Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Government and Idolatry

In the news of late, we are once again hearing some people claim that the church is guilty of idolatry with respect to the state. They usually mean by this, either that Christians have substituted a belief that by taking over and operating the state they can in some way further the kingdom of God or they mean that Christians have come to think that the interests of the United States as identical to the interests of the kingdom of God. Both of those ideas would be wrong. The state does not have the power to further the kingdom of God in any significant way. As Luther said, the state’s interests and powers concern external actions and the disposition of earthly property. The government cannot change people’s hearts even though it frequently tries through education. While education can change some of the things people believe, it cannot eliminate sin or make people sinless. Good education can, however, help people be good citizens. Bad education can certainly make people worse citizens. But ideally, education should be the province of the church and the family rather than of the state, since the state does not properly concern itself with eternal things, and education must deal with God and the eternal as a central focus. (See the blog article for August 19th, the Key to Knowledge.)

There probably are some people who actually do have the mistaken belief that the interests of the United States and of government are in some way tied up with the kingdom of God. But I don’t think that there are nearly as many of these people as those who complain about this form of idolatry actually believe. Most Christians who are interested in an involvement in government (lets call them CPs for Christian Patriots) do not believe that government is the end all or that it can achieve terribly significant things. CPs are mostly interested in keeping the government from encouraging evil. CPs are also concerned about the arrogance of the managerial burrocratic elite, who, falsely, believe they can plan and manage society better than free people making their own choices under the rule of law. In addition, CPs do not see an identity between the interests of the kingdom of God and the interests of the United States. They want the United States to be on God’s side. They are eager to use the United States for the interests of the kingdom of God, but they recognize that there is a difference.

There is also another kind of state-idolatry that is not spoken of so often. This is the idolatry that says that the state is in some way an autonomous being that runs itself and is outside of the citizen’s influence or control. People who subscribe to this form of idolatry (let’s call them SAs for State Abstainers) discourage Christians from being involved in the state because SAs believe that such involvement is ultimately a waste of time since government will do whatever government will do; and what government will do is undoubtedly always going to be bad. SAs treat government as if it were a force of nature with a mind of its own outside of the will of any group or set of individual human beings. This is surely attributing to government far more than is actually the case. Government is not an autonomous body that runs by itself. It is a collection of individuals who have responsibility and commitments to society as a whole, to the groups and parties which they sympathize with, and to the individuals of society. In a republic like our own, we can, in fact, influence government. Whether we admit it or not, we are the government. Government is influenced by our voting, by our letters, petitions, emails and phone calls. It is influenced when we run for office or when we work as a government employee. Government is influenced by all of the people who are engaged in the business of government. Because government is ultimately made up of people and people listen to other people, government is ultimately influenceable. While the political process may seem mysterious to some, it is entirely possible for a well-organized and articulate minority of people to convince others to elect their candidates. Government is not some implacable and mysterious force that moves on its own. To think that it is is really a form of idolatry, turning the government into some kind of god rather than recognizing it as merely a label for collective human action in accord with various institutions, principles and ordinations.

Ironically, the CPs usually want government to be smaller because they recognize that government does not have the power to solve social problems or to undo the effects of the fall.. By contrast, the SAs who idolize government by thinking it is an autonomous beast frequently have the belief that government can and should solve the problems of war, poverty, disability, sickness, alienation, unhappiness and every other effect of human sin. It is ironic that those who want us to stay out of government think that government can solve our problems, while those who think that Christians should be involved in government frequently want to be involved to prevent government from tampering with every aspect of life.

CPs often hope human law will provide support for public morality instead of giving the “government seal of approval” to activities and lifestyles rejected by scripture. In doing this they seek to make the government God’s servant. But the SAs usually expect the government to allow abortion, cloning, homosexual marriage, polyamoury etc. SAs often say things like “if only we could get past the abortion issue, we could get on with the real business of government.” The same people, SAa, often see the existence of poverty or the mass marketing of unhealthy foods, or the failure of businesses in the free market as problems government should tackle with a vengeance despite government’s inadequacy for such fallen world conditions. If today’s SAs lived in 1840 would they have been saying “if only we could get off the issue of slavery and do something to stop these terrible rail roads cutting up the countryside” or not? Government should have just laws that reflect moral realities even though it cannot forbid all vice or require all virtue.

Of course the truth is that while government cannot solve all problems it needs to be involved in exercising the rule of law to reward those who are doing good and punish those who are doing evil. Government cannot successfully plan the economy or change human nature. It can stop criminal activity and stay out of the way of people’s productivity. Government can make sure that businessmen play fair instead of engaging in fraud and predatory practices. Government can deter and punish violent crime, fraud and theft. Government can outlaw and guard against the most vicious forms of immorality that are expressed publicly through public actions. Government can deter or fine those whose acts disregard public health and public safety. Government can fight to defend people from the armies of tyrants and the bombs of terrorists. Government can work for justice even if it cannot fully achieve justice. But to do what government can do well it needs the involvement of wise people of good character – it needs the involvement of well discipled and educated Christians. Government needs Christians who know the limits and the value of good government. We should not place faith in government as an infallible guide to the good, but we also must not place faith in government to run itself. Support for the state should never be worship. But the vocation of statecraft should never be neglected. Otherwise we may really end up with a state that thinks it is god.

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