What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:9-12)
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…. (Romans 5:12)
I suppose you could say that I truly became aware of and interested in politics in my mid-twenties. While in hindsight I had some very fine civics and history teachers in high school (one of whom it turns out must have been some sort of super-conservative because she had us read this book on media bias), after high school my intense focus on music studies left time for little other reading besides some fairly light fiction and devotional works until after I finished my graduate degrees. With somewhat more free time came broader interests, including reading on history, biography, politics, and economics. Today’s post is a brief and rather simplified version of my thoughts in these areas. Regular readers will not be surprised that my religious views are more than incidental to my thoughts here; the relevance of the verses above will become clear shortly.
As a young conservative Christian I always voted Republican. Although I fancied myself at least a fairly thoughtful individual, my voting this way was almost reflexive, as I assumed that people with beliefs like mine were supposed to vote that way. While I was beginning to understand that people that shared my interests in the arts tended to vote Democrat largely (though by no means solely or even mainly) because of the Left’s usually greater support for public arts funding, to me conservative social policies were more important. Nevertheless, after voting for George W. Bush the second time I began to question the apparent predilection for endless war among neoconservatives. I still held conservative views on social and moral issues, but began to wonder if there were other options, ones which shared my social conservatism but which weren’t interested in endless war, or in continually spending the country into increasing debt. I dabbled with libertarianism for some time, admiring it from a fiscal point of view as well as with regard its disdain for excessive regulation, but eventually decided that true libertarianism went too far in eliminating government programs and functions that bettered society, and can be all over the map with regard to social and moral concerns. I sometimes wondered if a more robust federal apparatus like the Democrats favor would work well if it were directed toward more conservative policies, something like the type of government Carl Trueman wishes for here. That sounds good at first, but one soon realizes that a northern European-style socialist state, even if somehow paired with social conservatism, will eventually crash under its own weight financially.
I eventually came to understand that one must consider political and social policies upon not one but two axes. The pairings of smaller government/social conservatism and larger government/social liberalism are not inevitable, though they are often presented as such in American political discourse. Even as a committed social conservative, I must also decide where I lie between the extremes of statism and libertarianism, the former believing the greatest good to be achieved when a robust state apparatus has an active role in people’s lives, and the latter believing that it is only in the voluntary interactions of individuals and groups that the most good is achieved, with the state taking a very minimal role. As I have considered these extremes, it has become evident to me that both fail for the same reason, which brings me back to the verses that I quoted at the beginning of this article as well as many others throughout scripture.
If what the Bible tells us about human nature is true, then human society is entirely populated by sinners, people whose natural impulses are not directed toward that which is good, true, and beautiful, but rather are directed toward that which is selfish at best and evil at worst. Sure, we are not as bad as we can be—societal laws and mores, the vestiges of conscience, and even divine restraint prevent us from being so—but as a rule people do not act for the good of others, but for their own self-interest. Libertarianism seems to hold that allowing people to freely pursue their self-interests with little or no state restraint will result in the greatest good for all parties. If people were inherently good, I would agree, but we are not, and will act in ways that are dishonest, exploitative, and destructive in the absence of external restraint. We are sinners, and God has ordained government to be a restraint upon those tendencies (cf. Romans 13), though, granted, not the only such restraint.
That God has ordained government for our good should not, however, be taken as an endorsement of statism, where the government influences even the most minute details of people’s lives and interactions. Just as the autonomous actors that libertarianism so prizes are sinners, so are all the people that populate human governments. To believe that government will always act in society’s best interest is incredibly naïve, and evidence of elected officials using the influence of their offices to further enrich or empower themselves is plentiful for those who are willing to look. Even the best magistrates are still sinners, and to entrust them with increasing and unchecked powers over the lives of individuals is foolish. Certainly the twentieth century showed us the murderous potential of an all-consuming state apparatus.
So what is the solution? A form of government which is sufficient to restrain the sinful tendencies of individuals on the one hand, and of the government itself on the other. Something with plenty of checks and balances, and with primacy given to local governments which will be better able and more motivated to respond to the needs of their constituents than a distant bureaucracy. This government would not be purely statist or libertarian by the standards I have outlined here, and could move closer to either extreme depending upon the issue at hand and the desires of the populace in a given location. Such a government would not necessarily need to be a representative one, but a system something like the United States was intended to be (before decades of increasing federal overreach) certainly fits the bill. Did America’s founders come up with a perfect government? No, and such is not achievable in this life. But one could do far worse in constructing a government that reproves evil while rewarding good (cf. Romans 13:3), while we wait for the One who will one day govern with perfect peace, righteousness, and equity.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)
Perhaps to the disdain of die-hard Americans, the perfect government that Christ will one day inaugurate will be a monarchy, but one in which the King is perfect, holy, just, and good. Until he comes our calling is to do our best in the present imperfect world to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty….” In my opinion that will be best achieved in a system that avoids the two extremes of absolute state control and absolute individual freedom, promoting ordered liberty which placing in check the selfish, sinful tendencies of both citizens and magistrates.
And so does that mean I vote Republican, Democratic, or third-party? Yes, depending on which one is best in a given circumstance, and always preferring those candidates who understand the responsibilities and limitations of government, particularly at the federal level.