The Fourth of July is an appropriate time to consider the basic problems of politics.
In the Declaration of Independence the American people accused the British government of abuses, usurpations, despotism and tryanny. The King had exceeded his just powers. He had forbidden his governors to execute important laws until his assent had been obtained; he had repeatedly dissolved duly elected legislatures; he had made the judiciary dependent on his will; he had erected a harassing bureaucracy; he had made the military superior to the civil power; he had imposed taxes without the consent of the people; he had deprived them of trial by jury and transported them beyond the seas to be tried for pretended offenses.
Evidently the colonists thought that there were some things a government had no right to do.
So also when the Constitution brought into being the United States of America, a bill of rights had to be written into it. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.… The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.… The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Liberty today more than ever needs to be defended from totalitarian encroachments. Not only is there the brutality of reducing a populace to the level of abject slavery, with a controlled church to applaud its atheistic rulers; but also in western lands the burdens and budgets, the regulations and controls, become constantly more onerous. The tenth article of the bill of rights is almost a dead letter.
Can limitations on governments, can the protection of minorities from majority action, can individual rights and liberties be rationally maintained? Or does democracy mean mob rule?
Some of the colonists, Thomas Jefferson, for example, were deists. Jefferson regarded Jesus simply as a good moral teacher. Nonetheless he founded individual rights on a sort of theology. After referring to the laws of nature and of nature’s God, Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident! that all men … are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
The Thomistic philosophy of the Roman Catholic church also bases its (all too totalitarian) political theory on the idea of natural law. Maritain has said, “There is, by the very virtue of human nature, an order or a disposition which human reason can discover.… The unwritten law, or Natural Law, is nothing more than that.” And if Maritain has not, others add that this unwritten law is the minimum religious premise because it means that the universe is not indifferent to man’s individual life.
Thus the law of nature is considered superior to the statutes of a state; it is a norm for legislation; and a state is under theoretical obligation to confine its legislation within the limits prescribed by nature.
In this discussion the important point is whether or not human reason can discover in nature an order of morality that sets the norm for statutory law. Are Jefferson’s unalienable rights self-evident? The argument does not center on individual rights as such, nor on the existence of a Creator, nor on the Creator’s authority to judge the nations. The point at issue is whether or not these propositions can be proved by an observation of nature. Perhaps they can be obtained only by special revelation.
It is instructive to note that political theorists who were untouched by the Christian revelation, almost without exception, advocate totalitarianism. If Plato was a communist, Aristotle was a fascist. Private parental education is forbidden because education has as its aim the production of citizens for the good of the state. The number of children a family may have is controlled by the government, and surplus children are to be fed to the wolves. And everybody must profess the state religion. Rousseau is equally totalitarian: “There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles.… If anyone, after publicly recognizing these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death.”
If individual liberties were as evident as Jefferson said, would not Rousseau have recognized them? If they could be learned by observing nature, would Aristotle have missed them? And in any case, would there not be a fairly wide-spread agreement on what in detail these laws are? Jefferson thought that all men are created equal; Aristotle believed that some are born to be slaves. Aquinas argued that all things to which man has a natural inclination are naturally apprehended by reason as being good; but Duns Scotus replied that this leaves no method for determining whether an inclination is natural or unnatural.
Hume and Mill also, in their criticisms of the argument for God’s existence, throw doubt on the theory. In those passages where they emphasize the injustices in the world, and Mill in particular does this vigorously, they show clearly the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of discovering by human reason any perfect justice in nature.
Although Hume and Mill are in bad repute among devout Christians, their attack on natural theology may prove to be a blessing in disguise. At least, their insistence on observable injustice and misery is a recognition, however unintentional, of the existence of sin in the world. Too often philosophers with optimistic blindness ignore or minimize sin.
Now, one of the theoretical deficiencies of natural theology and natural ethics is its assumption that human reason has not been depraved or distorted by sin and remains a competent and unbiased observer. An orthodox Christian has no wish to deny that God at creation wrote the basic moral law on man’s heart. Even yet this conscience acts after a fashion. For example, experiences of guilt occur, though they may occur too infrequently; self-commendation also occurs—with greater regularity; and both are often improperly assigned. Natural political law and personal moral law can therefore be barely discerned, if at all.
Thus, Caesar, Napoleon and Stalin can take pride in their crimes. Looking carefully on nature and seeing it red in tooth and claw, they can conclude that the universe is indifferent to the fate of any individual and that it is the law of nature for the brutal to rule the meek. There are natural inclinations for domination and a will to power. And if Aquinas says otherwise, he can’t see straight and reasons like a bourgeois gentilhomme.
If now one turns from nature and reads special revelation, ambiguity and confusion are replaced with clearly stated principles. In such contrast to the heathen nations surrounding Israel—such a contrast as to be unintelligible to Jezebel—Ahab could not legally expropriate Naboth’s vineyard. Here for one instance there is the divine sanction on private property, and therefore the rights of individuals, and a limitation of government. In another instance Daniel defied the religious laws of Nebuchadnezzar. And Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men.”
These brief considerations indicate that the theory of natural law is not a satisfactory theoretical defense of minority and individual rights. Human reason, that is, ordinary observation of nature, leads more easily to totalitarianism than to anything else other than anarchy. But an acceptance of God’s word justifies a limited government.
Unfortunately this is a theoretical justification only; it is not a civil guarantee. It does not, it actually has not prevented tyrannies in history. What is needed to protect our unalienable rights is a popular acceptance of biblical principles. Only in so far as a determined and vocal segment of the populace forces power hungry politicians to curtail their ambitions, only in so far as the will of the people can reduce budgets, relax controls, and eliminate pork barrels, only so can the twentieth century trend to Communism be slowed down.
Long may our land be bright
With freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by thy might,
Great God, our King.
Government Service As A Christian Vocation
One of history’s greatest philosophers, Plato, voiced the verdict that democracy cannot survive. The interest and trust of the Western world in popular government have been encouraged for a century and a half by the American form of government, a republic within a democracy. Since World War I, however, faith in the democracies has waned. Fears are deepening that, apart from a vigorous rededication to spiritual and moral values, even the American form of democracy must decline and decay.
One can therefore sympathize with all efforts to infuse American governmental life with Christian principles. The past history of the West attests that the Christian religion supplied a new moral earnestness and excellence and furnished a spiritual framework that unified the masses in their devotion to the right. American state affairs in colonial and revolutionary times were Christian in temper at least, and the concern for separation of Church and State arose within this disposition. The loss of Christian principle and perspective in recent generations, however, has produced a withering sense of religious and ethical priorities. Today the attempt to temper national affairs with Christian principles is resisted by secular forces hostile to supernatural religion and ethics and is resisted also by some agencies spiritually and morally aggressive yet fearful of ecclesiastical dominance in state affairs by a single voice like the Church of Rome.
The Roman Church, at any rate, has a specific philosophy of political action. Its militant concern for religious government gains sympathy from the drift of the Communist world to irreligious government. Pressures behind the Iron Curtain drive Christians out of government leadership. Soviet disregard of justice and moral law, with its enthronement of deception and the lie, has pricked the Free World’s conscience. Can Christians, whatever their communion, be blamed—ought they not indeed to be lauded—for seeking to inspirit American politics with Christian leadership?
Roman Catholicism encourages political service, and implements such encouragement. It sponsors a training program for government leadership in which the Edwin A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University plays a leading role. Admittedly, somewhat less than half of Georgetown’s graduates are Roman Catholic; about one-fifth are Jewish. But the curriculum reflects the viewpoint of the Vatican. From the halls of Georgetown, Roman Catholic alumni in significant numbers find their way into diplomatic service.
Roman political gains in the United States are increasingly evident. In the state of Rhode Island, Catholics have a majority, 52 per cent of the population, and only one Protestant now holds state office there. Increasing Catholic strength in Congress is clear. This year for the first time Catholics number second in the religious census of Congress, outnumbering Baptists, and narrowing the lead of Methodists. One Washington news correspondent thinks it “almost inevitable” that within five or ten years Catholic congressmen will take the lead, and that, once they gain control, that lead will be irreversible. Catholic maneuvering for a presidential or vice-presidential candidate has been an obvious phase of recent party conventions. Catholic policy includes the objective of a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, preferably Roman Catholic. In Roman Catholic lands like Latin America, where a disproportionate number of Catholic consuls represent the American government, visas for incoming Protestant missionaries have frequently been opposed as disruptive of the unity of those lands. The Catholic program of encouraging government careers and of equipping candidates for those careers with a specific philosophy of government is politically efficient.
This way of stating things, however, is reactionary, for it tends to an anti-Catholic mood. In a democracy, after all, no citizen is less a citizen because of the religion he espouses. Catholic forces are not alone in a religious political vision for America. Across the years, Protestant ministers’ sons have found their way in significant numbers into State Department service, some inspired in past decades by the untenable “social gospel” vision of a christianized government. Protestant lay leaders are conspicuous in Cabinet and congressional posts; Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Director of National Security Harold Stassen, Congressman Walter Judd are three of a great many. In the Department of Agriculture, Mormons reportedly have been in full harvest in recent years. Methodist leaders, determined to translate church influence into political life, are projecting their own costly school of foreign service in the District of Columbia.
Roman Catholic citizens have seized opportunities that other American religious groups have neglected, and for this they ought rather to be envied than blamed. It would be sheer prejudice to exclude an American citizen from public office because his private worship and witness fall into some particular religious communion. The real concern, however, is Rome’s official philosophy of politics. The Roman Catholic conception is that every government (the United States included) is the temporal arm of the Roman Church. History is too clearly written to ignore the fact that Rome utilizes the democratic framework to subordinate national interests to the totalitarian religious and political goals of the Vatican. It would doubtless be uncharitable to suspect every Catholic in politics of being an agent of the Vatican’s foreign policy. But the only way to determine whether a candidate does or does not share the official view of the hierarchy that the State is the temporal arm of the Vatican is to press for a personal statement.
Evangelical Christianity is apprehensive about direct church influence in politics, whether that influence be Catholic or Protestant. The minister and church in politics threaten the principle of separation of Church and State by entangling the Church in government, and reviving the ogre of the medieval church-state.
Yet evangelicals have been spurred to a new look at the political arena. The major motivations for this growing interest in government are two: a reaction to the growing power of Romanism, and the evidence that political neglect abandons this area of life to secularism. The slogan “the best politics is no politics” breeds inferior politics. Politics has its seamy side, as someone has remarked, because so few Christians are in it.
What evangelical Christianity lacks today is a philosophy of Christian social action which sets political responsibility and activity in a consistent and compelling frame of thought and action. Good politicians are not only men of high principle and moral courage, but men of political insight and consistency. Evangelical interest in politics lacks the motive drive of a full-orbed outline of social duty. For that reason evangelical action tends to be needlessly reactionary, to be stirred to activity only on grave issues, to be one-sidedly competitive as a parallel effort. Its creative contribution and dynamic are impeded through this lack. There is the danger of enlistment only in short-term programs, of premature commitment to excessive positions, of effort wasted in programs of enthusiasm. Whoever has moved in evangelical circles during the recent decades has sensed their interest in headlines more than in study commissions in social ethics.
What is needed today, as a background for virile evangelical political action, is a renewed interest in the study of comprehensive principles of Christian social ethics governing the whole of life and culture. It will take more than salvage and patchwork to arrest the decline or democracy today.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingA Tale of Two New York City PastorsOne formed me. The other entertained me.
- From the MagazineEve’s Legacy Is Both Sin and RedemptionThe first woman tried to get free of God. But when she aligned herself with God’s purposes, she became the ‘Mother of All the Living.’
- RelatedEvangelical End Times Thinking Has a Baby-and-Bathwater IssueWe shouldn’t toss out Christ’s second coming with bizarre theories of how it will unfold.españolFrançais
- Editor's PickNominate a Book for the 2024 Christianity Today Book AwardsInstructions for publishers.