Democracy, authority, and the moral order

Much of this post will be old news for reactionaries, but it bears occasional reiteration. The tl;dr is as follows: It is a matter of divine revelation, and therefore binding on Christians to believe, that the rule of law was ordained by God and thus that political authority derives from his institution of the state as the minister of divine justice. This doesn’t rule out, for instance, belief that democracy or anything else is the best (because most prudent) arrangement for the governance of society; but it certainly rules out the belief that democracy-or-anything-else is a moral imperative and that the legitimacy of the state is altogether dependent on one such choice to the exclusion of all others.

Consider the flood narrative in the Book of Genesis, chapters 6 through 9. The wickedness of man after the Fall had grown so great that God resolved to wipe him out with a flood, sparing only the virtuous Noah and his family by instructing him to build an ark. Afterward, God forged his covenant with Noah, the first of a succession of covenants after the fall, which includes this line:

“Whosoever shall shed man’ s blood, his blood shall be shed: for man was made to the image of God.” (Gen. 9:6)

Now, consider the context. The wickedness of man and the injuries which he inflicted by his sins upon the order of justice was so great that it necessitated, on God’s part, a dramatic, restorative intervention. This he does not wish to do again (“all flesh shall be no more destroyed with the waters of a flood, neither shall there be from henceforth a flood to waste the earth”; Gen. 9:11), but if he is to refrain from such interventions in the future, it will be necessary that his justice be enacted by someone else. Thus, we understand Genesis 9:6 as representing God’s institution of the rule of law for the good of man and the maintenance of the divinely-appointed order of justice. For this reason, St. Paul reminds us, in his epistle to the Romans, that the prince “is God’s minister” who “beareth not the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4), and likewise, St. Peter exhorts the Church to be “subject therefore to every human creature for God’s sake: whether it be to the king as excelling; Or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of the good: For so is the will of God” (1 Peter 2:13-14). St. Peter goes on to oblige the Church to “Honour the king” (1 Peter 2:17), the very same emperor whose minister, Pontius Pilate, ordered the execution of Christ, and in whose name the various persecutions of the Church would be authorized. And we must not forget that Christ himself was ever obedient to earthly authorities, first his parents (“And he went down with [Joseph and Mary], and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them”; Luke 2:54) and then to Pilate, whose judgments he obeyed and whose questions he answered, an obedience he often refused to the priests, whose questions he routinely answered with stony silence.

So it is, effectively, a matter of direct, public, divine revelation — commanded by God, exemplified by Christ, recorded in Scripture, and supported by the near-unanimous witness of the saints — that the authority of the state to rule, to expect obedience to its rule, and to enforce justice against the wicked, is given it by God. It is remarkably difficult, indeed, to see how one could dispute such a revealed truth and continue to call oneself “Christian”; as Christ himself sardonically asked his less-committed followers, “And why call you me, Lord, Lord; and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). We cannot achieve salvation without recognizing Christ as Lord; and we cannot recognize him as Lord if we do not do as he says.

Now the exact form which the exercise of political authority takes in any particular culture or time will naturally vary according to the dictates of prudence, the needs of the polity, and the general character of its unwritten constitution. Thus, Christians may disagree in good faith about the relative merits of democracy as a prudential arrangement for providing for the rule of law. But they are absolutely forbidden from buying into any of the legitimating narratives for these arrangements typically expounded by their modern apologists, much less from attempting to situate these narratives within a Christian ethos.

Put simply, you cannot be a Christian of good faith and believe that the political authority of states in general or any given state in particular derives from the consent of the governed, from technocratic or rational considerations, from the inevitable unfolding of historical processes, or from the natural superiority of one’s party, race, or class. Such beliefs are the matter of heresy, and one who subscribes to them suffers shipwreck in the faith.

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14 thoughts on “Democracy, authority, and the moral order

  1. the rule of law was ordained by God

    Here I think we have to be careful. “Rule of Law” is very loaded and modern term.

    Put simply, you cannot be a Christian of good faith and believe that the political authority of states in general or any given state in particular derives from the consent of the governed, from technocratic or rational considerations, from the inevitable unfolding of historical processes, or from the natural superiority of one’s party, race, or class. Such beliefs are the matter of heresy, and one who subscribes to them suffers shipwreck in the faith.

    Well said.

      • I prefer Moses to Pharaoh, Elijah to Ahab, and the Wise Men to Herod.

        We all do, but the proper subordination of civic to ecclesiastical authorities does not make civic authorities somehow non-binding. Especially since the binding character of their judgments, I showed, comes from God himself.

      • You expressed your admiration for the American founders like George Washington before. Are they what you consider to be wise men? Are you denying that it was King Henry’s tyranny that ultimately led to America?

      • Please produce your evidence that Henry VIII was the father of American freedoms. He was an important man, to be sure, but so were thousands of his contemporaries. Perhaps millions were influential if one believes in the butterfly effect. If the Tudors had not come to power, history would surely have been different, but who can say in what ways? Life does not give us the power to replay history with some changes, as in a scientific experiment. It is all speculation. I am inclined to believe, however, that America would still have arisen had Henry VIII died in childhood and that God would have given America the gifts of freedom. And I believe that the American Founders were inspired in ways that history’s monsters were not. Henry VIII was a monster. John Softsword is a better candidate for title of influential king whose disastrous reign undermined the power of the monarchy. Softsword was not so much a monster as simply incompetent.

        As for the freedom of the people, the answer of the Pharaohs is always the same. They will not let the people go until their country is ruined and the dead lie in the streets. After having seen their divine deliverance, the Children of Israel still had two choices: to go on to the Promised Land or return to the fleshpots of Egypt.

      • Henry VIII was the proximate cause of America. I don’t doubt that “things could have been different” but the chain of events worked out the way they did. Your statement is as you mentioned- just speculation. You also vindicate Proph’s point with the sacrilegious idea that America was somehow divinely willed. Too much blood has and continues to be split by that heresy. This discussion is made all the more interesting since you seem very concerned about the past religious violence of others especially Catholics.

        As for the freedom of the people, the answer of the Pharaohs is always the same. They will not let the people go until their country is ruined and the dead lie in the streets. After having seen their divine deliverance, the Children of Israel still had two choices: to go on to the Promised Land or return to the fleshpots of Egypt.

        I don’t think Moses was really concerned with the Israelite’s political freedom as much as he was with other issues, at any rate what that has to do with the original post is beyond me.

  2. “Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah, And said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations. But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the Lord. And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.”

  3. Strangely enough, the scriptural view of political authority matches the realistic or natural understanding of political power. It is a democratic illusion that political elites remain in power because, and only so long as, the masses grant them “legitimacy.” Rather, the masses grant them legitimacy because they have power. Every society that ever was or will be has a ruling class, and they are the ruling class because they have the power to rule. The idea that they are wielding the power of the mass on behalf of the mass is another democratic illusion. Scripture deals with this by stating that “the ruling class will be with you always,” and sensible men learn to deal with it.

    And its not only a matter of a ruling class. For any given historical society, it is a matter of the ruling class that they actually have. Remember, these guys are in power because they have power–because no one in the society has more power than they do. Revolting against their rule is futile, and Scripture nowhere enjoins futility. The only power against which it is lawful (and sensible) to revolt is a pretended power.

    Finally, the mass has to accept the ruling class because the mass has to accept rule. Without leadership (even if it is very bad leadership), the mass turns into a decapitated mob whose members are eating each other in the street.

    None of this means that we must be overawed by our ruling class. Their power is, after all, temporary, and power almost always leads them into ridiculous illusions of grandeur that we should properly mock. As we do so, however, we should bear in mind our own even more ridiculous illusion of grandeur, which is the anarchist fantasy of absolute individual autonomy. In traditional Christian theology, this was called the spirit of rebellion.

    • As a family arises out of the complementarity of the male and the female, the State arises out of the complementarity of the ruled and the ruling elements.
      Aristotle, Politics

  4. Pingback: Sunday Brunch and Reading: S’mores Pancakes and the Dark Enlightenment | Sunshine Mary

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