The Sun King Print
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Wednesday, 20 January 2010 11:00

Nearly a decade ago, Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, began talking about what he called the “Leave-us-Alone” Coalition.  Norquist's coalition, which includes Christian activists, defenders of property rights, home schoolers, tax-cut advocates, gun owners, and others, are united mainly by their opposition to continued expansion of federal power and by their support for lower taxes.  Last I checked, Norquist is still beating the drum: “The modern conservative movement is a coalition of groups and individuals who wish to be left alone,” he explained in a 2007 column.  “On their primary, vote-moving issue, what they want from the government is to be left alone.”  Norquist still believes that his coalition represents a majority of American citizens, and others have seen in the Tea Party Coalition a revival of Norquist's brainchild.

Norquist is right to oppose the evils of statism, which have only grown more dangerous since Obama was inaugurated at the beginning of the year.  Yet Norquist's coalition will never be able to govern.  As coalition politics, Norquist’s strategy is brilliant.  As public philosophy, “Leave Us Alone” is, as many members of the coalition must realize, hopeless.

Norquist is self-consciously tapping into the animus toward government that has long been an important feature of American politics; as Garry Wills has put it, Americans instinctively view government as a “necessary evil.”  And this opposition to government has, like other features of American political culture, has frequently been religious grounded.  Across the spectrum of Wills’s typology of anti-government movements -- Nullifiers, Seceders, Insurrectionists, Vigilantes, Withdrawers, Disobeyers -- nine out of ten had a rifle one hand and a Bible in the other (with, perhaps, a copy of the Constitution tucked in a back pocket).

One wonders whether they had read those Bibles.  Scripture describes rulers as “shepherds,” fathers, and strikingly, in the case of Moses, a “nursing father.”  Solomon, the high point of Old Testament history, is described as just, wise, and compassionate, and pictured receiving the tribute of the kings of the earth.  Jeremiah, Daniel and Isaiah even have good things to say about Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus.

One of the most striking images of the ruler is found in David’s lovely meditation in 2 Samuel 23:3-4: “he who rules over men righteously, who rules in the fear of God, is as the light of the morning when the sun rises, a morning without clouds, when the tender grass springs up out of the land, through sunshine after rain.”  The leading simile of the poem is the comparison of the king to the sun, an association rooted in the creation account in Genesis 1, where God created the sun and moon to rule day and night.  Heavenly bodies, since they are raised up high, represent the king raised up above his people.  That is the generic significance of the imagery, but David stretched the simile to show the specific ways in which the righteous king is like the sun: The king is raised up like the “morning” sun and compared to the sun that shines “without clouds” on the “tender grass.”

The image is multi-faceted.  David implies that by rising as the morning sun, the king brings light out of darkness.  This is an image that David used in the previous chapter, where he spoke of the Lord as the lamp that illumined his darkness (22:29), and David saw that what the Lord was to David, so David, the anointed of the Lord, was to Israel.  The imagery applied specifically to David, who had arisen to bring light after the darkness of Saul’s reign and the chaos of civil war with David’s son Absalom.  During those times, Israel had stumbled around aimlessly, lost in a dark wood.  With the sun now risen, Israel could see where she was going.  Second, the sun also brings fertility from the earth, causing vegetation to shoot up.  Sunshine and rain make the land flourish like a fruitful garden.  “Land” in David’s poem means “land of promise,” and David implies that under the light and warmth of a righteous king, the land becomes truly a land flowing with milk and honey.

“Grass” is a common Scriptural metaphor for men, normally used to emphasize the brevity of life, since grass springs up in the morning and dies in the afternoon.  Here, by contrast, the flourishing grass is a sign of the fertility of the nation, and the sun-king is the one who enables the nation to flourish.  Later in the poem, another sort of vegetation is introduced, thorns: “the worthless, every one of them will be thrust away like thorns . . . they will be completely burned with fire in their place” (2 Samuel 23:6).  Productive plants flourish under the sun king, but he scorches unproductive thorns that exist only to harm those who try to pull them up.  Making war against weeds and thorns is one way that a ruler promotes the success of his garden.  As the Gardener points out in Shakespeare’s Richard II, it is the ruler’s duty to “root away/ the noisome weeds, which without profit suck/ the soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers” (III.iv).

David’s poem cannot be used to formulate a political platform, but it provides a guiding metaphor that should shape the political instincts of Christians far more than it has done.  Even more, it offers several insights of a more rigorous political-philosophical character.   Most obviously, it shows that, for David, government is not necessarily evil nor a necessary evil.  David knew tyranny up close and personal, yet he did not conclude that all rulers were plagues or thorn bushes.  Kings can contribute to rather than sap the vitality of their people.  Far from being a necessary evil, David’s poem indicates that righteous government is, as Wills put it, a “necessary good,” a condition of the possibility of a nation’s prosperity.

Leave-Us-Aloners would agree that government can promote the welfare of the nation, but would add that they do this best by leaving the nation to itself.  Leave-Us-Alonism assumes that the nation has been able to prosper on its own, so that the role of government is to stay on the path, to avoid trampling the flowers, or at best to mind the garden walls.  The imagery of David’s poem does not permit this dodge: To assume that society can function successfully in the absence of government is as wrong-headed as to believe grass can grow without the sun.

David’s poem challenges not only the libertarianism represented by Norquist’s coalition but strikes more generally at widespread and even fundamental convictions of American politics.  The claim that the purpose of government is to secure and protect goods that are already enjoyed by the people rests on the assumption that these goods are achievable apart from government, and this rests on the social contract myth that society is prior to government, a myth bolstered by sociology.  As Oliver O’Donovan has pointed out, however, societies are “politically formed” and “depend on the art of government.”

All this means that the Bible ought not be enlisted in support of Leave-Us-Alonism.  Rather, the Bible exposes its folly: Leave-Us-Alonism ignores the goods that flow from the “necessary good” of government.  It is a program for blotting out the sun and a plea to be left in darkness.

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