(On October 23, 2017 in Atlanta I shared the following with the Common Ground Christian Network, a coalition of communions and groups from the Mainline Protestant tradition, of which IRD is a member. Here’s audio.)
The IRD was founded in 1981 to combat a grievously corrupt Christian social witness that aligned the Gospel with Marxist Revolution. Liberal Protestantism’s Social Gospel had degenerated into de facto alliance with totalitarianism. Thankfully Liberation Theology in its more extreme Marxist variants is now mostly passé.
In that same era the Religious Right arose, with Reformed theologian and cultural critic Francis Schaeffer an original chief theorist who motivated conservative Christian activism. But who are the theorists of today? There is activism but too little careful thinking. There is little reference by either Religious Right or Religious Left to historic Christian principles about the church’s social witness.
Those principles have historically included defending the sanctity of human life, marriage and family, plus religious liberty. These issues obviously are deeply rooted in Christian social teaching. And rightly they are central to the social witness of the Common Ground Christian Network.
But what are some wider principles to help us understand God’s purpose for government and how Christians should advocate a society more attuned to His desires?
I’m sharing thoughts from the late Joseph Cardinal Höffner, archbishop of Cologne for over 20 years, who wonderfully wrote a very concise but also very rich book simply called CHRISTIAN SOCIAL TEACHING. Also I’m sharing from political theorist Daniel Strand of Arizona State University, a very thoughtful Reformed thinker who’s writing a soon to be published excellent booklet for IRD on God’s purposes for government, some of which he recently shared at our Christianity and National Security Conference.
First I’ll share from the book by Cardinal Höffner, who declared:
As its goal Christian social teaching has in mind a system of order, based, as it must be, on truth, tempered by justice, motivated by mutual love, and holding fast to the practice of freedom.
Here are key principles and comments from Höffner:
UNDERLYING PURPOSE OF GOVERNMENT IS LOVE
Love, not fear, must dominate the relationships between individuals and between nations. It is principally characteristic of love that it draws men together in all sorts of ways, sincerely united in the bonds of mind and matter; and this is a union from which countless blessings can flow. It teaches us to distinguish between error, which always merits repudiation, and the person in error, who never loses the dignity of being a person, even when he is flawed by false or inadequate religious notions.
NATURAL LAW AND ETERNAL LAW UNDERGIRD HUMAN GOVERNMENT
Natural law as part of the natural moral law is ultimately grounded in the eternal law of the Creator and is bonding in conscience. It is therefore false to oppose morals as inner morality to law as outer legality. However, law in no way encompasses all moral realms, such as piety or chastity or love of self or love of neighbor. Human law, as Thomas Aquinas teaches, appeals to the multitude which for the most part is not exactly perfect in virtue. Human law does not therefore forbid all vices, but only the more grievous ones which the majority of people are capable of avoiding, especially those crimes without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained. Thus human law prohibits murder, theft and the like. Human law also generally contents itself with the external fulfillment of prescriptions without asking about inner attitudes. Penal law, however, cannot exclude the investigation into motive and guilt, so that the assertions that judicial decisions should not in principle take ethical evaluations as a basis is deplorably false; for the iinner binding character of law rests precisely on its agreement with the moral law.
PRIMARY AND SECONDARY NATURAL LAW
The Church Fathers, such as Irenaeus, distinguished early between the primary natural law, which is valid independently of the Fall, and the secondary natural law, which presupposes the state of fallen nature. Whereas the right to life pertains to the primary natural law, the institution of private property belongs to the secondary natural law.
MARRIAGE AND FAMILY PREEXIST HUMAN GOVERNMENT
In the face of all attempts to relativize marriage and entrust it to caprice, the Christian faith holds fast to the essential form of this institution. No human law can take away the original natural right of a man to marry or in any way impose limits of the principle purpose of marriage ordained by God’s authority from the beginning. Marriage is older than the state; one therefore which must have its own rights and duties which depend not at all upon the state.
FAMILY IS CELL OF SOCIETY
According to the Christian understanding, the family is rather the “cell”of society in a biological and moral respect. In the family the nation finds the natural, fruitful root for its greatness and power; for biologically it is the “primordial cell” and the “mother cell” of society. For this reason, a nation in which marriage and family decay is sooner or later doomed to perish. The family is rightly called a cell of society in a moral respect also. When the family is no longer the foundation of society, the first place of education and culture, depersonalization and loss of individuality is the result. Man acquires those social virtues without which a society cannot exist in the family: love of neighbor, consideration of others, compatibility, justice, solidarity, piety, and the ability to obey and to command.
GOVERNMENT NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ALL HUMAN NEEDS.
Christian social teaching sets out from the following principles in the critical evaluation of the system of social security:
a) It is a man’s right and duty to be primarily responsible for his own upkeep and that of his family.
b) The smallest community which should bestow on man a sense of social secureness is the family. Even if the family has lost many functions in the industrial age so that it is no longer able to guarantee the whole of social security, the family household still offers today a high measure of security.
c) Of great importance for social security, particularly for the self-employed, are self-help measures by co-operatives which offer a formation in solidarity thinking and action and achieve with united forces things that the individual is unable to accomplish.
d) Conditions in the industrial society entail the fact that social security can no longer be guaranteed by individuals, families, and co-operatives alone without the assistance of nationwide institutions.
LOVE OF NATION
The Second Vatican Council summons us to a “generous and loyal devotion” to our fatherland. Love of fatherland is not a mere feeling, and even less chauvinism. It is more than obedience and loyalty. It is lively participation in the weal and woe of the people and is embedded in love for all peoples, which means being open to the “whole human family” without any narrowing of mind.
STATE AUTHORITY IS CENTRAL TO JUSTICE
According to the Christian understanding, governmental authority accompanies the state by nature even against the will of the citizens. Without a centralized state authority ordering things towards the common good, the realization of the end of the state is impossible, since individuals always pursue their own private advantage, which often stands in contradiction to the common good.
STATE IS COERCIVE BUT NOT UNLIMITED
Since the state is the highest guardian of the common good, its authority must be centralized, comprehensive, sovereign, and coercive. It is, of course, contradictory to Christian thought to see in the state a power that is fully unlimited both intrinsically and extrinsically and even illimitable. According to the Christian understanding, there is – outside Hell – no totally closed society. The state may not fall prey to that intolerant exclusivity leading to terror and war which knows neither God, nor neighbor, nor human dignity.
CHRISTIANITY NOT TIED TO ANY FORM OF GOVERNMENT
It follows from the foregoing considerations that the Christian doctrine of the state is not tied to any given form of government. Of course, every form of government stands under the law of the common good. Which form of government merits preference at a given time and under given conditions is to a large extent historically conditioned. Democracy seems to correspond best to the awareness of life and way of thinking of modern man, although a life worthy of man is also possible under other forms of government, for example, a monarchy. It would, however, be disastrous to distort the democratic principle as a utopian, pseudo-religious messianism, instead of applying it in an objective, sober manner.
DUTIES OF GOVERNMENT
The field of the governmental authority’s duties in legislation, administration, and dispensation of justice is defined by the end of the state, which consists in the creation of the presuppositions for a prosperous development of the individual, smaller social circles, and society as a whole. The following belong to the essential tasks of the governmental authority: external defense and, in general, an honest and just foreign policy; the construction and preservation of a legal system, which must take shape in the state constitution, in the economic constitution, in private law, in penal law, and so on; a just administration and dispensation of justice, as well as care for the public welfare.
GOVERNMENT AND LETHAL FORCE
a) It is not without purpose that the ruler carries the sword; he is God’s servant, to inflict his avenging wrath upon the wrongdoer” (Romans l3:4). The Church’s Magisterium has indeed fought against blood vengeance, but nevertheless recognized the governmental authority’s right of the sword. Pope Innocent III (ll98-l2l6) prescribed the following declaration to the Waldensians: “We declare that the governmental authority can impose the death penalty without serious sin, presupposing that this penalty is imposed, not out of hate, but on the basis of judgment, not arbitrarily, but after mature reflection.” On September l3, l952, Pius XII declared that it is reserved to the public authority “to deprive the condemned of their lives as reparation for their crimes after they have already forfeited their right to life through their crimes.”
b) The state’s right of the sword is a forceful recognition of the inviolability of the highest human goods, particularly of human life. The sanctity of the divine order is proved mighty even in this age by the death penalty. The death penalty is an act of self-defense on the part of the state. Its justification is ultimately grounded in the fact that the common good cannot be preserved in any other way.
c) The right of the state to impose the death penalty does not imply that the state is not al-lowed to renounce the exercise of this right.
DEFENDING AGAINST AGGRESSION
There are goods which the divine order of peace absolutely obligates one to respect and to guarantee, goods such that an offense against them by an aggressor state is an attack on the majesty of God. These goods are of such importance for human social life that their defense against unjust attack is without doubt fully justified. It is not a question here of just any kind of goods such as territorial claims, but of the highest goods of a nation’s life: the right to life, to justice, to freedom of conscience and of religion, and the like.
LIMITS ON GOVERNMENT AND NEED FOR TOLERATION
Divine and natural law set firm limits to governmental authority. Above all, the personal dignity of man and the essential order of marriage and the family are inviolable. In most states, the limits of governmental authority are more closely defined through the constitution which guarantees, for example, the freedom of conscience and the freedom of speech, the freedom of association, the freedom to choose a profession and a place of work, and the protection of private property. Since people of different religions and philosophies of life live together in modern society, particular importance attaches to the problem of toleration, not only in religion, but also in education, training, science, and other realms of cultural life. Setting out from the principle that no one should be forced to sacrifice his or her principles, Christian social teaching advocates respect for toleration in both the public and the social realms.
FLAWS OF GOVERNMENT
Every government will nevertheless bear within itself the insufficiency of everything earthly and created. With greater or less justification, one will find one thing or another to criticize in all laws and in all governmental measures. More alarming is the fact that states and governments exhibit not only one defect or another, as experience teaches, but can degenerate altogether into criminal tyrannies.
Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiarity function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be, the happier and more prosperous the condition of the state.
Now I will quote from a draft of Dan Strand’s upcoming booklet. (Watch video of his remarks on these issues here.)
GOVERNMENT DOESN’T SAVE
Government does not save, and yet many today, though they wouldn’t admit, essentially see governments capacities and abilities as quasi-salvific. Investing our politics with such redemptive power is dangerous because there is no danger greater in the political community than when we ascribe to politics the ability to regenerate individuals and society.
SECURITY IS PRIMARY
National security and national interest in this context have an important role in then as mediators of common grace. Protecting and persevering our society and the nation-state system is an important part of governments divine vocation. National interest and security, though, must be held to the bar of God’s law and rule and not become elevated above it. That will place limits on what government should do to ensure our security and advance our national interest. Security at any cost and promotion of national interest as an end in itself would be a return to paganism.
JESUS IS DIFFERENT
The pattern of Jesus is obviously something quite different. He calls us to follow in his way, to lay down our lives for our neighbors, but the witness of government is God’s will that society and the goods therein be preserved, to save us for chaos and anarchy, not to redeem us and raise us from the dead.
GOVERNMENT UNDER DIVINE AUTHORITY
The most important political task of the church is not to “be political” in the sense engaging in local or national politics, it is to remind the government that it is under the authority of another, that the rulers of this age are held to account and will be held to account to the law of God. It is to remind governments that their judgments are imperfect, at best, and that their laws and activities are not the finally word for human life. The government now punishes, but this is not what God has planned for us in the New Heavens and the New Earth. It does not make those activities wrong, but it brings to our awareness the fragility and finite nature of our own discernment and enactment of justice and punishment.
GOD NOT STATE ULTIMATELY RIGHTS INJUSTICE
He will come again to bring his rule to completion through the judgment and the establishment of his kingdom for eternity. He will judge all the nations. All wrongs shall be righted, all persons of all nations shall worship and enjoy a level of fellowship together unimpeded by human weakness and sin.
FIDELITY TO GOD MAKES US BETTER CITIZENS
As Christians we now live in between the ascension and consummation of Jesus’ kingly rule. King Jesus rules his own people now in a special way, even as he rules all the nations in another way. Christians are first and foremost members of his Kingdom and rule. They are “strangers and aliens” wherever they find themselves because they are “citizens of heaven.” Some would have us thinking this citizenship places us at odds with our government and society, but this is simplistic and wrong. Our heavenly citizenship and loyalty to Jesus above all drives us to a deeper sense of responsibility, commitment, and suffering on behalf of our country even as it places a definite limit on the extent of our loyalty.
GOVERNMENT IS ASPECT DIVINE GRACE
God has provided a provisional regime of judgment to preserve peace, justice, and order until his return. Protestants have referred to political rule as a part of God’s “common grace.” This grace is distinct from inward regenerating grace that brings about our conversion and regeneration. It is external and deals with the order of human communities, not the human heart. Government is given as a common grace by God irregardless of merit. A ruler or government may be wicked or good, but some form of government will always persist because God has willed it so.
GOVERNMENT MUST BE SECULAR
For Christians all government must be secular government. Secular government, that is government of “this age” (the latin term saeculum), in distinction from the contemporary usage which stresses government indifferent or hostile towards religion, will pass away in the age when the King returns. Like a babysitter, government keeps the house in order but when the parents return their job is done. The judgments of governments and courts of law are not divine. The application of laws is imperfect and sometimes unjust. Innocent people shall be unjustly punished. But, as the bible makes clear, all government is accountable to God. God establishes rulers and governments and He removes them. Why some governments persist and others do not is not given to humans in a clear fashion but we can be sure that it is God’s providence always at work.
GOVERNMENT CANT PERFECT SOCIETY
Political authorities ought, and in fact cannot, bring about the transformation of the world or the perfection of society. Sin runs through every human heart, something which laws cannot remedy. Human beings and society are not perfectible and, therefore, we ought not try to perfect them through law. The social gospel and liberal Protestantism, generally, make the mistake of turning the kingdom of God into a social project. But the kingdom of God will not come with our careful observation or our human efforts. That does not mean we ought not pursue justice and peace, but only that our goal is more modest and limited.
PROTESTANT VS CATHOLIC
Augustine taught and Protestants historically believed politics was a “remedy for sin,” did not exist before the fall and will not exist after we are redeemed. Catholics see political community as natural and not merely a check on sin. Aquinas argued that before the fall there was some sort of ordered political community.
GOVERNMENT’S CENTRAL PURPOSE
The purpose of government is to govern. This is a limited activity. Americans tend to see this in negative terms, Europeans in more positive terms. The picture that emerges from both Scripture and history on the purpose of government within Christian thought and practice is that of making and enforcing law as a means to ensure a just and peaceful society. The laws and not the government itself are what mediates and bears witness to God’s commands.
GOD ORDAINS RULERS
There is a consistent thread that runs through entirety of scripture with regards to political rule that may be summarized as follows: rulers (almost exclusively kings) are called to fulfill their duty by upholding God’s justice and peace, whether or not they are completely aware of who God is or what he requires. God places rulers in their positions of power and he expects them to act according to a set of standards that are determined by God. When they do not fulfill their duty often God punishes them or removes them. Upholding God’s justice and peace does not mean establishing the nations as holy entities but enacting God’s just judgment against injustice and thereby establishing a relative peace.
GOVERNMENT LEGITIMACY BASED IN ACTIONS NOT FORM
The authority of government is derived from its activity and not its form. Governments are authorized by God to perform the action of enacting justice and observing the limits of this authority. Perhaps the American republican form of government is the best form of government, but popular sovereignty and elections are not how governments derive their authority. Governments are given the responsibility of performing the action of judgment upon wickedness and thereby acting as a means of God’s vindication against wrongdoing. Providing for the welfare of the people, through various governmental programs, therefore, lies outside of what is strictly required of governments.
GOVERNMENT NOT NECESSARILY ORDAINED FOR WELFARE STATE
Advocates of social justice assume that to uphold the cause of the poor means offering welfare programs, but the idea that the government or ruler is required to provide for the welfare of its subjects or citizens becomes possible only with advent of modern welfare state. In order to vindicate and uphold the cause of the poor and oppressed a government need not establishing a modern welfare state, but to execute judgment against those sources of oppression and injustice in order to rectify the situation. The ubiquity of rights-talk today has created the illusion that the government is required to do all sorts of activities for its citizens because it is a right.
BASIC DUTY OF GOVERNMENT
The most basic activity of enacting justice and preserving peace for those under their rule is the punishment of wrongdoing within the political community and defense of the community against foreign threat. The early church father Irenaeus wrote God ordained government “so that under the fear of human rule, men may not eat each other up like fishes; but that by establishment of laws, they may keep down an excess of wickedness among the nations.” Does this mean a minimal libertarian state? No. But it does sharpen our sense of what government’s mandate from God is. We surely want all to have health insurance or well paying jobs but this is not the purpose of government proper, though governments may with good reason offer health insurance or jobs training programs.
Reflecting on these principles from the Cardinal and Dan Strand, what are lessons for us as the Common Ground Christian Network as we develop our own social witness?
Don’t forget the core purposes, duties and limits of politics and government.
Our vocation in our particular time and place includes focus on protection in society of life, marriage, and religious liberty, which are central to Christian teaching.
Don’t exaggerate our authority as ecclesial bodies or as Christians for political specifics.
Speak timelessly when possible, so that like the church fathers, our declarations will age well!Google+