America's April 15 tax deadline is fast approaching. This is the date by which we are supposed to "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's."
Meanwhile, people in Iraq are marrying their cousins, widows in Zambia are sleeping with their deceased husbands' relatives, and the president's niece has a drug problem.
These two paragraphs have more in common than you might think. The control freaks of the world keep telling us that, without sufficient money to throw at America's and the world's problems, these problems will go unsolved. We must "render unto Caesar" and be silent as Caesar does his thing. However, all the taxing, spending, wars, jails and laws in the world will accomplish next to nothing. Most problems have causes that no government -- not even the United States government -- can cure.
We have invaded Iraq and -- apparently, as of this writing -- ousted Saddam Hussein so that the Iraqi people may enjoy the blessings of democracy. Soon, Iraq will be a shining city on a hill -- an example of what is possible in the Arab world -- and the dominoes will start to tumble. Arabs and Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia will join hands, sway back and forth and sing, "We Are the World" as they bask in the glow of democracy.
Not so fast there! There are numerous obstacles to democratic government in Iraq. Many Americans know that Iraq is made up of three distinct ethnic groups: the Kurds in the north, the Sunnis in the center and the Shi'ites in the south. Forgotten by many is the fact that Iraq is similar to Yugoslavia in that it was cobbled together by the British in 1922 in the aftermath of World War I. We know what happened to Yugoslavia. Might not the same fate await Iraq, and might this mean that some Iraqis may live under an Islamic dictatorship worse than that of Saddam?
Steve Sailer is one of America's more fascinating commentators on the issue of ethnicity. In January, he authored a piece in The American Conservative on the Iraqi tradition of cousin marriage. (1) This custom has more to do with Iraq's political arrangements than one might think. According to Sailer, more than half of marriages in Iraq are between first and second cousins.
He writes: "Each of (Iraq's) three ethnic groups is divisible into smaller and smaller tribes, clans, and inbred extended families -- each with their own alliances, rivals, and feuds. And the engine at the bottom of these bedeviling social divisions is the oft-ignored institution of cousin marriage."
Sailer goes into great detail about how the inbreeding resulting from cousin marriage leads to far stronger family loyalty than one sees in America, but far less loyalty to one's nation. He says that, as a result of this loyalty to family and disregard for society as a whole, "Civic virtues, military effectiveness, and economic performance all suffer." Moreover, "Extended families that are incredibly tightly bound are really the enemy of civil society because the alliances of family override any consideration of fairness to people in the larger society."
Sailer thinks it is folly that we can bring democratic institutions to Iraq just because we did so in Japan and Germany in the late 1940s. Those societies did not feature the clannishness and tribalism that characterize Iraq. Knocking off Saddam is the easy part. Overturning centuries old customs and traditions is another thing altogether -- something the United States government cannot do.
Indeed, Germany had democratic institutions in the 1920s and early 1930s. Hitler came to power via the democratic process. Even if we do bring democratic elections to Iraq, this is no guarantee that they will produce the results we desire. Numerous frightening scenarios are possible.
Which brings us to the nation of Zambia, a southern African nation about which you probably have not thought much lately. In this year's State of the Union address, President Bush asked for $15 billion in additional funding to fight AIDS in Africa. Hugh Russell writes in the British journal The Spectator about embedded tribal customs that will most likely thwart the lofty intentions of American policy makers.
According to Russell, Zambia has a much lower rate of homosexuality than Western nations, as well as a lower rate of needle-sharing drug users. However, as Russell writes:
"Is it, then, that Africans are simply more immoral, that African society is just too casual? No, of course not. Society here is a complex web of tradition, custom, superstition and folklore, and the average Zambian sticks rigidly to the tribal code."
This "tribal code" includes a belief in "ritual cleansing." According to local superstition, when a husband dies, his ghost chases his widow. Eventually, this ghost will drive the woman mad. To offset this possibility, the widow will have sex with, for example, her husband's uncle. After this, the widow is considered cleansed and her husband's ghost will haunt her no more. However, as Russell points out, if her husband died of AIDS, she no doubt has AIDS and will transmit it to her uncle.
Another Zambian custom that leads to the spread of AIDS is the "secret society". Many Zambians will deny that this practice still exists, but health and social workers assure Russell that it does. When Zambian boys turn 12 or 13, they go through a ritual initiating them into manhood. Men from a particular "class" typically form a lifelong bond. When one visits another, he is offered the sexual use of his host's wife. This practice exacerbates the spread of AIDS among apparently moral and faithful couples.
There is a third Zambian custom that spreads AIDS which, in Russell's words, will "make you wince." Therefore, I will not describe it. However, you may reads Russell's non-gratuitous and non-pornographic article here.
Concerning American aid to fight AIDS in Africa, Russell writes: "More American cash will, of course, buy more anti-retroviral drugs, which could save many lives and extend others. What's more, many firms now supply their products to the region at cost. But even at cost they are still out of reach of people who have nothing. And, as the Weekly Telegraph reported recently, racketeers are now snapping up the drugs at their low African price and smuggling them back to Europe to sell at a vast profit."
The United States government is simply not capable of overturning every weird tribal custom in every country in Africa. What is the answer? Russell asks for our prayers.
Which brings us to the subject of our president and his family. GWB frequently invokes the name of Jesus and is a hero to millions of American Christians. After eight years of unrelenting debauchery, they tell us that GWB is just what America needs to get back on the path to moral rectitude. However, the actions of his daughters and his niece ought to demonstrate the limited capabilities of any president to change the moral direction of this country.
In 2001, GWB's 19-year-old daughters were busted for using fake IDs to gain entrance to an Austin, Texas, watering hole. They tell us that a drinking age of 21 is necessary to shore up America's morals. However, if the president's own daughters will find a way around such laws, how able is any president to instill virtue in millions of homes from Maine to Hawaii?
Noelle Bush -- niece of GWB and daughter of Florida Governor Jeb Bush -- is another story altogether. (Go to Google.com Advanced Search and type "Noelle Bush" in the box labeled "exact phrase.") Almost all you will see are links to stories about her drug busts. It is almost as if you had done a search on Keith Richard or Darryl Strawberry.
The War on Drugs is conservatism's Holy of Holies. No matter how much evidence you present of its abject failure you cannot disabuse drug warriors of their fantasies. However, the drug war has not stopped Noelle Bush -- niece of the president and daughter of his drug warrior brother -- from ingesting all manner of illicit mood modifiers.
I tell these three stories for a reason: In recent decades, we have taken the injunction to "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's" to mean that we should pay our taxes, sit down, shut up, and be totally uncritical of our government. Don't ask what things are Caesar's much less whether Caesar has any competence whatsoever in doing whatever it is you would like him to do.
Jesus doesn't assign specific duties to Caesar. The Founders, who knew their Bible, knew their history and knew human nature delegated only a few specific powers to Caesar. (See the 18 clauses and 431 words of Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution for elaboration.) They gave us three branches of government as well as federalism for a reason. They knew the dangers of a government run amok, as well as that government is good for next to nothing. The Constitution is a remarkable document for what it does not say.
Dictators in Iraq, STDs in Zambia, and the president's niece's drug habits may tug on our consciences. However, we need to distinguish between "the things which are Caesar's" and "the things which are God's." As much as we would like to think of the federal government as some kind of omniprovident vending machine responding to our every desire at the punch of a button, life just ain't that way. Saah-reee. Welcome to planet Earth.
We can congratulate ourselves all we want about ousting Saddam, fighting AIDS in Africa and fighting drug use in Tallahassee. This is the twenty-first century. We want quick-fix, feel-good, effort-free "solutions" to our problems. However, the words "solve" and "problem" do not appear in our Constitution with good reason: government cannot solve our problems.
"The things which are Caesar's" are very, very few. The rest is up to us and, ultimately, to God. It will be a great day when we once again have the wisdom and humility to make this distinction. Not only will we stop trying to apply a federal solution to absolutely everything, but we will also be able to keep a lot more of what we earn, and we will be able to render it however we please.
(1) You may need to register with Yahoo groups in order to access this article. However, it will be well worth the tiny inconvenience. (back)
Author's note: The Scripture relevant to this essay is Matthew 22:21.