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If there’s one thing you can know for sure about the emperor Darius of Persia—and this is true whether you’re reading the historian Herodotus, the book of Daniel in the Bible, or Wikipedia—it’s that he was no softy. But having established that historical fact, let’s also stipulate that Darius was demonstrably too much of a pushover to be a good fit in the contemporary Obama administration. Show him the facts, and he was willing to change his mind.
What kind of emperor is that?
I can’t help thinking about Darius in a current Washington setting simply because he’s so obviously the first public figure who comes to mind as a guy who thinks it’s part of his duty to check up on the prayer lives of his citizens. Just like the Internal Revenue Service under Barack Obama, Darius considered it appropriate to scare the daylights out of people whenever someone said, “Let us pray.”
The difference, I say, between Darius then and the Obama IRS lieutenants now is that when Darius discovered the error of his ways, he confessed his wrongdoing and took dramatic steps to make things right. Through a highly public proclamation, Darius made it clear that Daniel was free to pray without restriction. And the people who had been so zealously snoopy about Daniel’s prayer life were gobbled alive by the very lions who were supposed to feast on Daniel.
When details in May began to confirm the report (see “Agent exegesis,” June 15, 2013) that the IRS had, in so many words, asked applicants for tax exemption to describe the exact contents of their prayers, a chill raced up the spines of millions of taxpayers. It’s one thing to have the IRS ask for documentation about charitable giving. It’s bad enough for Uncle Sam to inquire about what other boards your board of directors might serve on, or to ask how much your nonprofit is paying its top people. It’s outrageous—no, it’s past outrageous—for the powerful tax agency to share the list of your organization’s donors with the media and even with organizations that oppose you. The IRS has apparently been doing those kinds of things all along the way.
But for the IRS to stick its long tentacles into your prayer closet is something altogether new and frighteningly different. Prayer, by its very character and definition, is a highly personal, private, and even intimate activity. Prayer may once in a while find us at our boldest and most audacious. But much more typically, it exposes us at our weakest, most vulnerable, and unattractive moments.
Prayer is for beggars. It is for needy down-and-outers. Very often, it is for the desperate—those who are so far gone they can’t think of any alternative. That’s why they’re praying in the first place.
There are those, of course, whose first thought when encountering such a pitiable soul is to call in the nearest governmental agency. They get annoyed when folks turn to the supernatural for answers. They love to think they can concoct humanistic solutions to all of life’s problems. So it appealed to Darius’ sense of pride and competency when some of his aides suggested that if anyone tried to do an end run on Darius, and got caught seeking help from some other source, that person should be ever so severely punished. After all, they said, you gotta watch these people who look to some invisible God for help in hard times.
The story spilling out of our current IRS is alarming on many fronts—but none more unsettling than the in-your-face threat to the First Amendment’s guarantee that government will do nothing to limit the free exercise of religion. When, as part of that scenario, we learn that the same folks are scheduled to take over the management of our new healthcare system, it’s understandable when you see uneasiness turning to terror.
Darius had the good sense 2,400 years ago to say he was wrong. Darius, in fact, issued a decree: “In all my royal dominion,” he said, “people are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for He is the living God, enduring forever. His kingdom shall never be destroyed, and His dominion shall be to the end.”
No, I don’t expect anything quite like that from the IRS. It would be nice, though, to hear them admit they were wrong.