Christians need to rethink the purpose and limits of civil government. Political activity by Christians is a legitimate course of action, but the most we can hope for from politics is a successful defense of liberty, not its furtherance. The basic form of Christian government is the self-government of the godly man. To the extent the state limits the liberty of people governed by God’s law, it is an obstacle to their service in furthering the Kingdom of God.
Over the years, Chalcedon has published a great deal on the issue of the state. The writings of my father, Rousas John Rushdoony, regularly noted the claims of the modern state to the prerogatives which belong either to God or free men. Many people, over the years, have suggested that he returned to the issue too frequently, that it was an issue too remote to be of practical application to most Christians.
Meanwhile, our government has been constraining our liberties and redefining and redirecting the social order. Our schools long ago ceased to be “public” and became “government” schools, indoctrinating children into the social order it envisions. Judge Roy Moore’s attempt to include the Ten Commandments on a monument (as just one of many sources of law) resulted in his ouster. Judges have arbitrarily created pseudo-constitutional arguments in favor of abortion, the adoption of children by homosexuals, and, of late, homosexual “marriage.” The state is progressively excluding the Christian moral ethic from public life.
These are battles being fought against every manifestation of Christianity. As long as we view them as mere political issues to be countered by new legislation and legal challenges, we shall see defeat after defeat. Ultimately, the solution is to return the state to a constitutionally limited role and to deny it the role of defining and molding our culture.
Christianity vs. Statism
The early church went through a succession of persecutions because it did not represent a legal religion. What many do not realize is that such a legal status was easily available to the church, but was repeatedly refused. Many individual martyrs were given the option of escaping a death sentence if they would submit to the Roman state by a simple declaration.
All the early Christians had to do was proclaim “Caesar is Lord,” to replace their allegiance to God with the emperor. Sometimes, they were asked to offer incense to Caesar, symbolic of a prayer made to the emperor as a divinity. Most refused, recognizing that to regard Caesar as first lord was to denigrate the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The issue was “Who is Lord?”
Though no oath is forced now, the modern state presumes lordship and sovereignty in all areas as well. Our problem today is not forced, but rather passive obeisance to the claims of the modern state.
Before a Christian can properly view his role in society and its government, he must see himself as a dual citizen. His first loyalty must be to his citizenship in the Kingdom of God and His Christ. He must see Jesus as Lord of lords and King of kings (both are references to authority and headship). He must see God’s law as his first law, and he must determine to obey God before men. The modern state sees this as a threat. It is, in fact, a threat, not to the state in its legitimate roles of defense and justice, but to statism and its claims.
The Sovereign State
The modern state and its courts have borrowed a religious term to describe their claims. The word “sovereignty” refers to ultimate lordship, and is a divine prerogative. Any claim to sovereignty by the state is a claim to divine lordship. Any statist claim to sovereignty will take offense with the Christian’s duty to seek first the Kingdom of God.
Christian faith requires a limited role for all men and institutions because of its view of God and His prerogatives. If God is sovereign, the state is not. If God’s law is supreme, none by man can be. The question is still “Who is lord?” Where the state claims sovereign power the Christian must object. When the state declares evil good and good evil, the Christian must respond in the name of His God and a higher law.
The state ought not to be a terror to good works, but to evil. The state which transcends its limits, however, does tend to become a terror to free men and their legitimate pursuits. Regardless of any specific crimes it might commit in its exercise of power, statism should be considered an evil for the dampening effect it has on man and his society. The state freed from its limits will absorb the freedoms of its citizenry. Enslaved men are restricted in their ability to serve God. Because the dominion mandate requires us to serve God and subdue all things to him, we must preserve and expand liberty as the atmosphere in which our efforts to serve God can flourish.
The Limited State
Chalcedon has long been the seedbed of Christian Reconstruction, which promotes this particular view of Christian responsibility. Its opponents think that Christian Reconstruction is a political strategy to impose a Biblical society. Men who are statist in their orientation assume we are as well. More precisely, Christian Reconstruction is a religious understanding of the Christian’s social duty in the Kingdom of God. To the limited extent that Christian Reconstruction is political, its desired end is not the use of state power, but the severe limitation of state power to defense and justice.
Christian Reconstruction has a healthy contempt for statist power. It does not want to see the imposition of Christianity on an unwilling people but rather freedom from statist power.
The basic form of government is self-government, and man’s first responsibility is to regulate his own conduct. Self-government in its fullest manifestation can only flourish where there is liberty. Free men will have many levels of government authority: family, church, school, vocation. The state is a necessary government but it is only one amongst many.
All levels of government are subject to abuse, of course. This is why none must be allowed to dominate other spheres of government. With limited spheres of authority abuse is limited. Where there is one government, abuse is not only difficult to limit, it becomes institutionalized. It is the nature of statism to provide more and more power but less and less government. Because one institution cannot control all of society, control is frequently exerted on the easiest element of society to regulate, the law-abiding citizen.
The Function of the State
The state has a legitimate role. Its purpose is to defend its citizenry against those within (criminal and civil justice) and without (defense) who seek to do them harm. However, in order for the state to assume the responsibility of its people’s financial security, education, brotherhood, and the re-direction of society rather than its protection, the state must increasingly assume the role of a sovereign overlord. The role of a paternal state necessitates paternal authority.
When the state is a “minister,” (or administrator) of God’s justice its role will be limited. A Christian government would seldom intersect the lives of honest citizens. A statist government which regulates the activity of self-governing men is itself, however, an enemy to the liberty society should most desire to foster.
Church and State
We are often presented with an objection that centers on the separation of church and state. Structurally, the two institutions should be separate, though that has never been a problem in the United States. However, religion cannot be divorced from matters of state. Law and justice rest on a moral ethic that is always religious. Even traffic laws are based on the moral insistence that there is no right to endanger the lives of others. There can be no legal justice without an enforced moral ethic to define it. These enforced moral codes are laws. Some religious ethic will be enforced as law by even the most limited state. This is where the line is drawn in the sand. This is where the believer makes his stand. God’s law is truth and it is just.
In reality, we do not have an issue of conflicting church and state. We have not had it at the state level in over two centuries, and we have never had it at the federal level. We have a multiplicity of Christian churches, not a single structural or organizational entity. On the whole, this is a healthy development; false unity in the church, as with the state, would create a false power center. We now have churches, many manifestations of the church of Jesus Christ, standing before the power of the state. A productive development would now be a multiplicity of governing centers and increased localism.
Sin and Statism
Man apart from Jesus Christ will be mastered by sin. The Puritans’ contribution to American government was their belief in man’s depravity and their application of it to political theory. Give power to sinful men and men will sin with all their power. All human power must be therefore limited.
If we seek to make a godly government, we must seek to make it a limited government, one whose bounds are not self-defined. A godly social order will necessitate a decentralization of authority and a return to a conviction of the necessity of limited government for the maintenance of liberty.
No matter how much we advocate a limited government and liberty, the humanistic state and its loyal citizenry will always respond with a single objection, one area with which they seek to make the criteria of freedom — sex. Modern man can be regulated and taxed, his privacy and dignity compromised, and his every activity controlled. At last he dies, the government becomes his primary heir via estate taxes, and his family is left to file his final tax return lest a few months of income go untaxed. Still, such men often believe they are free men living in a free land. Their primary objection to a Christian basis for law is, typically, its hostility to sexual license. Men who are free to fornicate and watch others do likewise often falsely believe they are free.
However, liberty does not mean the license to sin. It means men are free to live, enjoy the fruits of their labor, develop free institutions and associations, and be free of regulation and confiscatory taxation. For the Christian, freedom means the ability to serve God.
Statism of any form, including Western democratic statism, is a moral evil, because it replaces the state as a ministry of justice with the state as the regulator, and overlord of society.
Christians and Statism
Why do churches not stand against the powerful modern state as an immoral institution? Often, the churches themselves teach and practice theological antinomianism, a rejection of God’s law and its authority as transcendent. With law no longer transcendent, it becomes the sole prerogative of the state. After the Reformation, the cry of European Reformers was “The crown rights of King Jesus.” Though Scripture is clear that Christ is the King of kings and Lord of lords, and that of His Kingdom there shall be no end, the idea of a king sounds very foreign to American ears. Living in the hollow remnants of a constitutional republic, we might profit by thinking in terms of the “legislative sovereignty,” “executive privilege,” or “right of judicial review” of Jesus Christ.
Chalcedon’s purpose over the years has been to apply the Faith to all areas of life and thought. Christians must apply the Faith to specific issues, such as education, family, and charity. We must also, however, think beyond our present generation and work toward a multi-generational advance of godly order. Negatively we must fight defensive battles against evil. Positively we must rethink our social, political, economic, and religious assumptions and institutions. One of the areas we must rethink and reconfigure is our dependence on and comfort in modern statism.