The Palace Prophets


A wary and uneasy peace had prevailed for three years between Syria and Israel when Jehoshaphat, ruler of Judah, held a summit in Samaria with Ahab, who reigned over the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

"Hey, you know what?" Ahab asked Jehoshaphat, nudging his counterpart in the ribs. "We really ought to hook up and snatch Ramoth in Gilead away from Syria. Whadd’ya say?"

"I’m down with that," Jehoshaphat replied, "and so are my subjects and my military — but we might want to ask what God thinks of the idea."

Rolling his eyes in disgust, Ahab summoned his posse of prophets — all four hundred of them, who were kept on retainer by his administration. Solely for the benefit of his would-be ally, Ahab — in a voice well-seasoned with weary indifference — posed the question to them: "So, should I attack Ramoth-Gilead, or what?"

"Yeah, go ahead," the court prophets replied. "God will be on your side, and stuff."

Not surprisingly, this performance failed to convince Jehoshaphat, who was as cynical and opportunistic as the next ruler but retained a residue of genuine piety. As he examined the collection of Hierophants for hire masquerading as men of God, the King of Judah probably reflected on some version of the following thought: Take the King’s shekel, follow the king’s script.

"Isn’t there an actual prophet of the Lord around here somewhere whom we could consult about the wisdom of going to war?" Jehoshaphat asked. This request prompted another bout of eye-rolling from Ahab.

"Well, there is this one guy, but he’s not a team player," Ahab complained. "He’s such a defeatist and nay-sayer. He never says anything good about my administration, and he’s outside the mainstream of prophetic thought. It’s always `The Lord is displeased with your greed and corruption,’ and `You are condemned by the Lord for your idolatry,’ and things like that. He just dwells on the negative; he doesn’t give people any hope. But I’ll summon him, if you insist."

Turning to a military aide, Ahab said: "Bring me Micaiah the son of Imlah."

While the messenger was out fetching the prophet of the Lord, the court prophets put on a show for the amusement of Ahab and his guest, regaling them with tales of their impending military conquest. It would be a "cakewalk," they insisted; the Syrians would be wiped out and the allied forces of Judah and Israel would hardly break a sweat.

When Micaiah was found, the royal messenger took him aside and tried to prompt him as to the message "the Lord" would offer through him.

"Look, Ahab called out the prophets, and they’ve reached a consensus," the messenger explained. "They’ve all agreed that the war is going to be successful. So the war is going to happen; you can’t change that, so you might as well try to influence the policy for good, rather than opposing it, which would just leave you marginalized anyway. This is just one of those times you have to choose the lesser of the available evils. You don’t have to say exactly what the court prophets have said, but you really should let your message harmonize with theirs."

"You don’t understand, do you?" said Micaiah. "I’m not in the business of saying what the King wants to hear, or swaddling the King’s policies in pious language. I’m just a messenger, like you, but my messages come from the Lord, rather than the King — and He requires that I speak only what He tells me to."

After expelling a heavy sigh and shaking his head in resignation, the royal messenger took Micaiah back to King Ahab — and then promptly made himself scarce.

"So, Micaiah," Ahab said, treating him to what he thought was an intimidating look, "Should we attack Ramoth-Gilead?"

He’s already made up his mind, Micaiah thought in disgust.

"Yeah, go ahead," he said disdainfully, casting a contemptuous glance at the court prophets, who were clinging to the shadows in anticipation of a very unpleasant confrontation. "Go to war, and may the Lord prosper you." He turned to leave, only to be find his exit blocked by the King’s palace guards.

Ahab was many contemptible things, but he was not a fool, and he could recognize when he was being patronized.

"Look, why don’t you tell me what the Lord says about the matter?" he said defiantly, expecting that through the force of his royal bombast he could compel the stubborn prophet to trim his sails.

"Very well," Micaiah said, squaring his shoulders as the court prophets dove for cover. "The Lord has shown me the armies of Israel scattered in the hills, fleeing in a leaderless retreat, with every man withdrawing to his own house."

Throwing up his hands in frustration, Ahab turned to Jehoshaphat. "Y’see? What did I tell you? He’s a defeatist."

Emboldened by the King’s complaint and the fact that Micaiah was surrounded by armed guards, some of the salaried seers were able to summon a bully’s simulacrum of courage. A few of them audibly rebuked Micaiah for defying the prophetic consensus.

"I mean, who is this guy to say that he’s right, and we’re wrong?" one of the pink-slip prophets protested, his elongated sibilants testifying of both the softness of his lifestyle and the dubiousness of his masculinity.

Boldly approaching the King, Micaiah prophesied:

"The … men you hired didn’t ask God about the truth,” Micaiah declared. “They wanted to enlist Him to support their ruler’s ambitions. God doesn’t lie, but sometimes, after we persist in lying long enough He simply lets us live with the consequences of our deceit.”

“As for me,” Micaiah continued, pausing to shoot a look at the cringing “prophets” before resuming, “I saw the Lord in vision on his throne, surrounded by the host of heaven. The Lord permitted a lying spirit to work through Ahab’s prophets to persuade the king to embark on this stupid war.”

At this, Zedekiah — the royal prophet who had complained about Micaiah’s presumption — strode up to the Lord’s prophet and hit him flush on the jaw. The result was more of an insult than an injury.

"So, was it a lying spirit from the Lord that made me deliver that message to you?" Zedekiah sneered, only to feel every particle of boldness leave him as Micaiah’s eyes, radiating the composed courage of a man who knows the truth and is at peace with it, pierced the poseur’s pretenses.

"You’re brave enough when the King and his bodyguards have your back," Micaiah told Zedekiah, his voice the quiet but penetrating rumble of a distant, fast-approaching thunderstorm. "But I can see a day when you’ll be cowering in a corner, whimpering in fear."

"Take this guy and throw him in prison, until I return victorious!" Ahab commanded.

As a brace of bodyguards started to march Micaiah out of the throne room, the Lord’s prophet shrugged his arms free and turned to utter one final warning.

"You won’t return at all from this war," he told Ahab. "If you do, you’ll know that the Lord had nothing to do with my prophecy."

Shortly thereafter, Ahab and Jehoshaphat struck out for Ramoth-Gilead.

Before the assault began, Ahab — perhaps haunted by Micaiah’s prophecy — decided to hedge his bets. "You know what — I’ve got an idea," Ahab told his ally. "I’m going to disguise myself as a common soldier. Why don’t you make yourself a more conspicuous target by parading around in your royal finery."

We’re not told what Jehoshaphat’s reaction was to this self-serving proposal (I’d wager it involved the ancient equivalent of a barnyard epithet), but he did as he asked — with predictable consequences.

The Syrian king had told his military leaders to ignore the rank and file and concentrate on finding Ahab. In short order Jehoshaphat was swarmed by the Syrian hosts.

"Hey, I’m not the guy you’re looking for!" Jehosaphat yelped.

The Syrian charioteers, seeing that this was true, wheeled about and resumed their pursuit of the disguised Ahab.

Meanwhile, some undistinguished Syrian conscript drew back on his bow and let fly at random. "I shot an arrow into the air," as it were — and the deadly projectile hit the disguised Ahab in a seam of his armor, mortally wounding him.

With Ahab dead and Jehoshaphat’s battlefield leadership compromised, the Israelite army fell apart, each man retreating to the security of his home, just as Micaiah had prophesied.

The object of sharing this rather emancipated paraphrase of I Kings 22 is to underscore the moral and practical futility of seeking wisdom from religious leaders who are on the state’s payroll, or who covet the power that comes from proximity to the politically powerful.

I do not intend to interpolate my own views into the Scripture, but from what I know of human nature it seems likely that many of the payola prophets who took part in Ahab’s "Faith-Based Initiative" probably believed that their compromises were necessary in order to advance some worthwhile objective or another. After all, working in partnership with the government is the key to getting things done, isn’t it?

Here’s a critically important principle: In any "public/private partnership," the state is always the senior partner. When Christian leaders are on Caesar’s payroll, they have to render to him things to which he is not entitled. And when Caesar’s tactical priorities change, those religious leaders who thought they could co-opt the power of the state to do good will discover, to their dismay, that the state has co-opted them, leaving it stronger and more hostile toward the values those leaders supposedly served.

For a generation, the putatively Christian Right has attached itself to the Republican Party like a remora on a Great White. During the reign of King George the Dimmer, tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money was lavished on various “Christian” groups run by religious allies of the GOP.

In many instances, the grants display every appearance of being vulgar pay-outs to shepherds more interested in herding their flocks to the polls on behalf of Republicans, rather than speaking the truth and tending to the needs of wounded souls.

Doubtless groups of this sort flatter themselves by thinking that they are "light and salt" to the world. But Christians who develop a taste for the state’s subsidy are salt that will soon lose its savor.

Consider the fact that Bush was able to mislead the United States into a patently unjust and undeniably war in Iraq without provoking a protest from so much as a single significant Evangelical leader. Indeed, the conduct of major Evangelical figures in conferring their benediction on the Iraq war was more than a little reminiscent of the behavior of Ahab’s palace prophets.

Chief among the GOP’s Palace Prophets is Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family.

A bespectacled, middle-aged man with a Dick Van Patten comb-over and the adenoidal whine of a natural-born scold, Dr. Dobson commands a large and vastly influential media empire headquartered in Colorado Springs.

A decade ago, Dobson declared that he was finished with the Republican Party, citing efforts by the GOP to built a “Big Tent” with socially liberal politicians and activists. Yet after the Bushling was installed as ruler, Dobson managed to cut and stitch his convictions to meet the prevailing fashion.

One key example was Dobson’s rationalization for Bush’s executive order of July 2001 authorizing limited federal funding of embryonic stem cell experimentation — a decision condemned by many pro-life figures, but supported by Dobson.

Like many of his comrades, Dobson endorsed the war of choice in Iraq. In a letter responding to one of his critics, Dobson permitted a spokesman to explain on his behalf that while the war wasn’t strictly defensive, “this may be one of those moments in history when we are forced to settle for a trade-off: the lives of the few in exchange for the lives of the many. This is always tragic in the extreme; and yet we must face the fact that even more deaths and greater sufferings would probably have ensued if Saddam had been allowed to pursue his mad course of oppression, aggression, and self-aggrandizement.”

This isn’t a statement growing out of Christian ethics; it’s a rationalization rooted in utilitarianism, and nourished by unadulterated falsehood. Saddam’s regime, evil as it was, committed not a single act of international aggression without either the active support, or knowing permission, of Washington. How a fifth-rate dictatorship penned inside two no-fly zones — a regime that didn’t even control all of its own territory for a dozen years — could be described as pursuing a course of “aggression … and self-aggrandizement” isn’t obvious to un-Hannitized minds.

Last year, Dobson was conspicuous among the Christian leaders summoned to a White House strategy session to help plan for another war of aggression in the Middle East, this one targeting Iran.

One would think that Dobson, given his, ahem, focus on the family, would take issue with the damage the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are doing to families — children left fatherless, motherless, or orphaned outright; women being deployed in combat roles; husbands and wives deployed simultaneously; the financial burdens of prolonged overseas service, and the resulting disruption of marriages and families; the maimed and mangled young bodies, the invisible but just as grievous injury to thousands of traumatized minds….

As I said, one would think that Dobson would take issue with at least some of this. One would be wrong.

Given his incontinent zeal to support war and bloodshed abroad, Dobson would seem to be a natural supporter of John McCain. Yes, there are some disagreements between them regarding gay “marriage,” the McCain-Feingold restrictions on campaign speech, and other matters.

But, hey — Pat Robertson, the only serious competition Dobson faces for primacy among the GOP’s Palace Prophets, managed to choke down his bile and support Rudolph Giuliani, who not only supports the social agenda of left-wing hedonism, he lives it. Robertson’s excuse, of course, was that the “war on terror” trumps all other issues.

But Dobson was different where McCain was concerned. Dobson was resolute — immovable as the Himalayas, as fixed as the Northern Star: “I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances,” Dobson declared during a January 2007 radio interview.

Well, guess what?

Mountains, like the continents themselves, can move. The “fixed” stars are nothing of the sort. And Dobson’s position on McCain has, ah, evolved. ‘Course, it takes millennia for those natural changes to take place. Dobson’s position on McCain changed in about a year and a half.

“I never thought I would hear myself saying this,” Dobson said in a radio program broadcast just days ago (Monday, July 21). “While I am not endorsing Senator John McCain, the possibility is there that I might.”

“There’s nothing dishonorable in a person rethinking his or her positions, especially in a constantly changing political context,” Dobson rationalized in a statement given to the Associated Press. “Barack Obama contradicts and threatens everything I believe about the institution of the family and what is best for the nation. His radical positions on life, marriage and national security force me to reevaluate the candidacy of our only other choice, John McCain.”

Rather than telling the truth without fear or favor, we see Dobson embracing the role rejected by the prophet Micaiah in the midrash presented above: He’s choosing what he believes to be the lesser of the available evils, as dictated by the prevailing consensus.

Actually, as I’ve pointed out before, the “lesser” evil isn’t; when it is chosen it is always the greater evil, because it’s the one that is actually done, rather than serving as a convenient rhetorical device.

Regarding every matter of public consequence, John McCain and Barack Obama — for all their differences in style (Obama actually has one; McCain does not) are entirely fungible. They are both products of the bipartisan corporatist consensus, surrounded by retainers from the Power Elite and devoted to enhancing the Welfare/Warfare/Homeland Security State. Neither poses any threat to the existing architecture of power.

Whichever is elected will become the latest in a long line of presidential perjurers when he takes the oath of office next January.

Perhaps the only substantive difference between them is that one is a sleeper agent for the Jihad, the other for the Vietnamese. I’m only kidding. I hope.

But I suspect that Dobson’s chief complaint against Obama is that his election would result in the installation of a different cohort of Palace Prophets.

Many of Obama’s critics believe that the much-criticized Jeremiah Wright would be prominent in that group. I suspect the opposite would be the case: For all of his theological errors and misguided political views, Rev. Wright did give voice to unpopular but sound criticisms of Washington’s imperialist foreign policy.

Genuine, principled critics of political corruption aren’t welcome in the Emperor’s court, and they usually have more integrity than to seek a position of that sort in the first place.