Big Government a Danger to All Men
Part 1 of 3
By Ian Huyett
(This is Part 1 of a 3 part column on the history of liberty in Christian tradition. Parts 2 & 3 are linked at the bottom of the article. Please share and leave your thoughts below.)
In 1932, the Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton expressed concern that many people were according the government with a trust and reverence that ought to be reserved only for God. Chesterton’s admonition was not only prophetic, but rooted in the deepest mainspring of Christianity’s past; he was echoing words spoken by the prophet Samuel nearly three thousand years ago.
1 Samuel 8 tells how the Israelites, having grown weary of deferring to their local judges, decided to centralize power and crown a king. The great judge Samuel, upset by the nation’s desire for an earthly ruler, prayed to God for guidance. God replied by telling Samuel that, by demanding a human king, the Israelites “have rejected me from being king over them.”
This equation of statism with idolatry is alive and well in modern Christendom. In particular, Christians in the United States have – since before Bush left office – been moving away from federal advocacy and towards political decentralization. Whenever someone suggests that Christians cannot be a viable force for liberty, I know that person has been long out of touch with America’s Christian culture. The believers I speak with increasingly feel put upon by the earthly state and simply wish to be allowed to live as they see fit in their own communities.
These libertarian Christians stand on solid ground. A well-established body of Christian scripture and tradition rejects the rule of limited human beings in favor of God’s majesty. In the words of F.A. Hayek, “Individualism, in contrast to socialism and all other forms of totalitarianism, is based on the respect of Christianity for the individual man.” Christians are, for the reasons I’ll explore here, especially predisposed to becoming passionate libertarians – and libertarians would do well do bear this in mind in their outreach.
The Doctrine of Original Sin
The NSA’s surveillance of the entire US population offers a prime example of the conflation that Chesterton warned against. If only one group in American history has imagined that the government is God, it is surely those who argue that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” This assertion assumes that the environment of government will create an immutable benevolence in our rulers.
Conversely, Christians have warned mankind about its innate limitations for millennia. Any Christian with even a cursory understanding of original sin could have told you that granting the NSA unchecked power was a horrible idea. Verses like Ephesians 2:3 – which says that we are “by nature children of wrath” – remind Christians that governments are made up of fallen human beings who will inevitably abuse whatever power they are given. Sure enough, the Senate Intelligence committee recently discovered that NSA employees have used the agency’s vast resources to spy on their lovers.
Chesterton, perhaps hyperbolically, called original sin the “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” It is also the part of Christian theology which most squarely defeats political authoritarianism. It leaves us with no reason to expect that governments will be virtuous, nor to expect that they will tend towards increasingly moral choices as they grow to include more human beings.
John Adams said that he distrusted rulers because he perceived “danger from all men.” We should be glad that Adams had this cynical temperament; otherwise, we might be even less free than we are today.