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The Goal of Sovereignty

Central to Christ’s challenge of the world are some very important statements with regard to authority and power. They can be found in Matthew 18:1–6, Mark 9:33–37, Luke 9:46–48, Matthew 20:25–28, and Mark 10:42–45.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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Central to Christ’s challenge of the world are some very important statements with regard to authority and power. They can be found in Matthew 18:1–6, Mark 9:33–37, Luke 9:46–48, Matthew 20:25–28, and Mark 10:42–45. The position of the Gentiles, i.e., the ungodly, is contrasted to that of Christ’s followers. This implicitly places the religious leaders of Judea in the camp of the Gentiles. Our Lord defines greatness in authority and power as a faithful, humble ministry under God to men. The contrast is between the ungodly lording it over men, and the godly ministering in Christ’s name.

The difference rests in original sin, man’s fall (Gen. 3:1–5), as against man regenerated in Christ to be a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). The fallen man is his own source of law and determination; the redeemed  man is governed by God’s law and His Spirit. Genesis 3:5 makes it clear that fallen man’s purpose is to be his own god and his own source of law. This means that the fallen man, as his own god, cannot tolerate, first, subordination to any God or man outside of himself, and will seek to dominate all others. He believes that his will must be done. A classic example of this was the Roman Emperor, Caligula (A.D. 12–41). When given advice or counsel by any official, his immediate reaction was to do the opposite. In Anthony A. Barrett’s words, “Tolmai tis didaskein? (‘who dares teach me?’) was his reaction.”1 Suetonius, in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, gives us a vivid account of Caligula’s deliberate perversities. The word of Gaius Caligula was affirmed to be above dispute, being the word of a god. “When a Roman knight on being thrown to the wild beasts loudly protested his innocence … (Caligula) took him out, cut off his tongue, and put him back again.”

Second, to be a man-god in antiquity meant to be above the law. As the source of law, fallen man seeks to subvert God’s law and to demonstrate that he is beyond the law, or, as our modern men, after Nietzsche, affirm, to be beyond good and evil. Suetonius, recognizing the nature of power in his day, is here a better judge than modern scholars. According to Suetonius, “He lived in habitual incest with all his sisters.”3 Barrett is inclined to doubt the incest, but he does acknowledge Caligula’s homosexuality,4 his transvestite living,5 and his studied shamelessness.6 This defiance of all moral standards was a way of affirming deity. The man who could live beyond good and evil, which, in practice, meant a studied pursuit of evil and depravity, thereby demonstrated his deity! Such behavior was expected of a god (or goddess), as witness the actions of the Greek and Roman gods. As Barrett recognizes, “[T]he people actually enjoyed his licentiousness,”7 and they were angry when he was assassinated.8 Caligula’s madness was thus an asset, and an advantage in his claim to deity. The fact that he set up a brothel in the palace, stocked with males and females and opened to outsiders, apparently did not upset too many.9 Caligula would boast that he had “every power over every person,” and he claimed good constitutional grounds for this because “he was a princeps legibus solutus (a princeps not bound by the laws).” Given the fact that the emperor was sovereign, this was a logical conclusion: a sovereign is not under law because he is the source of law; this is the premise of the modern state. This is why a sovereign civil government cannot be bound by any law, or by a constitutional amendment, e.g., barring deficit financing, or anything else.

To be beyond the law is the goal of present rock stars and others. Their flagrant contempt for the laws of God and man is a major source of their popularity with youth. It is the realized dream of all Caligulas and Nietzsches, to be their own god and to live beyond good and evil.

This desire manifests itself whenever godless men gain wealth and power. Thus, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt felt free to use women, so that servant girls were unsafe around him. He courted, when a widower, an attractive Mrs. Crawford, younger than himself and the mother of Frances (“Frank”) Crawford. He stunned his children by marrying the daughter rather than the mother.

When asked why he chose the younger woman and not the mother, who was attractive and more fitting a woman for his age, Vanderbilt replied, “Oh, no. If I had married her, Frank would have gone off and married someone else. Now I have them both.”10

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, I began to notice a drift of men into perversions, and now women also. The men, for example, found that not only marital sex but also adulteries were no longer capable of exciting them. As a result, they were experimenting with anal sex, homosexuality, child molestation, incest, and like perversities as a means of reviving their flagging sexuality. The drift was appearing in their forties, at an early age. The pleasure in sex was in violating God’s law and in defiling another person. The mentality of the Marquis de Sade was becoming democratized, with ugly results. The pleasure was in sin, not in godliness. This is an ancient impulse, and we see it, certainly, in the behavior of the men of Sodom (Gen. 19:1–19). The attitude of all too many is that of Caligula; when confronted with God’s law, their angry response is, “Who dares teach me?” After all, who can teach a god, and, since fallen man is his own god, who can qualify to teach him? Given this premise, the modern educational goal is to teach children that they have a right to create their own value systems, and also to refuse to be bound by them.

The courts were manifesting a like lawlessness. For example, in Pennsylvania, Karl Chambers murdered Anna Mae Morris; she was beaten to death with an axe handle and robbed. Chambers was convicted, and, at the sentencing trial, a prosecutor concluded his remarks to jurors with these words: “Karl Chambers has taken a life. As the Bible says, ‘And the murderer shall be put to death.’ Thank you.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the prosecutor’s remark told the jury “that an independent source of law exists for the conclusion that the death penalty is the appropriate punishment.” Accordingly, that court barred prosecutors from referring to the Bible or any other religious writing when trying to persuade a jury to require a death penalty. Prosecutors who do so may be subject to disciplinary action. New York District Attorney H. Stanley Rebert had argued that such a ban would violate the prosecutor’s freedom of speech and be hostile to religion. In November 1991, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out Chambers’ death sentence and required a new sentencing trial. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1992 sustained the decision.

The Chambers case is an important milestone in the development of political theory. First, it is now more clear than ever that Christianity is being disestablished and humanism established as the religion of the land. Since all law represents the establishment of a moral and religious order, the disestablishment of one means that another faith is being established. Law is not neutral: it is always expressive of a faith in a specific form of moral order and ultimacy, or religion, as basic to the specific doctrine of societal organization. Christianity is now barred from schools and courts, two key areas in the development of a social structure.

Second, what the courts said in the Chambers case was that no independent source of law, no source outside the state, will be tolerated. Law is the state’s creation. The state, as god walking on earth, will tolerate no other source of law because the state claims to be sovereign. This was the doctrine in antiquity, and it was never suppressed successfully in the medieval era. Richard II of England, according to the official Articles of Deposition from the Rolls of Parliament, was charged thus: “He said expressly, with harsh and determined looks, that the laws were in his own mouth, sometimes he said that they were in his breast.” For Richard II, this doctrine brought grief; for our modern rulers, it is the basic ingredient in their power. There can be no independent source of law, no power or truth outside the sovereign state. The state judges; it cannot be judged: this is the doctrine. If the death penalty is abolished, or if it is decreed, it is right because the state wills it. If abortion, euthanasia, or homosexuality be abolished or favored, the state’s decision is the law and the truth, because there is no other god tolerated by its courts and servants.

There are thus no restraints on the power of the state because there is no god greater than the state. If a god is not universal, he must become imperial: he must bring all others into submission to him. Polytheism means imperialism, because the many gods mean many conflicts. The state that denies the triune God must seek either by diplomacy or by imperialism to create a unified world order.

Today we see international bodies, whose records of incompetence and ignorance is phenomenal, talking with learned ignorance of laws to avoid the pollution of space. The arrogance in such talk is amazing.

Sovereignty has no boundaries, and all claimants to sovereignty will expand their powers wherever possible. Thus, on Monday, June 15, 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. government may kidnap people from foreign countries to stand trial in the U.S. This is irrespective of extradition treaties. By a six to three vote, the court said that the U.S. can kidnap a man from another country for trial in the U.S. A Mexican doctor, Humberto Alvarez, is held to have taken part in the kidnap and murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement agent Enrique Camarena and his pilot. The court claimed a century-old precedent for this. There are, of course, precedents for almost everything, including torture and murder. Who draws the line? Or does a line exist any longer?

Justice Stevens, in his dissent, sees the problem.

Stevens, in his dissenting opinion, said the majority’s view would transform the extradition treaty “into little more than verbiage.” Under yesterday’s interpretation, he said, “If the United States, for example, thought it more expedient to torture or simply to execute a person rather than to attempt extradition, these options would be equally available because they, too, were not explicitly prohibited by the treaty.”

In brief, where no higher law, the enscriptured law-word of the triune God, is recognized, law becomes simply the will of the state, or of its ruler. The examples of this are many. Michael Kunze has given us a telling instance from 1660, in Munich, Germany. The Pappenheimers, a simple, illiterate family, itinerant workers, were arrested, charged with occult traffic, condemned, and executed. The victims were regarded as nonentities. There were “too many” poor itinerants, and the charges were a convenient means of social harvesting by ducal authority.

The persecution brought against them (the Pappenheimers) was not designed simply to deter the ruffians who infested the highways, it was also meant to prove to the aristocracy and the cities who it was that held sway over life and death in the principality. It was a matter of demonstrating the ducal authority.11

Thus, charges of witchcraft, communism, supposed or possible treason by the American Japanese in World War II, and other claims can be used by the state to reorder society to suit itself. In eighteenth-century England, over 200 kinds of death penalties existed, many covering very petty thefts. Most of those condemned were not executed. They were given the alternative of living, being transported to the various colonies, and working at hard labor for many years. Thus were the colonies, and especially Australia, populated. The hard labor was exactly that, in a way difficult now to grasp fully. The main offense of the many “convicts” transported to Australia was not crime but poverty. In the modern state, the decisions made about crime and punishment are political, not moral, decisions and judgments.

Kunze, in his brilliant study, comments,

The resemblance between this method and those used against our vagrants is not merely coincidental; the ecclesiastical procedure used by the inquisition against heretics was subsequently adopted by the secular courts.
It was Spanish despotism once more that first deliberately employed the idea of the crusade and the Inquisition to increase its own power and further its political interests. In their fight against the aristocracy and the privileges of the estates, Charles V and Philip II used the ecclesiastical courts as a weapon. Every suggestion of resistance to the king’s absolute authority was regarded as evidence of heresy, which set the Inquisition in motion. Torture led rapidly to “conviction” and elimination of the troublemaker. The clergy readily allowed themselves to be used as the king’s henchmen, which indicates, on the one hand, their heavy dependence on royal favor and, on the other, their blind, hysterical fear of heresy.12

As Kunze observes, the state requires an ideology, and “it seems that totalitarian states are not viable without some such doctrine of salvation—we know that from the communist and fascist dictatorships of our time.”13 We see this also in the democracies and other states.

Since a sovereign must have absolute power, the state, where it claims sovereignty, whether a democracy or anything else, moves towards totalitarian powers. Sovereignty with such powers becomes the saving power, and the state becomes man’s god and savior. It then governs and controls man’s total life. “When a prince fiddles, subjects must dance.” The modern state is a salvationist state, as was ancient Rome. The disillusionment and the conclusion are likely to be similar.

Shortly after 1400, Henry IV of England said, “Kings were not wont to render account.”14 Things have only changed for the worse since then. As faith in the triune God has become peripheral at best to society, so too has accountability. The question is, accountability to whom? To the people? The facade of accountability exists, but the reality eludes us. A sovereign power need not be accountable. Henry IV at least had his religious confessor, but not so our modern presidents and prime ministers. Now there is no independent source of law and judgment because the triune God is either relegated to ecclesiastical concerns or is denied. But, “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the LORD shall have them in derision”; the heathen “and the uttermost parts of the earth” are given to the Christ as His inheritance (Ps. 2:4, 8). He shall in due time possess His inheritance.

1. Anthony A. Barrett, Caligula: The Corruption of Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 78.

2. Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars (New York: Book League of America, 1937), 174.

3. Ibid., 181.

4. Barrett, 44, 46, 81, 85–86, 106, 220, 238.

5. Ibid., 146.

6. Ibid., 43.

7. Ibid., 229.

8. Ibid., 172.

9. Suetonius, 192.

10. Clarice Stasz, The Vanderbilt Women (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 56.

11. Michael Kunze, Highroad to the Stake: A Tale of Witchcraft (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 99.

12. Ibid., 112.

13. Ibid., 113.

14. Edmund King, England, 1175–1425 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979), 186.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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