Resources: Truth and Consequences
October 21, 2008
God and GovernmentBiblical Foundations of Good Government
It seems that all we hear from the campaign trail is constant bickering, blaming the other party for whatever the current national bad news happens to be, and personal attacks on political opponents. These tactics obscure the real issues and cause many Americans to grow weary of the rhetoric. To cut through the fog of political spin we need to get back to the basic ideas that are foundational to good government.
To recall those basic concepts, let's start with a question. What would you say is the foundational document of the United States? It may come as a surprise, but according to a Newsweek cover story, " . . . historians are discovering that the Bible, perhaps even more than the Constitution, is our founding document."
This should be no surprise, since our second President, John Adams, wrote, "The general principles upon which the Fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity . . . ." These "general principles" are common to all Christian denominations, whether Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, or Catholic. This comprises what we refer to as a biblical worldview.
Most people today have lost track of this important fact. That is why, if we are seeking a sense of liberty and justice in our political deliberations, we need to recover the foundational ideas that support these ideals.
The Bible on Government
An earlier Truth and Consequences article described a situation where Jesus gave an insightful answer to a political question. In his response, Jesus defined the parameters of government by going back to the creation story of Genesis 1 and God's commission to Noah in Genesis 9. From these passages we can draw three conclusions. First, government is God's idea. Second, government is designed to protect God's image in man. And third, God holds us responsible for bringing law-breakers to justice.
These biblical ideas intertwine the important components of a biblical worldview, namely the nature of man, the nature of law, and the role of government. And as it turns out, these were the foundations that gave rise to our unique form of government.
The U.S. Constitution
If you ask the average person in America what kind of government we have, many, if not most, will say we live in a democracy. But this is not correct. The United States was founded as a republic. This is clear from reading any of the founders. First, the story is told that at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman on the street asked Benjamin Franklin as he left Independence Hall on the final day of deliberation, "Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy." Franklin's reply, "A republic, if you can keep it." And, of course, you recall that the pledge to the American flag goes, "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands . . . ."
Why is this designation important? It's important because there is a significant difference between a democracy and a republic. The founders understood this difference from their study of history and political philosophy and made note of it in their discussions on what our government should look like. A democracy is defined as the rule of the majority. This means that 51 percent of the people can trample the rights of the other 49 percent! The founders called this form of government a "mobocracy," the tyranny of the majority.
On the other hand, a republic, or representative government, is based not on the whims of the majority of citizens, but on several enduring principles. Primary among these principles are the following: ordered liberty, the rule of law, and limited government. Refreshing ourselves with the original template for our republic will provide insights into making a well-informed vote on election day.
Liberty is important because, according to the Bible, we are wonderfully made in God's image. The reason individual liberty is central is because God created us that way. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). This is reflected in our Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . "
But that's not all. We also are greatly fallen, i.e., we are flawed moral agents. James Madison, considered the primary author of our constitution, put it this way, "If men were angels there would be no need for government." In other words, mankind is a two-sided coin, one side displays God's image, the other side reflects man's fallen, sinful nature. This means there needs to be outside controls, i.e., government, to keep people from infringing on the liberty of others.
As a result of their understanding of man's basic nature, the founders sought to develop a government to provide "ordered liberty." Think of two ends of a spectrum with "order" on one end and "liberty" on the other. If government allowed people unfettered liberty with no order, the result would be chaos. On the other hand, if the state demanded complete order, allowing no liberty, this would result in tyranny. Therefore, the founders developed a unique system of "checks and balances" to offset these two extremes and provide the maximum amount of liberty within an ordered society.
Rule of Law
A republic is also grounded in the concept of "rule of law." This means that certain legal rights come directly from God. Therefore, the state cannot take these away. Our Declaration of Independence makes this point clear: " . . . we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights . . . " John Adams put it this way, "You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe."
The connection between God and basic human rights also were pinned by Thomas Jefferson as reflected in these words etched into the memorial dedicated to him in Washington, D.C., "God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God?"
These "antecedent" rights cannot be taken away, even by a majority vote, because they do not come from the people or the rulers, but from God. The first of these rights is "life." Thus, the government cannot take your life without due process of law. This is the most important right of all. If the state can decide on a whim who lives and who dies, than your right to life is not secure. In this sense it is self-evident that if you don't have security in life, you have nothing!
A third foundation of republicanism (the system of government, not the political party) is limited government. According to a biblical worldview, institutions that shape society include the family, the church, and the state. Each has its own area of responsibility and should not interfere with the jurisdiction of the others. For example, the family has the responsibility for raising and educating their children. The church has the responsibility for religious instruction and helping the poor. The state's responsibility is to make sure all of these interactions, including economic transactions, are done free from fraud, theft, or coercion.
Put differently, the state is designed to do only a few things, not everything. For example, a car is designed to travel on the road. It is not designed to travel on water. The state is not designed to care for everyone from the womb to the tomb. It is given only a few tasks.
Notice how the founders inscribed the idea of limited government into the Preamble to the Constitution, which lays out the areas for which the federal government is responsible:
"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
The constitution, as a contract between the people and their representatives, outlines the specific responsibilities that are delegated to elected officials for the purpose of forming a "more perfect union" between the states and "secur[ing] the blessings of liberty." These delegated responsibilities include only the following:
- Establish justice. This refers to establishing a system of federal courts to settle disputes between the states.
- Provide for defense. This means organizing a standing army to protect against domestic or international violence against its citizens.
- Promote the general welfare. This simply refers to what is common to all citizens, not certain special interest groups. Note well, "promote" the general welfare does not mean "provide" welfare for some people.
That's all federal representatives are delegated to do. Anything else is OUTSIDE their contract, and therefore, by definition, unconstitutional! Thomas Jefferson affirmed the role of limited government when he wrote, "I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground: That "all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people" [10th Amendment]. To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn around the powers of Congress is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition."
Applying Theory to Practice
Let's apply these foundational principles to current political hot topics. Take, for example, the issue of abortion. As was indicated, the first unalienable right is "life." According to our Constitution, protection of innocent life is the central obligation of government. And it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that scientifically and medically speaking, human conception is the beginning of a new human life. Therefore, on a biblical, rational, scientific, and constitutional basis, the "pro-life" position is the only biblical position. The same is true for not allowing embryonic stem cell research, since this kind of medical experimentation destroys human life.
How about the matter of same-sex marriage? Some may argue that the "pursuit of happiness" means people of the same sex should be allowed to marry if that arrangement makes them happy. However, "pursuit of happiness" does not mean the freedom to do "anything" that makes you happy. In the context of the founders' worldview, it meant the right to pursue your own choices within the framework of God's higher moral law.
Moreover, in Matthew 19:8, Jesus defines marriage according to the original plan of God when He created Adam and Eve as male and female. There was a purpose for two sexes: to continue the human race. This is not only a biological fact designed into our own bodies, but because of its significance, God proscribed moral boundaries to preserve this most fundamental unit of every society.
Thus, according to God's "higher law," marriage is defined as "one man and one woman." Anything that does not fit this definition is not "marriage." "Same-sex marriage" is an oxymoron: an expression that contradicts itself. Therefore, the government should not interfere with the social unit that brings cohesion to society and was instituted by God.
Who Should Help the Poor?
How about the suggestion of "spreading the wealth around"? The idea of wealth redistribution is called interventionism, or a managed economy. This is where the state regulates the economy through taxation and redistribution of wealth. Is this a good idea?
Attempting to have the state do things that are outside its jurisdiction results in a host of negative consequences. For one thing, as the role of government increases, individual liberty decreases. That is the opposite of limited government. It takes a large, massive bureaucracy to implement such a redistributive strategy. To maintain individual freedom, the maxim of limited government must be kept in the forefront.
For instance, how should we think about government programs to help the poor? The idea of taking from the rich to give to the poor comes from Robin Hood, not Jesus. Jesus said to help the poor, but he told that to his followers, not to the Roman governor. From a biblical standpoint, charity is the responsibility of the family and the church, not the state.
Second, using tax policy to redistribute wealth sets up class warfare among the people. "A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend upon the support of Paul," opined Irish dramatist, George Bernard Shaw. Thus, there is constant conflict between the wealthy Peters and the poor Pauls. This does not bode well for unity and cooperation within a nation. We observe this conflict in the rhetoric of every politician today. "I'll raise the taxes of the other guys." "I'll keep your taxes low." Etc., etc.
Third, seeking to help the poor through government programs is costly and wasteful. Studies by the Cato Institute reveal that less than 25% of every dollar given to the government actually makes it to the intended cause of helping the poor. In contrast, over 85 - 90% of money given to charitable private organizations or churches goes to its intended purpose. Simply from a pragmatic perspective, it makes no sense to channel money through the state.
And fourth, government welfare is ineffective. The concept of the welfare state developed in the early 1900s with the advent of Marxism-Leninism. Of course, the history of socialism in the U.S.S.R., Cuba, China, and North Korea demonstrates the abject poverty, literally, of this system. By 1989, after just 70-odd years of this government-imposed socialism, the U.S.S.R. imploded under the weight of not being able to feed it's own people. Cuba is in the same sorry state, and China is moving toward limited free-markets out of desperation.
In the United States, socialistic leaning politicians, recognizing the pitfalls of pure socialism, thought they could improve on the basic concept. They sought to reshape society by manipulation of the economy through tax policy. This was begun in 1913 with the passage of an income tax on the "wealthy." This form of socialism-lite is called interventionism. It came roaring onto the American scene during the mid 1930s with Roosevelt's attempts at bringing the nation out of the depression. Recent scholars have determined that the administration's meddling in the economy not only raised unemployment but also prolonged the depression!
Then, by the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson decided to create a "Great Society" by declaring a "war on poverty." However, after spending 9 trillion dollars to eliminate poverty, there are almost as many people living under the poverty level today as there were 40 years ago.
Of course, anyone could have anticipated, as the founders did, that government programs to help the poor will not, in fact, cannot, work. That's because the state was never intended to help the poor. It's not something that governments are able to do. That is why the founders never wrote that responsibility into our constitution. President Grover Cleveland understood this clearly when, in 1877, he vetoed a bill for charity relief, writing, "I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit."
Another recent case in point of government over-reaching its bounds is the so-called investment banking "bail-out" and take-over of Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac in October 2008. The majority of both major parties, Democrats and Republicans, voted for this legislation. But where in the Constitution does it say the state is supposed to be in the mortgage loan business? Or, for that matter, the health care business, or in anyone's business?
As a result of this departure from sound economic theory and moving into social experimentation through government intervention, the free-market is slowly being strangled. This is happening because of political greed in the form of campaign contributions from special interest groups and corporate lobbyist. The problem does not rest exclusively with the greedy businessmen on Wall Street. There is plenty of greed to go around Constitution Avenue, as well.
The gigantic cost of social hand-outs and corporate bail-outs comes back on you, the tax-payer. The tax-paying citizen is the only resource that government has for paying its obligations. At the time of this writing, the current national debt is over $10 trillion ($10,000,000,000,000). According to Chuck Colson, our government faces future liabilities of at least $53 trillion — that's trillion with a "T." This includes entitlements, government pensions, Medicare, and other promises we have made. It's $175,000 for every man, woman, and child in America.
How should a Christian respond to the erosion of these three foundations of freedom? How is it possible for a Christian to conscientiously vote during these social, moral, and economic times? May I offer the following three suggestions?
First, we need to continue sharing God's love and forgiveness with everyone at every opportunity. As people are made new in Christ, they will seek to follow God's moral precepts. John Adams, signer of the Declaration of Independence and our second President, wrote about the moral and religious necessity of our citizens, "Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
Second, Christians must be involved in politics. This is not an option. Proverbs 29:2 reminds us, "When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice, but when the wicked man rules, the people groan." And Jesus told His followers they were the "salt and light" of society. If society, or any part of it, including the political arena, is tasteless and dark, it is our fault for not being there!
And third, we should seek to share with our friends and neighbors the foundational principles of good government. These principles have been neglected in our educational experience and distorted by the major media outlets. Yet, according to a recent Barna poll, 48% of all voters in the U.S. are "born again" Christians. If enough Christians begin to understand the significance of their biblical worldview and its relationship to politics, they could make a significant difference in the direction of our nation.
In summary, the most important branch of government is "We, the people . . . " If our representatives in government are not performing their duties according to our written contract in the Constitution, we are the only ones to blame and the only ones who can do anything about it. And that takes place every election in the voting booth.
How you vote makes a difference. Make your vote count!
- "How the Bible Made America," Newsweek, December 27, 1982, p. 44.
- Letter to Thomas Jefferson, June 28, 1813.
- These ideas are reflected in a number of other places throughout the Bible. See, for examples, Leviticus 19:15, 2 Chronicles 19:6, Romans 13:1 7, and 1 Peter 2:13 14.
- Quoted by David Barton, http://www.wallbuilders.com/LIBissuesArticles.asp?id=97#_ftn149, accessed 10/15/2008. Original quote in Boston Gazette, Aug. 12, 1765; 3 John Adams, The Works of John Adams 449 (Charles Francis Adams, ed. Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851) (from his Dissertation, 1765).
- http://www.monticello.org/reports/quotes/memorial.html, accessed 10/15/2008.
- National Bank Opinion, 1791, http://etext.virginia.edu/jefferson/quotations/jeff4.htm, accessed 10/15/2008.
- For specific ways to defend a pro-life position, see Pro-Life 101: A Step-by-Step Guide to Making Your Case Persuasively, by Scott Klusendorf.
- There are many other practical reasons for the state to prefer traditional marriage. See, or example, "Why Marriage Should be Privileged in Public Policy," accessed 10/10/2008.
- George Bernard Shaw, Everybody's Political What's What? (1944) ch. 30. Quoted on http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/179.html, accessed 10/15/2008.
- See "Government is too Big and It's Costing You! How to Change America," James P. Gills and Ronald Nash.
- "More Welfare, More Poverty," by Michael D. Tanner, accessed 10/12/2008.
- 18 Congressional Record 1875 , http://www.gmu.edu/departments/economics/wew/quotes/govt.html.
- See the updated national debt clock at http://www.brillig.com/debt_clock/
- http://www.breakpoint.org/listingarticle.asp?ID=9387, accessed 10/15/2008.
- John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Co., 1854), Vol. IX, p 229, October 11, 1798.
- Quoted in "Why Born-again Christians Are Backing Obama," accessed 10/15/2008.