For those who care enough to learn the lessons of history, the echoes of the ancient past can be heard clearly amidst the discord of the chaotic present. If we want to understand the crisis of political leadership that plagues our country and our world, we have only to look back to earliest records of national governance, nearly 3000 years ago.
It was the 9th Century Before the Common Era. 391 years had passed since the Children of Israel first entered their land. For nearly four centuries, Jewish society had been plagued by divisiveness, political instability, and spiritual ambivalence. But at last, after the prophet Samuel spent his entire career teaching the Jews to more deeply respect the law and inspiring them to more profoundly appreciate their national mission, the people united in response to his invocations and dispatched emissaries to ask:
"Appoint a king to rule over us like all the other nations" (1 Samuel 8:5).
Seemingly, the Jews had finally come to their collective senses, recognizing that all their political and social strife stemmed from a pervasive national attitude in which "every man did what seemed right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25). Without a strong executive office to pilot the ship of state, without a single voice of authority to bind many into one, the tribes of Israel remained a disconnected confederation of individuals who joined forces only when necessary and turned against one another whenever self-interest clashed with national purpose and identity.
Now, finally, the Jewish people had acknowledged the error of their ways and looked to make good on the covenant they had forged at Sinai.
A LEADER IS NOT ENOUGH
But the reaction to their request tells a different story: And the word [of the people] was evil in Samuel's eyes. And the L-rd said to Samuel, "Listen to the voice of the people … for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from reigning over them" (Ib. v. 6-7).
Why were Samuel and the Almighty upset? How could the people's request for a king possibly be interpreted as rejection?
It was not the people's request that was misguided, but their own stated reasons -- to be like all the other nations. In ancient times, kings ruled with little interest in the welfare of their subjects, except insofar as a prosperous and contented people made for a more secure nation to provide their king with greater power and prestige.
But the Jewish nation was something new in the history of the world -- a nation built on moral responsibility and spiritual ideals, a nation governed by guiding principles of charity and justice, a nation of people who looked to their national leader as a model to inspire them to strive for greatness, not to absolve them of personal accountability so they could devote their energies to the fulfillment of their own indulgences.
And so, when the people asked for a king so they could be like all the other nations, they revealed a total misunderstanding of their own national purpose, which could be interpreted as nothing less than a rejection of the Almighty.
A SECOND CHANCE
240 years ago, another attempt was made to create a new nation, conceived in liberty, and built upon guiding principles of equality and justice.
Today, that same nation, blessed with more power, prosperity, freedom, and opportunity than any in the history of the modern world, confronts a political system crippled by bloat, inefficiency, and corruption. At a moment in time when we desperately need inspired leadership, we face a contest between a socialist and a sociopath in one party, a narcissist and a curmudgeon in the other. And while the frontrunners serenade us with siren-songs of high-sounding dreams and visions -- all deeply divorced from reality -- the few aspirants who attempt to set forth concrete policy proposals and plans of action wallow in low single digits.
Why is the electorate so eager to embrace the illusion of leadership and so unwilling to recognize the real hope of positive change? Because we have become a nation and a world in which everyone does what seems right in his own eyes. We have discarded national purpose for personal gratification, collective responsibility for collective myopia.
How many Americans can name contestants on American Idol but not a single member in the United States Congress? How many want the government to tax the rich and feed the poor, without knowing or caring what will happen after they've killed the goose that lays the golden eggs? How many have passionate opinions about the Oscar nominations but know nothing about the collapsing economies of Europe that have already tried and failed to legislate utopian prosperity?
Indeed, if a John F. Kennedy were to summon us today to ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country, he would be mocked on late-night television and buried beneath an electoral landslide.
So how do we reverse the corrosive effects of an entertainment industry that panders to a people's lowest impulses and a growing nanny state that encourages people to indulge irresponsible behavior? Well, perhaps we could employ the same strategy implemented by the Roman Empire to reverse the effects of its policy of Bread and Circuses.
Or maybe that's a bad example.
Perhaps, instead, if we show more concern not only for what we say but how we say it, if we stop vilifying all those who disagree with us simply because they disagree with us, if we stop preaching to the choir and start trying to engage ideological opponents to lessen the rift between us, then maybe, just maybe, we can start to recover, piece by tiny piece, a portion of the common ground on which a free society and a free world are able to endure.