The Politician Who Sued God

iStock/tzahiV
iStock/tzahiV

In 2007, Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers sued God. As KETV Omaha reported at the time, Chambers’s lawsuit sought “a permanent injunction ordering God to cease certain harmful activities and the making of terroristic threats.”

According to the mortal plaintiff, the immortal defendant had caused “fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes, pestilential plagues, ferocious famines, devastating droughts, genocidal wars, birth defects, and the like” [PDF]. Chambers claimed he had tried to alert God of the impending lawsuit by shouting, “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” but the attempt failed to get the deity’s attention. Chambers further claimed that he had jurisdiction to sue the Almighty, since, “being Omnipresent, [He] is personally present in Douglas County."

The lawsuit was absurd, but that was the point. The deliberation came in the midst of a controversial sexual assault case in which a district judge had barred the plaintiff, a Nebraska woman, from using the words rape or victim during trial. After two mistrials, the accuser sued the judge for violating her rights to free speech—but a federal judge deemed that lawsuit legally “frivolous” (that is, without merit). This came in the wake of a Nebraska statute that further restricted such frivolous lawsuits.

For Chambers, this appears to have been a flashpoint. By suing God, he hoped to make a political statement: That a court should be required to hear a case, no matter how frivolous it might be. “The Constitution requires that the courthouse doors be open,” he said, “so you cannot prohibit the filing of suits. Anyone can sue anyone they choose, even God.”

It wasn’t the first—or last—time somebody had sued a supernatural being. In 1971, a Pennsylvania inmate named Gerald Mayo sued “Satan and his servants” because they had “placed deliberate obstacles in plaintiff’s path and caused his downfall.” In 2007, a Romanian murderer attempted to sue God for “not protecting him from the Devil’s influence,” Eric Grundhauser wrote in Atlas Obscura. Both cases were dismissed.

In August 2008, Chambers and God got their day in court, with Douglas County District Court judge Marlon Polk presiding and “an empty table reserved for God and God’s attorney,” according to the Associated Press. In a four-page decision, Polk dismissed the lawsuit because God’s home address was unlisted. Since the deity could not be properly summoned, the case could not move forward.

Chambers saw this coming. Since God is omniscient, Chambers argued, He doesn’t need to be served because He already knows it’s coming. Judge Polk, however, didn’t budge. “Given that this court finds that there can never be service effectuated on the named defendant this action will be dismissed with prejudice,” he wrote.

It should be noted that Chambers has a history of using absurdity to make broader political points. In his opposition to the state’s Concealed Handgun Permit Act [PDF], Chambers once offered an amendment suggesting a formula that claimed to help determine the maximum number of pistols a person could carry: It involved “multiplying the size of the licensee’s right shoe by three-times the girth of the licensee’s waist after a full meal, measured and certified by a professional tailor” [PDF].

8 Facts About Niccolò Machiavelli

iStock/dcerbino
iStock/dcerbino

Niccolò Machiavelli is arguably the most influential political thinker from the Italian Renaissance. Following the publication of his political theory masterwork The Prince in 1532, his name became synonymous with ruthless political machinations. But was this Florentine philosopher really that bad?

1. Niccolò Machiavelli had a front-row seat to Renaissance power struggles.

Machiavelli was born in 1469 in the independent Republic of Florence. Long before he became known as the first modern political theorist (not to mention an inspiration for House of Cards), Machiavelli worked as a diplomat in the service of the Florentine government. In 1498, at only 29 years old, he was appointed as the head of the Second Chancery, which put him in control of the city's foreign relations. His number-one concern was the potential return of the Medici family—the most infamous power brokers in Renaissance Italy—who had been ousted from Florence in 1494. Machiavelli oversaw the recruitment and training of an official militia to keep them at bay, but his army was no match for the Medici, who were supported by Rome's papal militia. When the Medici retook Florence in 1512, their first order of business was to fire—and, just for the heck of it, torture—Machiavelli.

2. Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince to regain his lost status.

As a diplomat and a scholar in an age of constant warfare, Machiavelli observed and absorbed the rules of the political game. After he lost his job as a diplomat (and even served a short time in jail), he turned to scholarship, poring over the Latin texts of ancient Roman political philosophers for inspiration. By the end of 1513, he had completed the first version of what would become his masterwork: The Prince, a handbook for the power-hungry. The book offered tips to rising politicians for seizing power, and advice to incumbent princes for keeping it.

Ironically, Machiavelli dedicated the book to the Medici, hoping it would bring him back into their good graces. It remains unclear whether it was ever read by its intended audience, and Machiavelli never got to see The Prince go viral. It was published in 1532, five years after its author's death.

3. Niccolò Machiavelli compared the need for love to the value of fear.

One of The Prince’s primary lessons was that leaders must always try to strike a balance between seeking the love of their subordinates and inspiring fear. If a leader is too soft or kind, the people may become unruly; too cruel, and they might rebel. Machiavelli had a clear preference. "Since love and fear can hardly exist together,” he wrote, “if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved."

4. The Prince’s ruthlessness made it notorious. 

Machiavelli’s political thesis became notorious because it focused almost entirely on helping rulers get what they want at whatever cost—in other words, the end always justified the means. Other political thinkers, while acknowledging Machiavelli’s brilliance, were appalled by his mercenary take on statesmanship. In the 18th century, French essayist Denis Diderot described Machiavelli's work as "abhorrent" and summed up The Prince as "the art of tyranny." Friedrich Schiller, a proponent of liberal democracy, referred to The Prince as an unwitting satire of the kind of monarchical rule it supposedly espouses (“a terrible satire against princes”). David Hume, the Scottish polymath and inveterate skeptic, called Machiavelli "a great genius" whose reasoning is "extremely defective.” Wrote Hume, "There scarcely is any maxim in his Prince which subsequent experience has not entirely refuted.”

But 20th-century British philosopher Bertrand Russell disagreed, saying that Niccolò Machiavelli was merely being honest on a subject that most preferred with a good sugarcoating. “Much of the conventional obloquy that attaches itself to his name, is due to the indignation of hypocrites,” Russell wrote [PDF], “who hate the frank avowal of evil-doing.”

5. Shakespeare called villains Machiavels.

Machiavelli’s notoriety spread so quickly that by the 16th century his name had found its way into the English language as an epithet for crookedness. In Elizabethan theatre, it came to denote a dramatic type: An incorrigible schemer driven by greed and unbridled ambition. In the prologue for The Jew of Malta, playwright Christopher Marlowe introduces his villain as “a sound Machiavill.” Even William Shakespeare used the term as a derogatory shorthand. “Am I politic? Am I subtle? Am I a Machiavel?” one character in The Merry Wives of Windsor asks rhetorically, before adding an indignant, “No!”

6. The Prince was banned by the pope.

When Machiavelli was out of a job, he did what most Renaissance thinkers did: He found a patron. Pope Clement VII, a Medici who had been elected in 1523, was happy to support the scholar. The pope even commissioned one of Machiavelli’s longest works, the Florentine Histories, which Machiavelli presented in 1526. But after the posthumous publication of The Prince in 1532, the papacy’s attitude toward Machiavelli’s work chilled. When Pope Paul IV established Rome's first Index of Forbidden Books in 1557, he made sure to include The Prince for its promulgation of dishonesty and dirty politics. (Machiavelli’s passion for classical writers and their pagan culture didn’t appeal to Pope Paul, either [PDF].)

7. Niccolò Machiavelli collaborated with Leonardo da Vinci.

In 1503, when Machiavelli was struggling to fortify Florence against its enemies, he turned to the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci.

According to a 1939 biography of Leonardo, the two "seem to have become intimate" when they met in Florence. Machiavelli used his power to procure commissions for Leonardo and even appointed him Florence's military engineer between 1502 and 1503. Machiavelli was hoping to harness Leonardo’s ingenuity to capture Pisa, a fledgling city-state which Florentine leaders had been eager to subdue for decades. As expected, Leonardo came up with a revolutionary plan. He contrived a system of dams that would block off one of Pisa’s main waterways, which could have brought Pisa to the brink of a drought and given Machiavelli all the leverage he could have asked for. But the plan failed. The dam system ended up interrupting Florence's own agriculture, and so the government terminated the project. Leonardo left his post after only eight months.

Some scholars believe that the encounter with Leonardo left a deep mark on Machiavelli’s political thinking. They point to Machiavelli’s repeated emphasis on the power of technological innovation to decide a war, a view which they believe Leonardo had inspired. Machiavelli’s writing is rife with idiosyncratic expressions that seem to have almost been lifted from Leonardo's notebooks.

8. Niccolò Machiavelli actually believed in a just government.

Scholar Erica Benner argues that, despite his reputation, Machiavelli wasn’t amoral. Although The Prince openly encouraged politicians to take and offer bribes, cheat, threaten, and even kill if necessary, Machiavelli knew that even rulers had to obey some sense of justice, Benner wrote in The Guardian. He recognized that the race for power comes with very few scruples, but he also recognized that without respect for justice, society falls into chaos.

This article was originally published in 2018.

8 Things You Might Not Know About Warren G. Harding

Twenty-ninth president Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) was two years into his first term when a (probable) heart attack put an abrupt end to both his life and his presidency. (Vice-president Calvin Coolidge stepped in and was then elected in 1924.) But just because his time as president was brief doesn't mean Harding isn’t deserving of closer examination. Take a look at some facts about his upbringing, his office controversies, and how a big family secret was revealed nearly a century after his death.

  1. Warren G. Harding was a newspaper reporter before he was a politician.

Warren G. Harding was born in a farming community near Blooming Grove, Ohio, on November 2, 1865. He was the oldest of eight children. Raised on physical labor, he displayed an interest and aptitude for writing and journalism while in college, later performing a variety of tasks for the Marion Mirror, a Democratic-leaning newspaper that was in contrast to the Harding family’s Republican politics. In 1884, a competing paper, the Marion Daily Star, was put up for sale; some friends of Harding’s financed its acquisition and soon, Harding was running it as he saw fit. The paper’s popularity made Harding a name in his community—one that would eventually graduate to local, then national, politics. Yet he remained involved in the Star, never ceding his financial interest in the paper until two months before his death in August 1923.

  1. Warren G. Harding could get feisty.

Harding’s temperament was even-keeled during his political career, but that doesn't mean he was a pushover. While editing the Star, Harding was the target of personal attacks by the editor of a competing newspaper, the Independent. Eventually, he had his fill of the vitriol, and Harding exploded, telling the man he would “mop up the street” with him if the alleged slander didn’t stop ("and then," Harding continued, "I’ll go over and mop up your office with what remains").

  1. Harding's presidential nomination was a compromise.

Harding was elected to the Ohio State Senate in 1899 before taking office as lieutenant governor from 1904 to 1906. From 1915 to 1921, he served in the U.S. Senate. While Harding was well-liked, his candidacy was the result of a deadlock: Republicans couldn’t decide on a candidate, so Harding was chosen as a compromise. Along with running mate Coolidge, he defeated Democratic candidate James Cox by winning 60 percent of the popular vote and 76 percent of the Electoral College. Harding’s 1920 victory remains the largest popular vote margin since the 1820s.

  1. Harding got a celebrity endorsement when he ran for president.

Decades before actors and public figures openly endorsed presidential candidates, Harding’s campaign was the beneficiary of support from Al Jolson, the performer who was among the most popular entertainers of the 1920s. Jolson, a devoted Republican, agreed to visit Harding’s home in Marion, Ohio—where the candidate was making speeches from his front porch—and led a parade down the block. Jolson then sang “Harding You’re the Man for Us,” a hastily-prepared melody that cemented his backing of the politician. Actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford also made the trek to rally behind Harding.

  1. Warren G. Harding's presidency was marked by scandal.

Though Harding himself was never implicated in any wrongdoing, his cabinet was embroiled in controversy. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall was found to have leased public land to oil companies in exchange for gifts in the Teapot Dome Scandal. He spent a little under a year in prison. Attorney General Harry Daugherty was accused of selling liquor permits during Prohibition. Several other officials took bribes. “I have no trouble with my enemies,” Harding once said. “But my damn friends ... they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor nights.”

  1. Harding named his penis "Jerry."

Harding married his wife Florence in 1891, but he was far from faithful: He had two affairs that we know of. In 2014, letters between Harding and one of his mistresses that had been sealed for 50 years were finally released by the Library of Congress. In them, Harding expressed his affection for his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips. Written on official Senate stationary, the letters, dated between 1910 and 1920, offer a glimpse into his proclivities. He referred to his penis as “Jerry,” a code word in case a third party read the correspondence, and elaborated on his fantasies involving her “pillowing breasts.” An example:

"Jerry came and will not go, says he loves you, that you are the only, only love worthwhile in all this world, and I must tell you so and a score or more of other fond things he suggests, but I spare you. You must not be annoyed. He is so utterly devoted that he only exists to give you all."

When he won the Republication nomination in 1920, the party allegedly paid Phillips as much as $25,000 (or $297,000 today) to remain quiet about the affair.

  1. His Prohibition stance didn't keep him from drinking.

As a senator, Harding supported the 18th Amendment prohibiting the sale and transportation of alcohol, an era that lasted from 1920 to 1933. He agreed to back the Anti-Saloon League, which rallied against imbibing, in exchange for support during his elections. But according to long-time White House employee Elizabeth Jaffray, with his friends Harding had no problem downing scotch and soda in the White House.

  1. The Harding DNA unlocked a family secret.

Nearly a century following Harding’s sudden death due to a heart attack in August 1923, a DNA test added another bit of salacious detail to the president’s sex life. In 1927, one of his mistresses, Nan Britton, claimed Harding fathered her child a year before his Presidential campaign. Harding’s political allies chastised her and cast doubts over her credibility, but in 2015, DNA sampled from relatives of Harding and Britton’s grandson confirmed she was telling the truth. Their daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, died in 2005. She was Harding’s only child.

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