Is Christianity Compatible with Liberal Democracy?
Here are video, audio and unedited transcript of a Providence event on September 25 when Paul Miller, Jonathan Leeman, and Jennifer Marshall spoke about whether or not Christianity is compatible with liberal democracy. Two of the panelists, Miller and Leeman, had written articles for Providence’s Spring-Summer 2018 issue covering this topic. Subscribers can log into our website and download those articles here. If you don’t already subscribe, you can do so for as little as $12 here.
Paul D. Miller is a professor in the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, a contributing editor of Providence, a research fellow with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.
Jonathan Leeman is the author of Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Ruleand the editorial director at 9Marks, an organization that produces church leadership resources in Washington, D.C. He is an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
Jennifer A. Marshall is vice president for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity and Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, and a senior research fellow with the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, DC.
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and co-editor of Providence.
Mark Tooley: Well it is now approximately 6:30, so the witching hour is here. We’ll go ahead and begin. But I want to welcome all of you to our conversation this evening about Christianity and the future of democracy.
I am Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and an editor of Providence, a journal of Christianity and American foreign policy. And the latest issue, which I commend to you, hopefully you’ll get a copy of at the table in the back, features articles on this topic organized by one of our speakers this evening, Paul Miller, from whom you’ll hear in just a few moments.
But as a background, IRD, which I head, is a Christian think tank here in town founded in 1981—and founded to respond to the challenges of the late Cold War period to democracy. The fact that many in the American church, in fact, had despaired or given up on democracy, in favor of authoritarian, or even totalitarian alternatives. Our Founders made the case that democracy, for all its failures, was the best system of government known, so far, to protect and affirm human dignity and human rights.
So in some ways, we’ve ventured back to that same conversation. And one of our latest projects is Providence, the journal, which a collaboration between ourselves and the Philos Project in New York. And we came together in 2015, again because we felt like in American Christianity there was not enough conversation on the importance of issues like sustaining democracy at home and abroad. And of late we have had specific challenges within the Christian intellectual world as to the sustainability or even the desirability of liberal democracy. Perhaps the most highlighted of late is Patrick Deneen’s book, whose hypothesis is that democracy is not just failing, but was always doomed to failure from the start. So our symposium by Providence is in part a response to that.
So we’ve got some fascinating people who will be addressing you this evening, starting with Paul Miller, who wonderfully has now relocated to Washington, D.C. He’s a professor at George Washington University, having come from the Clements at the University of Texas Austin and previously served our country in the military—overseas in Afghanistan and elsewhere—and served on the National Security Council. So he is a very savvy thinker on these issues. Our other speaker, Jonathan Leeman, is with the 9Marks project, which is a ministry of publication, thought, and action—Christian ministry. And he has written multiple books, the most recent of which I commend to you because it is related to our topic this evening, How the Nations Rage. So be sure to get on Amazon this evening so you can order a copy for yourselves. And then finally our respondent to Paul and Jonathan is Jennifer Marshall, who is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation, and a distinguished Christian thinker in her own right, a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary.
Two of our speakers this evening have direct ties, I believe, to Capitol Baptist, so it’s appropriate that we are here in their sanctuary, and Jennifer herself is a Presbyterian. But they’re all Reformed thinkers; so I’m the only non-Calvinist standing before you, so I will try to contain the predestinarianism so it doesn’t get too out of control. But otherwise I will just be moderating and facilitating your questions in response afterwards.
Paul and Jonathan will speak for about 15 minutes each, and then Jennifer will respond to them, and they may wind up all responding to each other after that. But there should be plenty of time for a response from you all, and we’ll plan it to end by 8 pm, after which, presumably, some of the food and drink will still be available. So, thank you so much for joining us, and, Paul, if you like to start.
Paul Miller: Well, thank you to Mark, thank you the Institute on Religion and Democracy, thank you to Providence Magazine, and to Capitol Baptist Church for helping to bring together this event. It’s especially a privilege to me to be back here in this building, in a church where I was a member for over ten years. I met my wife in that hallway, and we were married right there. That was—there was about a year gap in there. But it’s good to be back here and to sort of enjoy the memories this building brings back.
This is our symposium on Christianity and liberalism, sort of classical liberalism. How far are these two things compatible? Can Christians in good conscience continue to support this idea of classical liberalism—ideas that informed the American experiment? This is a good time to be asking this, because, as Mark mentioned, there are important thinkers like Patrick Deneen saying the answer’s “no,” saying Christian liberalism has exhausted itself, has proven itself to be a failed or failing ideology, and has resulted in our human misery. Deneen’s argument is that liberalism has resulted in failing societies. If we look at liberal societies and cultures around the world—United States, Western Europe, and elsewhere, we see environmental breakdown, we see sort of a market fundamentalism—capitalist fundamentalism—we see the effects of the sexual revolution, we see family breakdown, we see rising crime, and on and on—this is Deneen’s argument.
And if that’s true, then what should Christians do? How should we come through to help the society and culture if we no longer have the option of agreeing with a broad form of classical liberalism? Let me start off by saying, there are some things that I think Deneen gets right. I think there are some good, important critiques that we should recognize, that are valid against some parts of classical liberalism—some parts of classical liberalism, or, I might say, some versions of classical liberalism. That’s the key distinction—is I think Deneen is painting with too broad of a brush.
I think it’s true, as Deneen says, that classical liberalism has resulted in societies of sort of atomized individuals who are beholden to a sort of myth of individual autonomy. There’s an idolization of individual autonomy, right, in liberal societies around the world. This is rooted in the myth liberalism tells itself about the social contract, state of nature, that all justice is rooted in consent, and these are all—philosophically, they’re errors—they’re wrong. They’re theologically wrong. And they have some real, practical implications for how our legal culture has enshrined the sort of idea of the sovereign individual whose autonomy is often sacred.
I think Deneen is also correct there are parts of liberalism, particularly economic liberalism (capitalism) that can be quite corrosive towards culture, tradition, and civil society. This is a key part of the argument, too: that liberalism is not healthy for our civil society—for our voluntary associations outside the market and in civics.
Deneen also finally critiques—it’s not his words, but that’s how I’m reading this—the moral authoritarianism of one wing of liberalism—the left wing. There’s a vision of the good society held out by the Progressive Left that Deneen thinks is quite, quite wrong, quite dangerous. And that has been pursued with ever-increasing vigor through the mechanisms of liberal society in ways that dangerous—damaging to our society. So that’s all that Deneen gets correct.
So, what does he get wrong? What’s left over? If all that is true—if all those parts are true weaknesses of classical liberalism, is there anything left over we can point to? Well, I think the answer is yes. And again, it’s really important, because if the answer is no, what do we do then? We’re left concluding there’s no grounds for legitimacy of the society we live in. That our governments are fundamentally unjust—and irredeemable—that there’s no—nothing left we can do to redeem them or fix them or reform them on the current grounds—on the current pathways available to us. It’s kind of a really sobering conclusion.
My argument—or my response—is that the institutions of liberal society are salvageable. There’s a distinction between the institutions of liberalism: elections, majoritarian rule, legislatures, representative government, rule of law, free speech bills of rights—these are institutions, and they are severable from enlightenment philosophy. Insofar as Deneen has critiqued enlightenment philosophy, I think he’s essentially correct. But I also think some our institutions can exist without reference to enlightenment philosophy. We can have other philosophical and theological grounds to justify the institutions that we let live on and survive.
One of the reasons I’m optimistic that there are indeed other grounds for that is because liberal institutions have taken root, have existed and even thrived elsewhere in the world outside of Europe and America. There’s actually good examples of democracies that have existed in Africa, in Asia for decades and decades—surprisingly positive [inaudible] outside the West. And if that’s true, that means you can indeed separate liberal institutions from enlightenment philosophy.
So now if that’s true, what are the alternate grounds? What are the alternate grounds to justify these liberal institutions that we know so well, but we’re all taught in our high school civics class that they all sprung from the mind of John Locke? So, what are the other grounds? Well, if the problem is the problem of sort of enlightenment philosophy, we want to look a pre-enlightenment framework—a pre-enlightenment world.
And I think clearly the most cohesive pre-enlightenment framework is the Augustinian framework, right? I choose that label as a label of convenience. I’m certainly not going to claim that, if Augustine were sitting here, he would agree with what I’m going to say, nor am I going to say that Augustine himself was a liberal or democrat. He certainly wasn’t. I just want to acknowledge this. But his body of thought represents a world that has within it assumptions about human nature that, I think, are closer to true, and a thoughtfulness about human societies and human government that we can appropriate. We can take it and reapply it to the circumstances of our world today in a way that’s true to the Augustinian tradition, but also re-founds the institutions that we live under today.
Key to this, I think, is that, in the Augustinian framework, we should not seek to resurrect the ancient city state, the ancient polis. That’s, I think, the besetting sin of the progressive left and the nationalist right—they would both seek to revive a kind of organic politics, a unifying whole in which our meaning, our identity, our purpose is found with and through our large, impersonal secular polity. They want to treat the nation-state as if it was Athens. They want that sense of belonging, and sense of unity, and sense of cohesiveness from the ancient city-state, and they want to transplant that to our national policies today. That is my, sort of, take on an Augustinian critique of our current political moment. We’re trapped between two political movements (the Progressive Left and the Nationalist Right) that are both mirror images of each other. They have radically different agendas, but they treat the state the same way. They both expect the state to be in charge of engineering our national culture, whether it’s a liberal, progressive culture or a national, sort of rightwing version of our culture. They think the state’s legitimate function is to do this, to tell us what our culture and our identity is.
To give you one example—now this will be a one-party example—I think it goes both ways. One year ago, when President Trump was giving his last Speech at the UN, [inaudible]—that was a speech that the headlines just went on about, the totally destroying North Korea, the “fire and fury” speech; it’s actually a really interesting speech for another reason—in that speech he talked very powerfully about what, he believed, was the importance of sovereign nations. And he actually said—this is close to a direct quote—he said strong, sovereign nations are essential for us to reach the fullness of the life that God intended. That’s close to the exact quote of what Trump said, that our secular polities are supposed to do. He said they are crucial to enabling us to live out the fullness of the life that God intended. That’s the nationalist vision. I promise you there’s plenty of the, sort of, leftwing version of it. They think that our secular polities are essential to human flourishing. We live out our fullest selves in, sort of, the secular, national, impersonal, political space.
That’s exactly wrong. That is exactly when an Augustinian would come in and say, you’re trying to turn the state into what actually what the church should do. The Augustinian critique is that what Trump said about the nation is actually, I think, true of the church. The church is the place where we live out the fullness of our lives as God intended us to. And so an Augustinian would say, our states should try to do less than they are doing now. They should not aspire to be that through which we live our fullest lives. That aspiration—that political aspiration—is really probably a form of idolatry, a form of idolatry where we’re trying to, again, find spiritual fulfillment in our secular polities that we only find our religious communities. Augustinians also have a much firmer appreciation for sin. That’s something Augustinians are really good on: understanding sin. And the political implication of sin is the need to diffuse power.
And this is where I think we see very clear consistency with the American founders and their distrust of power and their desire to, as Madison said, “ambition must be made to check ambition,” right? We distrust concentrations of power, so we want to diffuse it. That’s why we have checks and balances. That’s why we diffuse power to the people, so that they have the power and not a single monarch or tyrant. And again, this places stronger limits on the state. This is what distinguishes an Augustinian politics from both a progressive politics and a nationalist politics.
The Augustinian also looks at the individual and does not see a sovereign individual devoted to a life of perfect, sacred autonomy. Again, I think this kind of answers Deneen’s critique of the hyper-individualism of liberalism. An Augustinian liberal recognizes that human beings are made in the image of God and deserve the dignity of liberty, yes, but the state does not exist to affirm or enable your life of individual sovereignty or perfect autonomy. That’s not the function of the state. That state does allow a system of ordered liberty in which, yes, we are free to enjoy some—we can enjoy that liberty. But it’s not the role of the state to affirm each and every individual choice you make. It’s not the function of the state to affirm your identity. And it’s the purpose of the state to equip you, to enable you, to live out whatever other [inaudible]. This is again, a way in which the Augustinian worldview differs quite a lot from the progressive worldview. This will result in lower expectations about what the state is for, what it’s supposed to achieve.
Two more final notes on how an Augustinian would approach these issues. One is that, I guess, we have to recognize we are defined by our loves. Human beings are defined by our loves, by what we love. And quickly, individual loves can actually go awry. Now in the contemporary progressive state, there’s no such thing as an invalid love. And so the state is charged with allowing you to pursue whatever love you so desire. But the Augustinian recognizes that the paramount virtue of our politics is not autonomy to pursue whatever love we want. But rather, what Augustine called the tranquility of order, which is something like what me mean when we say, “just and lasting peace.” That’s the paramount virtue in politics—is the achievement of a just and lasting peace. And so if our loves lead us in a way that disrupts the tranquility of order, then perhaps there is a role there to put limits on what individuals may pursue with their loves. That might be one way that an Augustinian looks at the contemporary liberal setup and says, “well, we maybe need to hedge [inaudible].” I don’t know what that would look like, honestly, but that would be a good direction for the conversation.
Finally, just to make sure I’m sort of bipartisan here, I said that Deneen may be onto something when he critiques the gross effects of market capitalism. An Augustinian would look at economic arrangements and say, “you know what? If we distrust concentrations of power in politics, we should do the same thing in our economics. And we should distrust concentrations of power economically as well. I think this would lead an Augustinian to favor sort of economic arrangements that allow for freedom, prosperity. We also may need to put some limits on what corporations are allowed to do in the same way that we put limits on what the state is allowed to do. Again, that’s an unformed thought, but worthy of further discussion. And it might look like, still look like capitalism, but less like corporatism that we have today.
So those are my thoughts on Augustinian liberalism. We’ve gathered other scholars to offer their thoughts on these issues. You can read about in the current issue of Providence, and you’ll hear from [inaudible] in just a second, but I do urge you to spend some time with the magazine, because I’ve given you literally about ten minutes on what Augustinianism might look like. This is worth volumes and volumes and hours and hours of discussion. So please do pick up the magazine and [inaudible]. Thank you.
Jonathan Leeman: Thanks, [inaudible]. Mark, thank you also for inviting me to participate in this time and contribute to the magazine. My response to the question, “Jonathan, would you own the label ‘Augustinian liberal?’” was to say, “well, I’d change the noun. I’ll be a liberal Augustinian.” So I make the case for that in there. I’m not going to so much talk about that now. I’m going to sort of spend most of my time talking about the thing that he dismissed in two or three seconds, two or three sentences—kind of this enlightenment foundation that informs our liberalism. I think you’ll find Paul and I—I think we basically agree. I think we overlap. We have different emphases, however. And we—he kind of talks about these things; I sort of talk about those things.
I’m not—the question that was posed to us was, “Is Christianity compatible with liberal democracy?” And I’m going to kind of highlight the question of liberalism and focus on classical liberalism—philosophical liberalism as such—and then come back in the end to the question of democratic institutions. So I will conclude there.
Is Christianity compatible with philosophical liberalism? And here think, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson. I think the answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no. It just depends. So insofar as the principles of philosophical liberalism simply regurgitate Biblical truth, well then yes. Are all people created equal? Well, that’s Bible, yes. Has the creator endowed them with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? I would argue that’s Biblical, yes. That every human being, every Adam and Eve, possesses a kind of executive authority—John Locke’s word—over themselves and whatever is within their dominion. I would say that’s Bible. That’s chapter 1, verse 28. That the government possesses coercive authority not to aggrandize itself, but to protect the dignity and honor of every human being. Again, Bible. That government does not possess the ability or authority to coerce worship, having neither the authority or competence or ability to do so. You mean something like freedom of worship. Yes, that is Bible. So insofar as philosophical liberalism regurgitates Bible, yes, it’s certainly compatible.
Yet here’s the challenge. Philosophical liberalism was arguably born out of the enlightenment and, like the enlightenment epistemologies that preceded it, sought to establish itself by non-sectarian truths, universally accessible foundations that everyone—no matter their religion—could assent to. It’s sort of like, “we’ve had enough of these wars of religion. Can we just find common ground that we can all agree on and build our principles of justice from there—on these things that we’re not going to fight over?” And the early classical liberals appealed to the natural law sometimes, sometimes to human reason. And this common ground instinct within philosophical liberalism comprises a crucial part of its DNA. It’s like, that’s what it’s for. It’s for finding that common ground on which we can establish our rules of justice and precisely here is where we find the tensions within the system—the tensions even inside its foundational documents.
Declaration of Independence: all men endowed by their Creator with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Okay, so we have rights given to us by God, and justice is demonstrated in protecting these rights. Great! Good so far. A couple lines later, however, governments derive their just powers, Jefferson continues, from the consent of the governed. So, just powers come from our consent, which is to say, anything not from my consent is, in fact, unjust. Really? Well, what about Romans 13, and the fact that all governing authority comes from God, not just consented-to authority? So right here, I propose, just two lines apart in our country’s foundational document, you have this tension that’s bedeviled philosophical liberalism ever since.
Now I’m happy to say that such-and-such particular government, as a matter of historical description, established and formed itself in this time, in this place, by the consent of the actors involved. That’s a fine historical claim. But to then say, as a moral claim, that that government’s powers are only just because they’ve been consented to—well, that’s something different. That’s a different kind of claim. And I would say the Bible says, “no, that’s not true.” Philosophical liberalism’s insistence on always finding common ground arguments does lead us to say, “yes, it’s only just if we all consent to it.” You might agree with liberal democracy right now, but that’s not Christianity; it’s something different.
And it’s right here inside this tension that we find the seed of philosophical liberalism’s impulse—and here’s the larger claim that you might struggle a little bit with, Paul—the seed within philosophical liberalism to abandon the truths of Christianity. After all, belief in this Creator who has supposedly endowed us with certain unalienable rights is not really a part of the common ground that’s requisite in establishing the roles of justice. God, by one other name or another, is not a part of a common ground.
The social contract depends upon points of agreement. You can make a contract with somebody. You can say, “I agree to pay you this, and you’ll give me that in response,” or “I’ll give you a contract where we’re agreeing on these things.” God, whatever you name him, isn’t part of the agreement. I mean, that’s just the point, right? Thomas Jefferson: “I don’t care if a man has twenty gods, no gods, one god, three gods, as long as he doesn’t break my legs or pick my pocket.” God is not a part of the social contract. You believe in him; I don’t; that’s fine. We can still have these universal principles of equality, freedom, and personal rights, right? Well then, great! Now we can still agree to respect one another’s consciences and call it religious freedom, right? Like, you respect my conscience; I’ll respect yours.
But does this work? In a virtuous society, it works great, said Washington and Adams. But what about in an unvirtuous, irreligious society? Well, Washington and Adams both warned us against their system of government in such a society. They turned out, I think, to be pretty accurate prophets there. So what happens when an unvirtuous people employ that freedom of conscience not only to defend religion, but to kill their unborn children? “Men and women of good conscience can disagree about the woman’s right to choose,” says Planned Parenthood versus Casey a few sentences before the infamous “mystery of the universe” line. In other words, sexual freedom is religious freedom in a pagan culture. That’s precisely what I saw a liberal Christian arguing on twitter the other day: “We need to protect the right to abortion and my ability to have sex with whoever I please as a matter of religious freedom.” Because if religious freedom is protecting my conscience, that’s what my conscience is telling me, and who are you to say otherwise, according to your conscience? There’s no backbone. There’s no other principle to come into the system and say, “well, no, no, no, no, back”—at least within the lexicon, the vocabulary, of philosophical liberalism. That make sense? Who gets to define rights, freedom, equality? Well, what about the right to an abortion? What about the freedom to define one’s own gender? What about marriage equality? And if not, why not? Like, why does your version of freedom, not version of freedom, get to be the one that counts? Your version of equality and not my version of equality, rights, and so forth?
The truth of the matter is, Christianity doesn’t simply affirm rights, freedom, and equality; it affirms a just rights, a just freedom, and a just equality. Okay, who gets to define justice? Well when your society is divided between Anglicans and Presbyterians and Baptists and Catholics and a few Jews and maybe some Unitarians as it was—and deists—as it was in 1776, our ideas of justice pretty much converge. And that convergence between our different views of justice based on our views of God is what, in many ways, is doing the real work. But when we’re divided as a society between atheists and agnostics and born-agains and secular progressives and spiritual-but-not-religious folk and nones and Muslims and stock brokers and hockey players, those views of justice are vastly different, divergent. And the words “rights,” “equality,” and “freedom,” I might say, are effectively functioning like Trojan horses hiding inside of our different views of justice, which is to say, different gods. Define those words for us.
Refusal to acknowledge as much slants the public square to the idolater and the secularist. He’s able to sneak in his carved wooden idol into the public square. It goes right through that metal detector. My big-“G” God, however, because he has a name, like a revolver sets off the alarms. So he can bring his god, but I can’t bring my God [inaudible]. And insofar as philosophical liberalism removes God from the contract, biblically speaking, I think it does lay the seeds of its own destruction. Listen to these verses, which are part of the source of the government’s right to employ a course of force, which is right at the heart of its authority. Genesis 9:5-6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for man was made in God’s own image.”
In other words, the equality and dignity of all human beings is grounded in the fact that we are made in the God’s image. And it’s the mandate to protect the image of God which is the foundation for, the grounds upon which, a government pursues justice. So if the nation denies God, you can expect that pretty soon that nation will simply veer towards injustice. It doesn’t have a grounds anymore—the fact that we’re made in God’s image—well, what are we? What is human? Well, we’re lumps of clay to be molded and fashioned however anybody wants with them. So does philosophical liberalism—is it compatible with Christianity? Well, it kind of depends on who’s holding that gun. Who’s holding the reins of government in that society? What kind of people are they?
I promised I would conclude with word about democracy, the institutional mechanism. Volkersdorf, Angus Volkersdorf has argued that Christians have good reason to support a liberal political structure—the things that Paul talked about—even if we disavow liberal political theory. He says the theory and the structure can be distinguished, and one can support liberal democracy without being a liberal theorist. And he then roots his own view of individual rights, not from the enlightenment, but all the way back in Genesis 9:5-6. And I think Volkersdorf is pointing us in the right direction.
I think, ordinarily, democratic institutions are better ones for fulfilling Biblical criteria, Biblical principles, or Augustinian principles, as it were. I might say that even democracy could be said to rest on top of Biblical principles, such as the equality of all people. I would say it’s a wise means for putting the principle of equality into practice. I would agree with—how’d he put it? What’d he say—Churchill said it’s the best of what we’ve seen so far.
Yes, I am demoting it ever so slightly. It is not the law of God. God is out to pursue justice and righteousness through any number of mechanisms. You’re not sinning by living in a—under a monarchy. Nor is that monarch necessarily sinning as such. Nonetheless, as a matter of wisdom, yes, I absolutely [inaudible] that democracy and its various mechanisms is ordinarily most wise. There it is.
Jennifer Marshall: Well thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to respond to Paul and Jonathan here. I am not a contributor to the print version of this, so I—but I do commend it to you. And there are two other authors who are not with us tonight, John Owen and Andrew Walker. Together it makes a very nice suite of pieces. And you see some of the contrasting perspectives in the print here tonight. So I’m honored to be able to respond here.
And I want to begin where Paul Miller begins the print edition with two excellent observations. The first is the Churchill quote that’s already been referred to here today, that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” And the second is the question, “What is liberalism?” And this is critically important. This has already come out in the presentations this evening. Because I do not think—for all the swirling debate around the criticism of liberalism—I do not think we have specified this aspect of it well enough. And it’s come out in the distinction between liberal institutions and liberal theory. The critics of liberalism do not want to give up the rule of law or the separation of powers or the freedom and dignity of human beings. But they have questions about the philosophy behind it. And you’ve seen that—the contours of that debate here this evening.
What I want to say is, “nothing can remove from us the hard work of stewarding those ideas as we have inherited them.” And that means many of the classical aspects of those ideas that Jonathan referred to, that we would quickly aspire to, and many of the challenging aspects that have been amalgamated into them over the centuries. We have to deal with the debate that we’ve been given and do our best to bring about principles and practices in our society that reflect the truths of our Christian faith and most specifically, for the purposes of this colloquium, as exhibited by Augustine. He gives us some very good principles to start with, and I’d like to begin in referring to some of that.
Patrick Deneen has been referenced here as being one of the leading critics of liberalism right now, and he’s specifically concerned about the liberal ideas of—how liberal ideas have changed our understanding of what it means to be human and our ideas about liberty. So, for instance, he’s particularly concerned that liberal politics is based on the lowest common denominator of interest, rather that pressing us and helping us as human beings to aspire to virtue. Well this concern about the focus on self-interest I don’t think should be a surprise to readers of The City of God. One of the main ideas in Augustine’s massive work is self-love, and how we as humans are afflicted with this, how the citizens of the city of man are afflicted with this, and how that affects our social order. The libido dominandi, that desire to dominate, is characteristic of man’s city in Augustine’s work. So this is a major component that we have to deal with, and, from an Augustinian perspective, a realistic assessment of human nature and society requires us to take stock of the self-interested characteristics of human nature when it comes to structuring a government.
Now there’s an aspect of this current debate about liberalism that seems to be characterized by disenchantment, that’s prone to disengagement, that’s prone to retreat, and at odds with a sense of engagement with the world as it’s been given to us, that we must remain committed to dealing with. And this reminds me of an episode in The City of God which Paul brings out in his piece in the written—in the print version. Throughout The City of God, Augustine is using Cicero’s De Republica as a kind of foil for what he wants to talk about and observe about the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. And in telling about the demise of the Roman Republic, Cicero recounts how the great general and statesman Scipio defined a commonwealth as a people united in a common sense of right and a community of interest, in other words, existing only where there was sound and just government. Well, that’s a high-minded and idealistic account of society based on a version of justice. And Augustine wants to challenge that. By Scipio’s definition, according to Augustine, the Roman commonwealth never existed. Following Scipio’s logic, where justice doesn’t exist, you don’t have a community. So Augustine proposes an alternative definition to Scipio’s. Augustine defines a commonwealth as a people united by common objects of love. And he goes on to say, “the better the objects of this agreement, the better the people. The worse the objects of this love, the worse the people.” So for all the noble virtue represented by Scipio and other heroes of Rome, Scipio prescribes for an end that cannot be reached through human means, seeking to hold up the Roman Republic as the model of justice for human society. By contrast, Augustine wants to point us to the city of God as a model of a truly just society, and where we achieve true peace. The earthly civil society ought to reflect that heavenly civil society in its justice and peace, but it will never achieve it. “True justice,” Augustine says, “is only be found in that commonwealth whose founder and ruler is Christ.” While the earthly city cannot know true peace, it can enjoy relative peace, and the city of God shares and interest in that peace for its own ultimate end, while acknowledging that human society will always fall short of such ideals.
Well, critics of liberalism disagree on whether it represents a substantive account of the good. Is liberalism problematic because it does not have agreement on what the good is? Or is liberalism problematic because it very well does have a substantive account of the good, and it’s a deficient account that does not do justice to what human beings are—made in the image of God? Well Deneen’s critique is along the latter lines. Liberalism has broken out of political and economic bounds and seeks to promote a comprehensive idea of the good in which autonomous human beings define their own ends, atomized from social bonds, deracinated from nature. The problem with liberalism, he argues, is that the greatest good is the radical freedom of self-determination.
Well, Augustine would agree—he would agree to the extent that, yes, every political system is a battle of loves. Jonathan makes this point well in his piece. Our political desires are defined by our loves, and our liberal society conveys certain things about human beings, and about the nature and purpose of what it means to be human. Our task, then, is to debate those premises and those conclusions and seek to persuade others of a better grounding for those ideas.
So what would be characteristic of an Augustinian disposition towards liberalism? Well, I want to glean a number of things from the authors that wrote in Providence about this, and reading in The City of God. First of all, we would have sober judgment and realistic assessment about people made in the image of God and prone to sin. Second, we would have sober judgment about a society made up of such people, which would result in humility about our political expectations. This is the constrained view that Paul talks about in his piece.
We would third deal with the reality—the fact that the city of God and city of man that Augustine describes are two non-overlapping cities defined by their loves. This means we’re always in the midst of a competing vision of the good. There are these visions of the good vying for our allegiance in the public square today. Jonathan really does a great job of illustrating this in his piece. What’s inherent here is that this implies that working out a consensus about what the good is is a permanent feature of human existence. I think this is what it means, when we read Augustine, to say that we are by nature political. We are working out, and trying to—it is descriptive of human society that we are going to be debating about loves and by practice working on a consensus about them. So that may something that would be interesting to engage.
Fourth, Augustine’s critique of Scipio’s understanding of the just society should temper overly idealistic notions. His proposal of a more realistic definition of the political community joined by common objects of affection and defined by better and worse loves should keep us from a sort of idealistic perfectionism that could—might make us quickly disenchanted and disengaged. We have no choice but to be engaged with the reality that is presented to us and do our best to bring this conversation to reflect the principles that we know to be true about the way that God has created the world for its flourishing. We must avoid any cynicism that would lurk at the edges of this debate.
Fifth, politics is about rightly pursuing a proximate good. This is something we take from Augustine’s City of God. He is putting forward for us a political vision that is directed towards the right objects of our love, rightly pursuing that, with a rightly ordered love. Augustine praised the Romans for their civic virtues, their heroic martial virtues, but he said they neglected others, and they did not know a serious sense of peace because of the neglect of other virtues. Humility was a neglected virtue. So there was a disordered love in the Roman society that Augustine critiques. So having the right objects of love, pursuing them with the right-ordered love, and directing that love towards the right truths—that is, we cannot achieve true justice and peace this side of the eschaton. Therefore, we must have tempered expectations for the political sphere.
Well, let me close with some ideas about defending liberalism. I’m going to, for the sake of the conversation here, define—characterize liberalism as political freedom, equal dignity of persons reflected in certain individual rights, the rule of law involving the equal treatment of individuals and respect for pre-political and private institutions, the free market, and consensus in decision making through representation. Each of these ideas is susceptible to multiple interpretations and applications, leading to the kinds of problems that Deneen and others have rightly criticized. These are, very much today, influenced by progressivism and its concepts. It’s reloading, reforming, and refashioning these ideas in our public discourse. So there is no way around the hard work of arguing for a sound understanding of each of these concepts. Retreating from liberalism will not solve the problem for us. We still must debate the goods that human society is created for, and there’s no point, I don’t think, in getting around that. So, for example, we as Christians need to inform questions like, “why equality before the law? Where does it come from?” The Christian account of human being made in the image of God and the Augustinian insights with respect to human nature are deeply relevant here. In particular, we need to be concerned about cultivating right reason and formation in the areas of anthropology, the nature and purpose of human beings, created male and female, made for each other in marriage and society. We need to make sure we are cultivating virtue for the good life and for the common good in political society, including respect for social institutions that inculcate virtue, such as the family and the church. We need to focus on defining a vision of the good, including the common good.
Let me just make this observation before concluding: people hold ideas, and people often hold ideas with a great deal of syncretism. The liberalism which critics today are decrying is an amalgam of many centuries and accretion of progressivism and other kinds of political philosophy. So ideas are not static, nor do they have their own agency. Ideas are always at the mercy of people with competing loves, as Augustine would say. The Christian, particularly the Augustinian Christian, should be about the work of commending the right objects and right ordering of our loves. Augustine shows us an example of a moral assessment of the simple life in terms of better and worse loves. Oliver O’Donovan observes that Augustine’s political ideas propose a major transvaluation rather than a transformation of society. That’s the—assumes the prevailing social structures around him, and he then argues for Christians, to quote O’Donovan, “to superimpose another meaning on them.” So faced with the challenge of critics of liberalism today, this Augustinian template gives us the basis for refining the basis of the liberalism handed down to us. An Augustinian liberalism of this sort can temper the aspirations of idealists, purge the cynicism of realists, and call back the quietists to public life. Thank you.
Tooley: Thank you, Jennifer. Three very strong and rich presentations. If everyone—the three of you, anyway—would come forward and sit up here, and perhaps if there are any responses among the three of you to each other first… Do the three of you have comments that you would like to direct to each other before we go to the audience for questions and comments?
Miller: My only comment is that we should publish her [inaudible].
Tooley: Yes, definitely, next issue. Well, if that that’s the case, then questions and comments from the audience? Yes, Bob.
Audience Question #1: If I may—oh, sorry, should I wait for the mic?
Tooley: If you would get your name and affiliation.
Audience Question #1: Bob Ryan leading the Westminster Institute. Thank you, all three of you, for those wonderful remarks. I would simply say in respect to the remark that there is a tension between the principle in the Declaration of Independence, that the just powers of the government are derived from the consent of the government—that there’s some tension between that remark and Christianity—is something that no one in the Founding generation or, indeed, in generations before them would recognize. They certainly didn’t think there was any tension. In fact, they would see a complete concordance because that early principle had been repeatedly enunciated, for instance, by Thomas Aquinas, by Richard Hooker, by the greatest opponents to the teaching of the divine right of kings like Francisco Suarez or Roberto Bellarmine, and after them by Algernon Sidney. They all—all—said this. The question was never that all political authority didn’t come from God. They all acknowledged, of course it came form God. The question was whether, unmediated, it was invested in a ruler…[recording frozen].
Leeman: …It doesn’t mean difference from mediation as such. It simply says “just powers derive from the consent of the governed.” That’s what it says. And I would claim that that’s in contradiction to what Paul says, when he says “there is no authority except from God, and those that have been instituted have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed.” The Biblical text in no place says it must be mediated by human consent. I doesn’t say that, I would contest, anywhere. And if people leading up to that moment in history and at that moment in history thought otherwise, I would simply disagree with them. I would say they gave us a system that works in a moral society and shows itself to be what it is in an immoral society—a prudential device that works sometimes, and sometimes doesn’t.
Marshall: May I respond to that?
Marshall: So the authorities as established—this goes to the importance of the institution of constitutional government, right? That the authority established in this age, in this locale, this political society that we are in—that authority is a constitutional government established by consent. You made this point, I think, when you were saying—
Leeman: As a matter of historical description.
Leeman: Not of moral necessity.
Marshall: Fair enough, but because Romans 13 goes to “those authorities that have been instituted,” and that constitutional order has instituted. So I think there’s a transitive property of moral—
Leeman: No, I mean, God is free to use human consent for establishing a government, and at that moment he says “that is mine.” Now John Locke in his first treatise is responding to Robert Filmer, who was making an argument for divine right as such. And Locke is responding by saying, we understand authority comes from God, but how do we know that is just in any given circumstance? And that’s where he comes up with his contract—and he’s borrowing from others—his contractualist views that consent—and therefore keeping a promise—is then the foundation of good government. And that’s why I would say—in that argument, I go with Locke a ways, but I don’t go all the way with him. I think he diverges where he makes it a moral necessity. That’s the mistake, right there. He moves from prudence—this is a good way of doing it—to a moral necessity. At that point, he’s speaking the law of God; he’s claiming a kind of divine writ, and saying justice depends necessarily on consent—human consent. I would say you’re going further than Scripture and you’re trying to speak equal to God on that. I don’t think that’s how it works.
Audience Question #2: I had a question for the second speaker. You claim that the liberal concept of freedom of worship, personal autonomy, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are Biblical concepts. In Deuteronomy and 2 Chronicles, God commands that those who worship other gods be put to death. Romans 1:32 reaffirms this command. How do you justify this liberal concept of natural rights in light of what the Bible teaches?
Leeman: Those two examples from the Old Testament you mentioned I think are exclusive to the nation state of Israel and God’s unique, Mosaic covenant with them at that time in history. I don’t understand that all of the laws given to Israel—in some sense, any of the laws given to Israel—translate directly to us today. They’re all fulfilled by the law of Christ, and we have to understand things through the new covenant. And the church-state arrangement, if you can put it like that, in Chronicles—and what was the other one?—Deuteronomy, I think those are for Israel. I mean, there’s laws against blasphemy, right? Stone to death the son who—or the daughter—wife who—would lead you after other gods. You know, that was given to them, not to us.
Audience Question #3: Hello, my name is Steven Taft. I’m a graduate of Georgetown here and Trinity College, Dublin. So looking at the grand sweep of Christian history, I mean, we all agree that the height of secular political authority of Christianity was of course the medieval era or the late Roman era. You know, the era of divine right monarchies, and so if there’s any regime out there that was ever profoundly Christian, at least in a sense of who was in charge, it was monarchy. Now obviously as we get into modern times, liberalism takes over, and the more democratic things get, essentially the less Christian they get in terms of overt Christian authority. Now, it seems to me the liberals make a very difficult case for us to fight back against when they point out that, whenever Christians were in charge, they sure weren’t acting very Christian, even according to our own standards here in this room. That’s why most of us would probably be reluctant to endorse monarchy, at least the nature that it existed back then. And so, the liberals then point out, if you’re never very Christian when Christians are in charge—and in fact we’re better at being Christian than you are—then maybe what you’re really talking about with Christianity is a, kind of, psychological human rights thing, and your religion could, you know, kind of literally go to hell, and, you know, we’ll better at doing what you want than you are. So how do we fight that? How do we respond to the idea that Christianity for Christianity’s own sake has to be, kind of, outmoded?
Miller: I would start by disputing some of the history that you defined. The suggestion is that, in olden times and during Christendom, it was Christians who came up with this idea of the divine right of kings and so it seems more consistent with Christianity to advocate for monarchy. Later, it was liberalism and secularism that [inaudible]. I just don’t think that’s true, right? The divine right of kings was not a Christian idea. It was not a medieval concept; it was an early modern concept advocated by kings in the 16th and 17th centuries who wanted to increase their authoritarianism and break free from the strictures they were under during the middle ages. The separation of church from state authority is a deeply Christian concept going back to “render unto Caesar,” right, and going straight through the Middle Ages as the popes wanted to keep separate their authority from the kings. And the kings chafed against that; they were the ones who wanted to increase their jurisdiction at the expense of the church. It was Christians who limited the state and said, “no, no, no, there’s actually limits to what you’re allowed to do.” So I would say that, actually, Christianity has very ample, long history and good resources for placing limits on the state. That’s the seed of the good kind of liberalism: limits on the state.
Tooley: Susanna, you’ve got a question?
Audience Question #4: Hey, I had a question for Mr. Marshall. You talked about not wanting to revive a sort of organic politics, a totalized and perfected politics along the lines of a Greek polis, and especially not to try to import that in this kind of kludgy, not-very-elegant way onto the modern nation state, and I think you’re right about that. But then, I’m just not sure what Augustine or what we should think about what we can, in fact, then hope for from nations, from nation states. Or from, I guess, polises if we wanted to give that a shot. Because obviously we’re not saying that—we know where the church is, and we know where we are ultimately going, so we’re not trying to immanetize the eschaton in that sense, because we’re counting on Jesus to do that. But we also don’t want to, like, aim to low, in a way. The parallel, it seems to me, is with marriage. If marriage is meant to be a picture of the final, you know, marriage supper of the lamb, it’s true that we don’t want to try to immanetize the eschaton in our marriages—with our spouses. But we also don’t want to say, like, Christian marriage should be just like—can’t be a true vision of that. So is there a way that we could say that a Christian polis could be a true vision of the New Jerusalem in a way that a pagan polis, or maybe a liberal polis, couldn’t? And I don’t know answer to that, but it seems that I don’t want to give too much ground.
Miller: Yeah, so I think that Augustine would say that there is no true justice in our—in the city of man. And yet, the governments of the world—the secular polities are still charged—they’re commissioned to do justice. And yes, we should absolutely aim for justice, understanding we will never achieve perfect justice. We will never immanetize the eschaton. That’s, I think, how I’d phrase it. So yes, we should advocate for justice in the public square. We should work to do good, to do justice. And I have some [inaudible] colleagues [inaudible] who work around government, have worked in government, or work in government to keep doing it, right? We are all blessed by the rough approximation of justice that we experience in this country. Praise God for that. [inaudible] Augustine says that Christians should—we have overlapping interests with the city of man, right? Insofar as the city of man does achieve that rough justice, it creates order we’re blessed by, peace that we’re blessed by, and peace during which we can evangelize; we can spread the gospel. We can enjoy it and use it, so exploit the peace of the city of man to evangelize. So that’s, I think, what our aspiration can be. You suggested that maybe could our secular polities be—you didn’t use this word, but—an icon. Yep.
Audience Question #4: Exactly.
Miller: I’d be pretty wary of looking to a secular polity to be an icon of the kingdom of God. Once again—and, Jon, feel free to jump in here—I think that’s probably what the church should be. The church should be that icon, that picture of the kingdom of God that displays God’s glory. It’s a different kind of polity, but that’s on purpose. It’s the type of life Jesus set up. And if there’s a gathering of people who are capable—right, through the Holy Spirit—of being that image of God’s kingdom, it’s the church; it’s not the state.
Tooley: Before I forget, I want to thank Pastor Mark Dever in the back and the staff here at Capitol Baptist for hosting us here this evening. It’s a wonderful venue, and we’re very grateful. Thank you all. Yes, I’m sorry; right there. If you could identify yourself.
Audience Question #5: Yeah, Steve Aaron. My question is more about the premise of the question. The purpose of the question—the point of the question is around Christianity. And as you said, all governing authority comes from God. And as Christians we generally believe that all actions are governed by God. Every action, every suffering, every trial, every everything—from God. So, I’m more confused about why we’re asking a question about how liberalism or a certain form of government is compatible with Christianity when all governing authority comes from God. It would seem that every governing authority would be compatible with Christianity because Christianity says, you are under the authority of God.
Leeman: All governing authority comes from God as a matter of divine authorization. God establishes—in two senses, I think, we can say all authority comes from God. One, he, in his secret will, ordains—I’m speaking as a Calvinist, right—ordains in this time, in this place, this will acts. So we could say in that sense, but we could also say in the moral sense of: God has given authority to these governments to execute and pursue justice, to reward the good and punish the bad. He has authorized them to do that; in that sense, the authority they possess isn’t coming from human beings saying, “yes, you govern us,” though as a matter of historical fact that may be the case. Morally, they possess authority because God says, “you have the authority to do that.”
That is not to say that anything and everything a government does is just or moral or right. In the same way we might say that a parent has authority from God, but that doesn’t mean a parent can’t wrongfully or sinfully abuse their children. Of course they can. We might even say different parenting styles are wiser and less wise, more just and unjust. Well, I think, in the same way, we would say certain structures of government tend to be more just, and others tend to be less just. So, I think the question, “is Christianity compatible with liberalism,” is a response to, number one, a number of critics out there right now kind of saying, “no it’s not,” inside of this historical moment where there are these deepening culture wars—I would even consider, religious wars—we’re all experiencing. And the language for those wars is very often the language of liberalism: rights, freedom, equality. Except now those guns are kind of being turned at us as Christians. That’s what raises the question. Helpful?
Audience Question #5: Sure.
Tooley: Yes, here in the front row.
Audience Question #6: Hi, my name’s Cameron [inaudible]. I’d like to address the first speaker’s point about the origins of divine right. [inaudible] divine right developed extensively after—well, during and after—the enlightenment. I think the idea dates back far further in the empiric sense, if we talk about monarchs having a right to rule as given by God, by their birth, that idea actually goes back further. I’d even argue that it goes back before Christianity to the time of ancient Israel and the times of lots of pagan kingdoms. That being said, I think we can see it quite clearly in the Byzantine era—the empire and the relationship between the empire and the church was written down, especially in Justinian’s Law. My point I wanted to raise was that, I felt, from the question as a whole, is that Christianity—the main thing that unites all Christians is that we have a shared belief of Scripture. But beyond that, the different sects of Christianity find very different interpretations about what Scripture means. And I think the majority of Christians who conform to very Catholic and Orthodox churches—there’s not that same level of compatibility between modern liberalism, or classical liberalism even, and Scripture. Because for us Scripture would be determined by what the church has said Scripture means, and for the longest period of time, the church has held that Scripture speaks of authority coming from God to kings only and not necessarily through elected governments. St. John [inaudible] actually said that heaven is a monarchy whilst hell is a democracy. And I think that’s a belief that many Christians of the Orthodox and Catholic persuasions would have to stand by. And I suppose for me, the question is more, can Christianity survive a liberal democracy rather than, can Christianity be compatible with it.
Miller: By the way, that’s why C. S. Lewis didn’t believe in democracy. He made the argument that, yes, the kingdom of heaven is a monarchy, and so our polities should mirror that in some sense. He said he was [inaudible]. How do I put this? The argument we’re making is not a historical argument, that Christians have always secretly been democrats. That’s not what we’re saying. It’s that, in this day and age in which we find ourselves—we find ourselves living in a liberal polity, with some troubles and challenges in it—what should our stance be as Christians? And we’re responding to this critique out there saying, “we need to reject liberalism.” And my argument is, “no, actually, there are resources within Christianity to support a version of this, and actually recognize there’s some real goodness here.” And maybe—and this is maybe where I’ll go out on a limb and say historical—maybe we actually do have some better insight into political theology than our ancestors like [inaudible]. Because the Christian monarchy of past ages [inaudible]. So that’s kind of the argument I’m making. It’s not—maybe we’re talking past one another—does that make sense? But I’m happy to talk further afterwards.
Marshall: Mark, can I mention something? I think the last couple of questions have underscored the significance of having this question in a concrete time and place. And we are having this conversation—it is a moral conversation for us, one that implies responsibility for us, because we live in a self-governing society. So we are not here as armchair philosophers; we are here as people trying to steward our citizenship well. I hope that’s why you’re here as well. And that means, how would we understand what it means to be a Christian in this day and age, and what our responsibilities are with regards to citizenship.
So it begins by thinking, if we are social and political by nature, if we are relational, made in the image of God, politics—government proper—is simply one aspect of how we order our lives together as human beings, relational beings, made in the image of God. And if politics is a question of how we order our live together, then what do we as Christians—what are the insights that we have to bring to that? There are many, aren’t they? Because we claim—the Bible that we profess our faith in is telling us about how God has made the world for its good, for its flourishing. How common grace, the creation ordinances, the institutions of marriage and the church and these things in society that precede the state. These are aspects of what we want to call on all people to recognize as important and good for the welfare of the city as a whole. So, understanding those modes, of channels, of having these conversations as Christians with the wider society that may not share our presuppositions but can begin to engage in those things, I think is an important part of this. Maintaining a posture of moral responsibility is, I think, the most significant reason why Providence sponsored this conversation.
Tooley: Let me share before we go forward that there are rumors that a group will be going to [inaudible] afterwards, and I can’t vouch for the quality of that crowd, but if you’d like to join them, I’m sure they would welcome your joining there. It’s about a ten-minute walk away, so just let us know if you plan on coming to that. Yes, Doug.
Audience Question #7: Thank you. Thank you, [inaudible]. Doug Burton. So these were fabulous presentations. I would like to ask the presenters if you could speak to the topic of the magazine that you write for, Providence, because I love history and I’m aware I don’t know that much about [inaudible] but suspect that he was a great mediator in his time with two vast armies—the Aryan army of the Vandals in North Africa who stopped after the sack of Rome and later the stop of Attila the Hun and his armies of non-Christians. So he was very important politically in his day and I think he could see that the providence of Christianity was on the ascent at the time he was the bishop in North Africa. However, I would like to ask you a question about today’s phenomenon. And I’m interested in providence. We currently like in an age when I think the Christian consensus is no longer operative. I think one of the ironies of the Supreme Court nomination hearings which we’ve been watching the last six weeks is that the Supreme Court decision would be based upon a decision on an allegation about behavior that somebody was involved in when he was a prep school student at a famous [inaudible] prep school. And what I’d like you to respond to if you can is, do you see the advance of providence in the United States or the appositive historical outcome in view of the fact that Christianity seems to be less influential than it was fifty years ago, 100 years ago, 200 years ago. There’s a new book that I’m interested in—I haven’t read it yet—by Michelle [inaudible] that argues that, in today’s politics, a person’s political affiliation is far more primary and influential than his or her religious faith. In fact, religious faith is determined by political decisions, just interested in [inaudible].
Tooley: For anyone in particular?
Audience Question #7: For whoever wants to jump in.
Miller: Providence—well, all things work for the good of those who love God. Providence is and will be to the return of King Jesus at the great day. As for America, I don’t know. In other words, I have affection for the United States: I’m a citizen; I served in the armed forces; I’m a veteran [inaudible]. So I hope and pray for the best, and I’ve worked and spent the best years of my life working for the best days, but I don’t know, in God’s good providence, he intends with this particular polity. But as we know, in the grand scheme, there’s more important things.
Marshall: What you describe may be descriptively true, but we couldn’t assess that it’s prescriptively true. In other words, it may be true that Christianity has less influence today than it did in past generations; that does not mean it will always be so. And particularly for those who believe in the movement of the Holy Spirit, we should not consign history to any outcome like that. I think Augustine, for his purposes, was very much convinced that there were—you know, he was ministering in a time of Christian ascendancy and then of Christian decline. The conversion of the emperor just a few generations before he came to ministry—and Christians who were—Eusebius and other Christian historians were predicting the inevitable progress of Christianity through history. That came to a crashing halt with the fall of Rome and so on, and the latter years of Augustine’s ministry were certainly a much different outlook. But Augustine himself thought that we would see God’s providence at work in various ways throughout history. And sometimes that would be seen in sort of good and positive welfare of the church, and sometimes that would mean hardships. So I think we should expect the same. But back to the—we can answer these kinds of questions as pundits, trying to predict what will come, or we can advocate for them as stewards, as morally responsible for acting in the circumstance that we live in.
Leeman: And just to kind of—going off of that—I mean—this was there in your remarks earlier as well. We were talking about this instinct to withdraw, how that’s not a proper instinct. In some ways, I don’t think it matters if things are getting better or worse because a Christian’s job is the same and a Christian’s confidence is the same. And that instinct to withdraw and be discouraged and panic sort of indicates a quiet utopianism that was there in the first place that shouldn’t have been there in the first place—as if we could bring heaven to earth now, right? And we know that sometimes things will get better, and sometimes things get worse. I think many people who criticize, for instance, the Benedict Option—and I was sympathetic with the points of the Benedict Option—the idea that Christians should build up their own groups in society—schools, okay, great—churches, great. What was underneath that whole book—my perception—was the, sort of, utopian assumption that things should be getting better in the first place. “We’ve got to fight, we’ve got to do something, we’ve got to regroup, to help them get better.” And if we’re called to be ambassadors for King Jesus, we do that whether things, again, are better or worse. We’re not called to withdraw; we’re not called to dominate; we’re called to represent—whether the skies are cloudy or clear. That’s what we’re called to do… [inaudible]
Audience Question #8: …what do they see as good, what their positions see as good. And that’s such a passionate pursuit of justice that is in contrast to the reality of evil. We know evil is there, and I think about Edmund Burke when he said, you know, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men and women to do nothing—that’s a paraphrase. But when I think about that, I think, okay, as Christians, we do have authority, we do have a sovereign God. At what point, as Christians who are somehow involved in a political capacity, public policy whatever, what point do we rebel? At what point in the face of evil do we rebel? And I’m not talking about pursuing justice as we all do here, but I mean like, at what point do we say, 60 million babies is enough? At what point do we say criminal injustice is enough? You know—yeah, that’s my question.
Miller: [inaudible] ask me again in about three years, after I finish the book I’m writing on just war theory. That’s the short answer. What I’m in right now—what I’m chewing on right now—I reserve the right to revise these remarks—is that, if there is a right to rebel, I don’t think I’m comfortable saying is sort of a unique, Christian right. It’s a—it would be a general right for people suffering under extraordinary injustice. The way the just war writers write about this—Vitorius, [inaudible], Tertullian—when the sovereign has become the enemy of the body politic—that’s what they say. When the sovereign is acting as an armed opponent of the people—that would be the extreme condition under which the right to rebel is justified. Again, that’s just what I’m reading right now in just war literature; ask me again in a couple years.
Leeman: I would say something very similar but in a different way. I understand the government will never establish perfect justice, nor is it intended to by God. It has a very limited range of what it’s called to do. And I think we find the basis for that in Genesis 9:5-6, where it says whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall—for man was made in God’s own image. We talked about that earlier. In other words, the justice government is called to establish is simply kind of a life-preserving, order-establishing, peace-giving affirmation of human beings as created in God’s image. We can have debates about how far one goes with that and so forth, and what’s required for that final [inaudible]. We can have that conversation.
The question you want to ask is—here’s an easy one: is Hitler subject to Genesis 9:5-6, right? Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for man is made in God’s own image. Is Hitler over that or under that? I think we would all say he’s under that. In other words, that authorization given there—right there in Genesis 9 boomerangs back at that moment—at some moment—to, I think, indict Hitler, such that, personally, I would argue, that not only was Bonhoeffer free to pursue his assassination, given his resources and opportunity, he, in fact, was morally constrained to do so, and should have done so.
A student—I was speaking at a university earlier today on some of these things, and a student asked me, “well, what about the American revolution? Was that a just attempt to overthrow the government?” Well, to make the argument that it was just, you’d have to argue that, in some sense, what Paul is saying, that the British crown and its taxes was somehow hurting the body politic such that it was a great injustice along the lines of Genesis 9:5-6, and in that sense, boomeranged back, and it was a legitimate thing to do to overthrow that government. That’s where, I think, you would have to make the argument to try to make a Biblical appeal for the matter.
Tooley: We’re getting down to the final minutes, so someone who hasn’t asked a question. My friend back here in the back.
Audience Question #9: Hey, Tommy Shepherd. Building on this idea that we should not ask the state to do things—we should not ask the government to fulfill the role of finding personal fulfillment or personal meaning—that we should not ask the government to fulfill the role that belongs to Christ, that belongs to the church. I just wonder, what the—where do you find national unity? By the way, I agree wholeheartedly with that; I agree with the idea that you see people on both the right and the left who are asking the government to do things that the government is simply not equipped to do, that the government should not be asked to do. But then I would also ask, what is the glue that brings national unity? What is it that you hold in a diverse society—when you have a society of people who have identities with different things, a society of people have different ideologies and different views? What makes it one society? What brings about internal cohesion within the United States or any other government? And how should Christians advocate for internal cohesion, which I assume we would agree is a good thing and a desirable thing, without at the same time advocating for the state to assume a role that it is not equipped, I confidently assume [inaudible]? How do we—how do we advocate for a society [inaudible] government without at the same time advocating for that government to become an idol?
Miller: Yeah, so your question if I interpret it—is kind of, what’s the difference between patriotism and nationalism, right? Because, I think I agree at some point with patriotism that some degree of affection and attachment to our own political community is a good thing, and part of this is it’s good to have affection for your own home. So a patriot is one who serves his country, but a nationalist is one who seeks competitive prestige for [inaudible]. Instead of saying, “I love my own,” you’re saying, “mine is the best, instead of yours, and you better recognize that.” And so that’s the distinction I draw. In the American context, I think it’s perfectly fine to talk about, you know [inaudible], civic nationalism, founding our community on the ideals of the American experiment as a good way to go about it. And to the extent that we can recover some of our national holidays, to use that pageantry to bring attention to the ideals of the American experiment, and treat it as a theatrical enactment that helps attach our emotions to the ideals—that’s a really good thing, and that’s a way to foster that national unity. I’d be all in favor of that. That’s not a [inaudible].
Marshall: And let’s advocate for government to be respectful to those things that came before it—to respect life, to respect the institution of marriage, to respect the church, and so on—not out of parochial or special interest concern, but because this is the way that the world flourishes. And a government that we want to have a right self-concept needs to respect those pre-political and primary institutions.
Tooley: Probably have time for maybe two more questions. Sir.
Audience Question #10: [inaudible] I’m [inaudible], I’m and adjunct professor of philosophy and work in the State Department. But let me go back to the issue of consent and authority. [inaudible] I found your comments about that switch, that turn, in the Declaration of Independence, where you talked about government deriving its authority from the consent of the governed. I’m sympathetic with that. I think that is a problem, and what I wanted to suggest is that deriving the authority from something is simply achieving effective authority of a people, and if one wanted to put a good gloss, or revisionist’s interpretation on that switch in the Declaration of Independence, one might say that it’s up to us to recognize that it’s not imposed—that the authority doesn’t impose its own authority, but it gets recognized by the people. And this takes the issue of consent. And I’m sorry I don’t know your names, but the woman on the panel I think made a good point about reaching consensus on a good. And I think it’s the difference between reaching consensus about the good, which is not about something out there, rather than what we as individuals might want, and taking stock of that very quickly to establish, you know, policy is just the point. And that, I think, is perhaps among the institutions of a democratic polity that the—I’m going in the direction of liberty and democracy that leads to deliberation. Which is the deliberation not with a poll of the aggregate, but an effort to reach consensus about what’s good for all of us based on some sense. So I would like your thoughts on [inaudible].
Leeman: Yeah, sure. I think that’s—I do think that’s a somewhat enlightenment view of authority. Max Vega, when he’s talking about defining authority, says authority is not authority unless it’s consented to—unless it’s recognized as such. I don’t think that’s a Biblical view of authority. I think, for it to be effective, in many instances, yes, it needs to be recognized as such, but I don’t think authority given by God needs to be recognized in order for it to have moral legitimacy. So what is authority? Authority is not just power. It’s the moral right to exercise power, right? And I think in that sense when God says, “you have a moral right to exercise that power over these people in these circumstances,” then that power—that moral right, rather—exists, again whether it’s recognized or not as such. Now enlightenment thinkers aren’t thinking about it in those terms. I don’t know if that answers the question you’re posing.
Audience Question #10: Well it’s recognized. The state is recognized itself.
Leeman: That moral recognition does not give moral legitimacy as such. And again, going back to Jefferson’s statement, it says “just powers are derived from,” and—going back to the other—the earlier gentleman’s comments—something I—I continue to reflect on it—as a Baptist, the Baptists loved that. You know, Isaac Backus and others—they utterly agreed with that. So I think we dissenting Protestants—we’re like—we’re right there, and they thought that seems like a good thing. If I can say, I think that was mistaken I don’t think authority depends—governing authority depends on the consent, the assent, the—whatever have you—recognition of those who are governed.
Audience Question #10: But we hear the Gospel. The Gospel is put before us, of course. It’s not Good News because we accept it, but it’s there for us to accept.
Leeman: Right, but that Gospel, if we reject it, is still—is the grounds of our judgment.
Audience Question #10: I dis—I think we’re [inaudible], I’m saying it becomes effective and it’s up to us when the authority is presented by itself nonetheless to recognize that as—to recognize the good news that is the Gospel—so to recognize authority when it’s there. And then the consent becomes a way of doing that [inaudible] that it’s not taking a poll [inaudible] that’s what the Quakers talk about this prayer for preaching the collective judgements on what’s bad and what’s good.
Tooley: Alright, that’s the conclusion of our evening. Please give applause to our
Photo Credit: Audience members wave flags from the National Mall during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, DC, on Jan. 21, 2013. US Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Mark Fayloga.