notice, for example, the conflict between certain feminists and members of the transgender community over what it means to really be a woman) Such complications leave members of both parties, to say nothing of independents, feeling alienated from their political community and lacking meaningful authority to influence the course of events in the country.

Royal Overreach

The United States is not a monarchy, but the issue of governmental overreach is one that is constantly debated in our culture. And it isn’t just conservatives and libertarians that think the government is too much of a burden to the people. Remember, the drive to make same-sex marriage a constitutional right was, in essence, a rebellion against attempts by the states to regulate who could and could not engage in marriage.

Of course, one person’s example of governmental overreach is another person’s example of government doing exactly what it should do. It is worth remembering that Solomon was celebrated for his wisdom, and his reforms allowed for the construction of the temple and of a number of military fortifications. And this example reminds us that one of the key issues in any such debate is who benefits from any given governmental action.

The truth is that a lot of people—from African-Americans living in Detroit to whites living in the Ozark Mountains to Hispanics living along the Rio Grande—feel that America does not “work” for people like them. Hence, we see how the issue of governmental overreach is related to questions of ideology, ethnicity, and geography.

Religious and Moral Compromise

Of all the issues raised by our examination of 1 Kings 12, the issue of religious and moral compromise is probably the most difficult to apply to our situation. We live in a pluralistic society under a constitution that guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. One of the foundational assumptions of American life, that religion is a matter of private conviction, is a direct result of our attempt as a society to cope with the implications of our non-sectarian identity.

Nevertheless, the prophetic warnings of fundamentalist Christianity ring out like a storm siren, pointing urgently to the moral degradation and religious decay that threatens to destroy all that we have worked as a nation to build. Even some non-fundamentalists have come to recognize that moral convictions do not simply appear out of nowhere. They are intimately related to one’s beliefs about God, the universe, humanity, etc. The only logical inference that one can draw from such a realization is that conflicting theologies (or non-theologies, as the case may be) will inevitably create conflicting moralities.

Whether liberals we like it or not, the United States cannot be all that it was founded to be without the guiding principles and spiritual vitality of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, Guinness argues that freedom (as the founders of the American republic understood it) cannot survive in an environment of thoroughgoing naturalism and uncompromising secularism. It needs the unique insights of the Protestant Reformation to thrive.

A Dire Diagnosis

All of this leads us to a dire diagnosis. America is in trouble, and it needs radical intervention if it is to be rescued from its own destruction. Next week, we will talk more about this diagnosis, and I will lay out what I think we have to do to address the problems that I see.

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