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The Political Illusion

It would be absurd to deny the importance of politics, but it is also very dangerous to over-rate it. One of the persistent problems of Christendom has been the tendency to over-rate both church and state.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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It would be absurd to deny the importance of politics, but it is also very dangerous to over-rate it. One of the persistent problems of Christendom has been the tendency to over-rate both church and state. In Numbers 18:21-26, we see that God orders the tithe to be paid, not to the priests but to the Levites, whose varied functions included education. Thus, worship per se received mainly a tithe of the tithe. At the same time, the civil tax was limited to half a shekel for all males over 18, the same amount for all. As a result, both church and state in Scripture are, however important, restricted in size and power. The power-center is the covenant man and the family.

Michael Kammen, in A Machine That Would Go of ltself, The Constitution in American Culture (1986), has shown how modern men since Newton have seen their hope and salvation in machines. The universe was seen as a machine, and politics was seen also as an area where, if the proper machinery of government were once established, all would then go well. Constitutionalism was seen as such a mechanism; once properly established, it would ensure the orderly processes of government and justice. Machine imagery was used well into this century by men like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Even the critics of the U. S. Constitution used the same language, saying, "the machinery of government under which we live is hopelessly antiquated (and) should be overhauled." After World War II, as colonies were granted independence, they were also given constitutions which had no meaning in terms of their cultures and laws. Not surprisingly, these constitutions soon became meaningless. Contrary to Western expectations, constitutions guaranteed nothing when the culture of a people was unrelated to the paper rules.

In the 1930's, the New Dealers added a biological character to the "mechanism" of the Constitution. After Darwin, they held that constitutions have also an organic character and thus must evolve into more advanced forms. This mechanistic and sometimes biological theory of law and constitutionalism was the first and major form of American (and, often, European) faith concerning political order.

The second, stemming from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, held to a belief in the will of the people as embodied in the general will. Philip S. Paludan, in, A Covenant with Death, The Constitution, Law, and Equality in the Civil War Era (1975), has shown how the popular will came to outweigh law in many minds. Daly Crockett claimed that the heart of the common man was at least the equal of books and the learning of judges. He boasted of having never read a law book and of having based his decisions as a justice of the peace on "common sense and honesty" and of having "relied on natural born sense and not law learning." Thus, the certainty of the "mechanism" of the Constitution was giving way for many to the natural goodness of man's will. Such advocates of man's natural wisdom held that no law or constitution could outweigh the will of man.

Many, of course, tried to combine the idea of constitutions and laws as the mechanism of justice and government with the idea of supremacy of the popular will, the majority, or the democratic consensus. As a result of this union of the two ideas, it became commonplace to use the word "democracy" instead of "republic" in describing the United States. The U.S. Constitution was re-interpreted along democratic lines, as was the British constitution. Will and mechanism had become a unity and an instrument whereby man's problems would be solved. Salvation was now on its way by means of the democratic process in and through civil government.

Church and state have often seen themselves as man's saviors. One of the premises of the states of the ancient world was that a stateless man was no longer a man, that outside the state there was no salvation. A like belief has at times been common to some churches. The Biblical faith, of course, is that there is no salvation outside of Christ. Peter declares: "neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Our Lord says plainly, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:16). (Ironically, I have been told by critics more than a few times that to believe in a salvation exclusively through Christ is bigotry. These same people will declare that there is neither hope nor future, no salvation, in other words, for men except through democracy. This is more than bigotry: it is pharisaic stupidity!)

Modern men believe earnestly that their hope of salvation is in and through politics, through the state. As a result, the capture of the state in order to institute their plan of salvation is an urgent matter to many men and their political parties. Some talk as though the world will come to an end if the opposition party wins the election!

Now, clearly, political parties can do some good, and much harm, but they cannot create the good society nor a new paradise on earth. Political change is coercive change, not moral transformation. Political power cannot regenerate men. All too often, politics is the art of turning a working society into a disaster. At its best, however, civil government cannot give to a people the character they do not have.

To expect social regeneration by means of politics is to believe in moral shortcuts. It is the belief that men and nations can be made new by legislation. Imperial Germany before and during World War I was very strongly socialistic; every area of life was regulated and controlled: it was an ordered society. After World War I, many liberals believed that freedom from socialist regulations would produce, automatically, a free, liberal economy and society. The result instead was the moral anarchy of the Weimar Republic: it was not productive as the liberals had hoped bur was instead given to lawlessness. In voting for Hitler, many people were voting for a return to order, for a respite from lawlessness, only to find that an ordered society can be a radically lawless one.

Only a moral society can be a truly orderly one, and a moral society requires a regenerate people.

Too often, the churches have followed either one of two equally vain approaches to civil government. First,the social-gospel faith sees man's hope in terms of civil law. Hence, the control and use of the civil order becomes an essential step to social salvation. Instead of a personal moral commitment to charity and social responsibility, the social-gospel churches substantiated political commitment, they are now dying, because a century of social action has produced only minor goods and major ills.

Second, the pietistic churches want no involvement in either society or civil government. For them, the essence of the Gospel is, "Ye must be born again." They forget that this is the starting point, not the essence, for our lord declares, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (or, justice)" (Matt. 6:33). Because of this misplaced emphasis, such churches produce at best usually only babes in Christ. They forget that a baby that never grows up is an idiot. It should not surprise us that such churches are marked by social impotence. People can attend them year in and year out and hear nothing either to offend or to challenge them. In effect, such churches give assent to the savior state by their unwillingness to confront it.

Salvation by political action is the ruling religion of our time. It is a form of humanism. It will destroy us in time, if we do not replace it with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and the wholeness of the word of God. We have as a people sought salvation through education, "social justice," and also politics. All have failed us. It is time to bring back the KING.

(Taken from Roots of Reconstruction, p. 401; Chalcedon Position Paper No. 96)

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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