Today, as in ages past, we find ourselves attempting to steer a middle course between Scylla and Charybdis. This is true in various parts of life (indeed this basic principle is foundational to Aristotelian virtue theory), but in this post, my emphasis is on government and politics. On the one hand, lies the danger of viewing the state as the source of our rights; on the other lies, hyper-democracy. Neither ideology is compatible with a Christian worldview.
The state is not the source of our rights, of our role as image of God on this earth. God created us as His image, meant to subdue and govern the earth according to the principles of His Kingdom. He sent His Son, Jesus the Messiah, to teach us what those Kingdom principles are.
He created the state in order to exercise some kind of justice in this fallen world, as a bulwark against the kind of chaos that characterised the earth in Noah’s day (Genesis 6). Administering justice does not entail that the state is the source of our rights – only that it has been ordained to protect and enforce them. Acting on God’s behalf does not entail that one is God. Were I to enter the throne room of a medieval monarch, I would show respect to the Lord Chancellor, but I would pay homage to the King. So in this world, placing the state on too high a pedestal is equivalent to mistaking the Chancellor for the King.
The state’s authority, given it by God, is not intended for the purpose of interfering in every aspect of human life. It holds its authority on trust for the beneficial interest of the people it governs. When it ceases to obey the principles of trust by which it was validly constituted, it loses its authority and is in need of replacement. This was the conclusion drawn by the authors of the American Revolution, relying on ideas elaborated by Thomas Aquinas and Enlightenment thinkers. They held that the state, as embodied by His Majesty George III and his ministers and Parliament, no longer exercised its power for the true weal of the people.
These revolutionaries, spurning the Scylla of tyranny that glowered above them, were also careful to steer away from the Charybdis of hyper-democracy. The good of the people, their welfare and prosperity, is independent of the people’s wishes. Right and wrong, albeit perceived and heeded contextually, are independent of our wishes and emotions. We presuppose such objective morality when we appeal to a common standard by which to persuade an interlocutor to adopt or refrain from an attitude or course of action.
While the wishes of the majority should be obeyed in certain matters, owing to the respect we ought to show the gift of free will, the wishes of the majority cannot make what is wrong right or vice versa. For this reason, though the majority of a nation should consider abortion to be acceptable, the answer as to whether it is or not must be derived from reason and not from a poll. In so far as abortion is a species of murder, and the state owes a duty to prevent murder, the Christian worldview must reject democracy to the extent that it promotes a crime against which God ordained the state as a protection.
These two dangers lie at the centre of the corruption that is killing the nations today: people on the one hand, who think that the state is our highest authority; and people on the other, who think that the people can make whatever laws they choose. Neither extreme is acceptable, because both reject the kingship of God. As Christians we must resist attempts to bring the power and influence of the state into areas over which it has no lawful authority, and we must likewise speak truth to the people when they would themselves become tyrants over the laws of God.