Christianity and Politics Part 4: Why do we need Government at all?

In my last columns I dispensed with the ad hominem arguments, noting first that this is an example of a logical fallacy. Secondarily, I noted some examples of this particular fallacy in popular discussions of politics. This means I’ve also largely dispensed with much of the political discourse coming from the philosophy of Post-modernism.[1] In a sense, post modernism is the establishment of the argumentium ad hominem as if it were not an error. This being the case, I would like to lay out a Christian foundation for political thought, and more particularly from a Baptistic perspective, because when there are disagreements within the faith on a point, I feel I can only adequately represent my own thinking.

The first question, I think, for any political philosophy is why do we need a government at all? This might seem very academic, but the point of the question is to narrow down the purpose of government which helps prioritize issues.

The purpose of government: Justice

Paul, perhaps gives us the greatest discussion of why Government in Romans 13:1-7. Verse 4 encapsulates that purpose by noting, “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”[2] Thus, government exists, ironically or not, as an institution of justice, largely criminal justice in Paul’s day literally by executing criminals; leading to this “purpose statement” Paul has noted, in verse 3 that rulers are (ideally) “not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.”[3] This is the basis for the payment of taxes,[4] because the administration of law requires funding. Nor is this unique to Paul, Peter makes a similar statement, noting “or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.[5] This appears to go back to an Old Testament discussion known as the Noahic covenant, part of which reads, “And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”[6]

In a sense, then, the starting point for understanding the Christian view of government is that Government is instituted by God for the support of the criminal justice system and particularly the institution of the death penalty.[7] Since this is rooted in the sacredness of the image of God, I believe this implies that government is an institution of not only criminal justice, but justice in a general sense as well, and secondarily the protection of human beings from those who would harm them.[8]

There may be many secondary purposes of government,[9] but the first question is always, does the main thing get done well first.

Justice Grounded in the image of God

                  Christian views of justice then are based, at least negatively on desert;[10] it is not that we believe in retribution out of hatred, but that the wages of sin are death. The Christian view[11] of man as the image of God is based in three important truths, if any one of them is lost, whatever is left is no longer Christian.

  1. Man is made in the image of God, and therefore has innate dignity.
  2. Mankind however, is fallen and has been tainted by sin. As a result, the Christian position on the age old question of whether man is good or evil is that man is basically evil, though the image of God has not been completely defaced.
  3. The work of Christ provides forgiveness of sins by suffering the justice of God (which is ours by desert), but more than forgiveness it begins the restoration of the image of God in us.

The Inadequacy of Atheism

                  This leads to a further question, however. Some people might argue that a claim justice is based on desert and retribution is unkind, or unjust. Other approaches have been put forward, such as that justice is some means of fairness.[12] And yet, this is a major problem for the atheist; on what grounds can he connect his beliefs about justice to the view that man is merely an evolved animal, and if man is an animal, why should he not be treated as an animal; if there is no image of God then why should we care about the concerns of other people?

Please note, I am not arguing that atheists don’t care about justice, despite whatever disagreements they and I might have about how to define it, their often bellicose language clearly demonstrates concern for justice. I believe they do because they have a conscience, I am arguing that their view of the importance of justice is contradictory to their belief that man is merely a highly evolved animal. They argue in politics that human beings have innate value, and argue in biology classrooms that they do not. One might very well argue that concern for others provides an evolutionary advantage, but such an advantage will be of limited value. After all, caring for a child (even an orphaned one) provides a group with an evolutionary advantage, perhaps, but caring for an aged adult who will never again contribute to the group’s resources and yet consumes a massive share of medical resources makes no sense from an evolutionary perspective. Similar things are true of nations that have been receiving private aid or loans and charity from other governments for decades, or in some cases more than a century.

It makes no sense to care for other human beings to the degree that we do, unless man is more than an animal; something atheists intuitively understand. Even Nietsche could not be the ubermenschen of which he dreamed and wrote. The atheist, fortunately for humanity, cannot be so rational.

[1]Post Modernism is a philosophy that developed largely from the reading of Michael Fouchault and the belief that schools of thought are means of power. From this has been developed the idea that all knowledge is socially constructed, and a general type of relativism. The problem is that the various epistemic constructions are self-refuting and therefore false (if all knowledge is socially constructed and therefore in doubt, then we must also doubt that all knowledge is socially constructed and therefore we must doubt that it is in doubt). When relativism is your conclusion, it is prima facia evidence that your analysis has broken down at some point in the process.

Of course it is true that theories can be put forward for political advantage, and of course it is true that people are biased, this is a byproduct of worldview formation itself. However, the existence of bias alone does not negate arguments. Since bias and motives are a two edged sword (Michael Fouchault also has a bias after all), the answer then is to focus on the evidence and the development of that evidence unless we have consistent evidence of a bias influencing work.

[2]Romans 13:4 ESV

[3]Romans 13:3

[4]Romans 13:6; while there are a lot of discussions as to what US tax policy should be, to clarify, Christianity teaches we are obligate to pay taxes as they are assessed. Romans 13:7; Mark 12:17; Matthew 22:21

[5]1 Peter 2:14

[6]Genesis 9:5-7

[7]This is not advocacy of the modern American death penalty for reasons I may, or may not make clear. The problem with the American death penalty is that ultimately one does not earn the death penalty on the basis of statute requirements, but is heavily influenced by the emotional state of the jury, and without changes on this point, I cannot support it.

[8] The military is perhaps the most obvious example in this regard, we might all wish we lived in a world without wars, but unfortunately we don’t, we live in a world where aggression exists, and as a result the only means of ending a nations military tradition is if all other nations disarm and have a valid reason to assume no other nations are attempting to rearm.

[9]There are a number of arguments put forward among Christians on the left, for example, that various measures indicate a socialist element in Old Testament society. The problem I see with these views is that the arguments miss important exceptions to what they conceive to be the rule. For example, Jews sold into slavery were released during the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:20-41) but they fail to take into account that this was not true of non-Hebrew slaves (Leviticus 25:44-46). Similarly Leviticus 25:28 notes that farm land when sold was to revert to the original owners during the year of Jubilee, and this is compared to various redistributionist models popular with socialists; what God intended was not ultimately the sale of land, but the sale of the land’s productivity for a given period of time. The problem with basing views of social justice on these grounds is that this system meant sojourners were (at least in terms of economics) perpetually second-class citizens without permanent access to the source of wealth in the ancient world. In part, Leviticus 25:42 seems to answer the question, the point was that Jews had a part in the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants between God and the nation of Israel and it is this covenantal right that is protected.

Similarly the Old Testament contains elements of tort law that seem to serve as examples of protecting rights, but in general the Old Testament is not an argument for a perfect state. Jesus in Matthew 19 notes, for example, that divorce laws were provided due to the hardness of their hearts. The implication being that while divorce is repugnant to God, it was necessary to allow it. In the case of divorce, however, the Jewish system provides protections absent women in other cultures, for example, if a man divorced his wife, he could not later force her to abandon a better situation, another husband who might genuinely care for her, or her children. Similarly Old Testament texts instituting slavery are likely examples of the same type of development. Slavery is repugnant, but man was made by God to be free (that is, just as monogamous, heterosexual marriages are a part of God’s pre-fall created order, so too is man’s natural state of liberty). But slavery was already engrained in the culture and was an answer to the question of what to do with debtors or prisoners of war. And yet, even here, God provides protections for the lives and dignity of slaves often absent in other cultures.

[10]I believe provisions of the Old Testament for widows and orphans as well as this principle provides a positive element of justice as what is deserved as well. While the widow or orphan may not have earned their right to glean (they did not plant the land, did not weed it, etc.) provision was made for them by law; portions of the field were to be harvested by widows and orphans as well as what was dropped by the reapers (Lev 19:9; 23:22), and yet this provision was protection from undeserved suffering resulting from the death of a breadwinner.

[11]Some will argue this is a reformed view of man. There is in my mind two problems, however, with describing this as a purely reformed system. First, reformed writers tend to claim viewpoints that are not actually unique to their positions, there is an arrogance here that reminds me of Baptists who think Biblical inerrancy is somehow a “baptistic distinctive,” when it is really something Baptists share with conservative protestants in general. Second, what many reformed thinkers seem to do well in many cases is their ability to summarize and to phrase matters.

[12]Most notably John Rawls, A Theory of Justice.