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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Christianity, Conservatism and the State

Dec 30, 2013

There are all sorts of good reasons why Christians should gravitate toward the more conservative side of politics, economics, and social thought. The case for the compatibility of the two I have tried to make elsewhere, as in these four articles:

billmuehlenberg.com/2010/08/24/what-is-conservatism/
billmuehlenberg.com/2011/12/27/conservatism-libertarianism-and-christianity/ billmuehlenberg.com/2007/01/05/conservatism-and-liberalism-christianity-and-secularism/
billmuehlenberg.com/2007/09/13/religion-and-the-political-spectrum/

Here I want to focus on just one major emphasis of conservatism, and show why it fits in with biblical Christianity. I refer to the importance of limited or small government. Entire libraries have been written on this, but a few remarks can be made here nonetheless.

We have all heard the saying of Lord Acton: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And we have recent history to show us unequivocally just how true this is. The thirst for power is unquenchable, and when the State is allowed to become increasingly powerful, we all suffer.

Of course none of this should surprise the biblical Christian. We know that sin corrupts, and the desire for power is one chief way in which sin manifests itself. But Christians are not anarchists, for we realise that it was God who ordained the use of government to keep evil in check.

So governments per se are not evil, but big governments with no checks and balances can always become grossly evil. God’s preferred means of governance begins with the individual. We are meant to exercise self-government over ourselves.

Then smaller units of governance, such as the family and the church, are also institutions in which authority is exercised. The state is another place of authority, but it must not usurp the other forms of authority. But that all too often happens, with expanding government subsuming and taking over the roles of authority God gave to the church, the family, and to individuals.

America’s Founding Fathers for example were fully aware of these truths, and worked very hard to ensure that the new republic was prevented from ceding too much power to a centralised government. They did all they could to ensure that power was diffused and kept from being concentrated in the hands of a few.

Just a handful of quotes from these men – almost all of whom were Christians – show how concerned they were about this and how dedicated they were to keeping government in check:

“When a people shall have become incapable of governing themselves, and fit for a master, it is of little consequence from what quarter he comes.” George Washington

“Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” George Washington

“Most bad government has grown out of too much government.” Thomas Jefferson

“A government big enough to give you everything you want, is big enough to take away everything you have.” Thomas Jefferson

“The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people; it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government – lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.” Patrick Henry

“If we will not be governed by God, we must be governed by tyrants.” William Penn

“Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” Thomas Paine

“Resistance to tyranny becomes the Christian and social duty of each individual. … Continue steadfast and, with a proper sense of your dependence on God, nobly defend those rights which heaven gave, and no man ought to take from us.” John Hancock

And the power of the unlimited State to do anything it wants is, as I already mentioned, the greatest source of evil in contemporary society. Millions were killed last century by big government – of which Communism was a specialist in. Indeed, as Daniel J. Mitchell reminds us in a recent article, “The Biggest Risk Factor Leading to Premature Death Is…?”

He writes, “Nope, the answer isn’t smoking. Or fatty food. Or 16 oz. sodas. And it’s not alcohol, driving too fast, or standing between politicians and a TV camera. . . . In the past 100 years or so, the biggest cause of premature death has been government.”

He continues, “This doesn’t mean, by the way, that I think all governments are equally evil. I wouldn’t even make the claim that there’s a link between big government and democide (though that’s probably true given the track record of National Socialists in Germany and Soviet Socialists in China and the Soviet Union).

“Instead, I’ll simply regurgitate some of what I wrote back in August: Be thankful that there are some libertarians willing to raise a stink about government even if the rest of the world thinks we’re a bit odd. As we’ve seen dozens of times, most recently with the IRS and NSA, bureaucrats and politicians have a compulsive tendency to grab more power and make government more intrusive.

“I’ll end today’s post by mentioning the fable of the frog that gets put in a pot of water and doesn’t jump out because the temperature feels comfortable. But then the heat is slowly raised and the frog no longer has the energy to escape when he finally figures out he’s being cooked. Well, libertarians are the ones who loudly complain when the government puts us into pots. In other words, governments are less likely to do really awful things if there are some of us fighting when they do mildly bad things.”

Big Government and unbridled Statism is a threat to all of us. It certainly is a threat to religious freedom. The bigger the state grows, the more it wants all other contenders to authority to be silenced. The Christian church is one of the greatest obstacles to this, which is why the church is usually the first to go when tyrannies emerge. Just think of how the faith fared under the Bolsheviks.

So Christians of all people should be greatly concerned about runaway state power. Believers recognise that there is a legitimate place for state power, but only a limited and constrained power. The freedom to worship, to evangelise, and to enjoy freedom of conscience are all tremendous goods which Christians should champion.

That means we should resist the moves by the state to take upon itself more and more power. Christians are not anarchists, but we should be fully supportive of those political systems which recognise the corrupting effects of state power.

As the State in the West gets more and more powerful, with more and more restrictions on Christianity, the conflict looks likely to worsen in days ahead. But better to take a stand now while we still have a voice, than to wait until it is too late.

Let me finish with a few more quotes, this time from some contemporary thinkers:

“For the Left, politics is the way to transform the world; for conservatives, politics is primarily the way to stop the Left from doing so.” Dennis Prager

“Individual liberty exists in inverse proportion to the size of the state. The bigger the government/state, the less liberty the individual has. The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.” Dennis Prager

“The bigger the Big Government, the smaller everything else.” Mark Steyn

“Americans face a choice; you can rediscover the animating principles of the American idea – limited government, a self-reliant citizenry, and the opportunities to exploit your talents to the fullest – or you can join most of the rest of the western world in terminal decline.” Mark Steyn

“In politics, the great non sequitur of our time is that (1) things are not right and that (2) the government should make them right.” Thomas Sowell

“The vision on which the all-encompassing and all-controlling welfare state was built is a vision of widespread helplessness, requiring ever more expanding big government.” Thomas Sowell

“No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.” Ronald Reagan

“The most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’.” Ronald Reagan

finance.townhall.com/columnists/danieljmitchell/2013/12/29/settled-science-the-biggest-risk-factor-leading-to-premature-death-isgovernment-n1769447

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15 Responses to Christianity, Conservatism and the State

  • I said the following a few years ago in response to guy deluding himself about how gay marriage would have no appreciable affect on our society.
    ======================================================================
    “It is the latest component in a national suicide that began in earnest in the 1960’s. It HAS AND IS having an appreciable effect. A devastating suicidal one. This country was built on the social/political/economic foundation of very limited public government through privately and voluntarily practiced Judeo-Christian morality.

    Oh yes it was. Our founders clearly told us that. “The reason we can give you so few rules boys n girls is because you’re already so well behaved on the whole” to paraphrase in a nutshell. Even the total hypocritical pagans like Jefferson and Franklin clearly understood this.

    The soil out of which new citizens grow is their family or lack thereof. Every single last issue killing this country is a direct consequence of that. The founders assumed that we would continue in the new testament model of one man and one woman for life wherein boundaries that engender self sacrifice, self control, decency, modesty and HONESTY in the act of upholding one’s vows because one’s word actually meant something. All of this was predicated upon the assumption that God designed it that way. That was the soil for new citizens they absolutely counted on for their experiment in self government to succeed and it did.

    We skyrocketed into the most prosperous, powerful, feared and respected nation in all of human history over the course of a few generations BECAUSE despite our many foibles we were the most moral because we were the most Christian. Look at the soil our citizens are growing in now. Children of the hippies. Hedonistic, self obsessed, narcissistic, materialistic whores whose mission in life is bringing themselves the most pleasure in the most rapid fashion possible.

    ALL the economic woes we are now in ARE, make no mistake, the consequence of the sexually moral degeneration of this nation’s citizenry resulting in the destruction of the foundational social unit upon which she was built and out of which her members are spawned.

    We will destroy OURSELVES to the snickering glee of our many enemies without a shot being fired, all in the name of sexual libertinism. Gay marriage is just the latest and most perverse chapter. “

  • ‘Conservatism’ – if defined as the principle of maintaining the status quo – is actually a danger to the Christian ethos. We want to improve human society, especially its people, its marriages, its relationships etc. I wonder if there is any advantage in Christians being called ‘radically conservative progressives’ in that light?

  • Thanks Geoffrey. Umm, no, not quite. You better read a few of the articles I link to above to see what conservatism really means. For example in my first article I present 6 points offered by Kirk: That is quite different from what you are claiming:

    One. Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.

    Two. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.

    Three. Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a ‘classless society.’ With reason, conservatives often have been called ‘the party of order’.

    Four. Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress.

    Five. Faith in prescription and distrust of ‘sophisters, calculators, and economists’ who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.

    Six. Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress.

  • In today’s Australian George Brandis wrote, “Human rights are not something given to us by governments, let alone by international organisations or by judges. And while the modern jurisprudence of human rights may owe its origin to to the 1948 declaration [of Human Rights], the declaration is not the source of those rights. Almost two centuries earlier, the founders of the American republic understood better than a whole faculty of of human rights lawyers that

    … human rights are innate, not vouchsafed by laws; that the greatest of all the rights is to live in freedom and pursue happiness in one’s own way; that governments are created by free people to secure their rights, not to decide what their rights shall be.”

    Well said, Mr Brandis.

  • I`m not sure big government is the problem, it`s government that expands it`s bureaucrats by 30% like K-Rudd, filling position with leftwingers (much like what has happened in the media, especially the ABC). What we require is only Godly government, which is why wise Christians should be involved in politics. We need to have the right gardeners, strong enough to show where boarders are and courageous enough to pull the weeds. Good article Bill.

  • Hi Bill,

    As you set out here, ‘conservative’ is a word that covers a multitude of ideas. That’s why I applied my suggestion only to the way I defined it. The World Book Dictionary agrees: “Inclination to keep things as they are or were in the past”. Yes, there are other connotations. However, I don’t want this aspect of my political activity to define me, especially as the things that are now in place in society – acceptance of abortion etc. – are things I oppose and want to change. Read in this light, I am happy to call myself a ‘radically conservative progressive’ or a ‘radically progressive conservative’ too! I want to keep the things that are good from God’s viewpoint and make the institutions and principles He established to flourish, and not be restricted to the ‘traditions’ of the past – whatever they are! I believe there are advantages in such a position.

    Regards!
    Geoffrey

  • Thanks again Geoffrey. But a mere dictionary definition hardly does any justice to the issue at hand – namely, conservatism as a political and social theory. If you would actually read my articles you would find that conservatives are not interested in merely maintaining the status quo or keeping things as they are. They are interested in retaining things which are worth retaining, and allowing for careful and slow change where otherwise needed. Thus we rightly want to retain things like the traditional definition of marriage; we want to retain the importance of churches and other mediating structures between the all powerful state and the naked individual. These are worthwhile things to preserve, and have full biblical warrant as well.

    You are confusing all this with other things, such as wanting to transform lives – all Christians want to do this of course. And when societies go off the rails, and lose their Christian foundations, then of course we are radicals in the sense of wanting to go back to the root –to regain what we have lost. But we are not at all interested in the radical remaking of society a la some secular utopian plan.

    But there are basic and longstanding meanings of these terms, and changing them and making things up as we go along does not help the debate all that much to be honest. The same with the term ‘progressives’ today. This also has a particular and deliberate meaning: leftist radicals who want to remake society in their own socialist image.

    So I think it wise that we stick with terms as they have historically always been meant. Making up new meanings simply confuses the debate and results in a lack of clarity and certainty in what we are trying to discuss.

  • “A government big enough to give you everything you want, is big enough to take away everything you have.” Thomas Jefferson was actually said by President Ford, and not Jefferson.
    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Thomas_Jefferson#Misattributed

  • Bill: I am concerned that we politically active Christians get labelled ‘conservative’ when – while we might share aspects of belief with political conservatives – our reasons and philosophy behind what we do are not primarily connected to the idea that Christians should maintain ‘tradition’ or the ‘status quo’. I note that Russel Kirk’s features of ‘conservatism’ are also ‘moot’ points. Wikipedia is closer to the mark when it says: “The term, historically associated with right-wing politics, has since been used to describe a wide range of views. There is no single set of policies that are universally regarded as conservative, because the meaning of conservatism depends on what is considered traditional in a given place and time. Thus conservatives from different parts of the world—each upholding their respective traditions—may disagree on a wide range of issues.”

    I did not intend what I wrote as a ‘thus says the Lord’, but put it up for debate as a possible way to put more distance between ‘Christian’ and ‘conservative’. As an example, take the reason why we Christians want to preserve and prosper marriage. It is not because marriage is our tradition therefore we should keep it, but that God created marriage for our good, and its goodness can be verified by secular research. I want to keep marriage – and make it better – because of that. This makes me ‘radical’ in that I go to the root of the reality of marriage; it makes me ‘progressive’ in that I want it to be done better by everyone, because it is part of God’s plan to bless mankind; and I aim to conserve it for those reasons. ‘Conservative’ is too sapid a description of Christian aims in the public sphere – at least in my mind!

    Lastly, I had not read the article, so you are right on that. Mind you, it’s not that I do not understand what ‘conservatism is: I was never going to comment on your article anyway. I wanted to offer the take on ‘conservatism’ to see what you and others thought. Was that a ‘no-no’?

    Regards!
    Geoffrey

  • Thanks again Geoffrey. I don’t have the slightest problem in being known as a Christian and a conservative. As a non-Christian I was a radical lefty. Becoming a Christian made me reassess, and I find the biblical worldview most compatible with the conservative side of political and social theory. If that is not your cup of tea, then fine.

    I have already dealt with the terminology issue. Sadly you still rely on things rather unreliable – now Wikipedia. It is the original sources I am concerned with here, and which I discuss in detail in my articles. And I have recommended that you read these articles for the simple reason so that I don’t have to needlessly repeat myself here. Since you have not read those earlier pieces, your comments tend to go astray, and are not really dealing at all with what I have been saying all along.

    And the focus of this article is the issue of Statism. I think it is clear that biblical Christians must resist Statism. If you think otherwise, that is again your prerogative.

    But if you dislike all this, that is fine, but I will not much spend much time here debating it, since I did so at length elsewhere. Bless ya.

  • Yes, Bill, you are right to argue about conservatism as a movement or philosophy and a point of your article is that it is closer to the Christian ideal than the alternatives.
    The word conservative, as I believe Geoff points out, in non-political context, does not describe the Christian ideal.
    The Christian ideal, is in fact, radical and hardly conservative at all in the non-political sense.
    Sadly, the church and Christians have become conservative in this sense, with little zeal for spreading our radical message!
    I think also, that the definition of (political) conservatism given, is maybe idealistic and not how it works in practice. How many of our conservative politicians hold no religious beliefs, for instance?

    Tim

  • Thanks Tim. Yes I was simply trying to avoid the logical fallacy of equivocation here (using a word or phrase in two different senses, or with two or more meanings). Terms like conservatism or progressivism have long-held clearly defined and established meanings when applied to political and social theory. So changing those terms midstream is unhelpful.

    But sure, the terms can have quite different meanings or connotations elsewhere, and then we can all agree with statements such as: “We should be radical followers of Jesus” etc. But this article was all about the spectrum of political ideology and where Christianity may best align itself, specifically in regards to the dangers of Big Government.

    As to the issue of politicians and their faith, as I have stated in the articles I link to above, generally speaking, leftism and secularism tend to go together, while rightism and religion tend to go together. Sure, there are plenty of exceptions, but there tend to be more Christians amongst the US Republicans for example (or Liberals/Nationals here) than amongst the Democrats (or Labor politicians here). And religious conservatives tend to be political conservatives, while religious lefties tend to be political lefties. But all that I discuss in much more detail in my other articles.

  • Until forty years ago the Christian consensus operated across the whole of Australia’s political spectrum. As you said Bill there are more Christians on the conservative side in Australia, just like the US scene. However even now some LNP politicians seem to compartmentalise their faith. I think of the values that underpinned the conservative parties here:
    -The individual has personal responsibility, but as Schaeffer said there is freedom within the form of law.
    -community action and support
    -adherence to the law
    -support of the established institutions – from marriage to charities.
    As Jesus said the poor you have with you – that was a directive for churches and Christians to practise what they are meant to preach, not to grab hold of a political agenda, whether it be of the Right or the Left that places society ahead of God

  • Bill,

    I wonder if you have read “Geeks for Monarchy: The Rise of the Neoreactionaries”, which discusses modern monarchists, who wish to turn back the clock to before the French Revolution, and oppose representative democracy altogether, favouring instead limited absolute monarchy.

    Australia, owing to its uniquely large supply of flat land for housing families, is probably unique in the potential for universal-suffrage democracy to produce a limited government, because there is less envy of the wealth of the majority in these condition.

    What is your view of monarchists who argue democracy is not compatible with natural law, Bill?

  • Thanks Julien. But in some ways it is not my debate. While I live here in Australia, I of course hail from America where we dealt with this issue long ago! So I have not really spent much time on this particular debate.

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