A Christian View of Government (1988), by Sean Gabb

A Christian View of Government
by Sean Gabb

DURING her nine years as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher has seen many changes in our political life. She has seen party leaders come and go. She has seen entire parties borne wax great and die. She has seen her country transformed from the Sick Man of Europe to something approaching the Marvel of the World. One thing, however, in all this time she has been able to rely on. This has been the hostility of the Churches. We cannot, in England, boast anyone so colourful as the late Fr Camillo Torres.[1] But we do have the Bishop of Durham, who has turned up on more than one picket line, and whose view of the Government is neither temperate nor discreet. And we have the authors of Faith in the City.[2], a work in which half a decade of sighing and complaining was distilled into 386 pages – and which may itself be distilled into the statement "[there is an] inevitable tendency of the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer unless some constraint is imposed to limit the freedom of individuals to profit without restraint from a market economy".[3]

To this clerical sniping the Prime Minister has finally responded. Speaking last week[4] to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, she declared that "[a]ny set of social and economic arrangements which is not founded on an acceptance of individual responsibility will do nothing but harm. We are all responsible for our actions….We cannot delegate the exercise of mercy and generosity to others".[5] The reaction was predictably cold. Roy Hattersley called her speech "disgraceful".[6] The Scottish Church agreed: it will not be inviting her back.[7] To the Bishop of Manchester, her emphasis on individual responsibility was no less than a "distortion of the Christian Bible".[8] And, since one may almost hear the massed flutter of pages being turned to give substance to this claim, now seems as good a time as any to examine for ourselves what scheme of politics is most compatible with our religion. What are the true Christian principles of government?

Now, it may be asked what religion has to do with politics. Many do ask it, and seem to think it a clever question. But the answer is simple and obvious. The two always have been popularly connected, and probably always will be: and the sway that religion has over the mind is such that the closest watch must be kept on what less spiritual notions are identified with it. Kingship, for example, may be defended on various grounds. None was firmer, though, than the old belief in Divine Right. Made into dogmas, or just given a religious colourings political and economic opinions have always to some extent been shielded from the often dissolving touch of reason. In the past, when religion seemed on the whole a declining force, it scarcely mattered what came down from the pulpit. Today, it does matter. No rational person wants to be governed by rulers not only wrong but wrong by Divine Mandate; nor, to keep in the present, be stuffed every Sunday with bad politics decked out as the Word of God. Our question is therefore entirely proper, and the first place to seek an answer is the Bible.

Of course, we exclude from our search the books of the Old Testament. For, though as much the inspired Word of God as the books of the New, they cannot be seen as binding on the Christian. A rather stern political theory can be deduced from the Old Law; but, unless by Jews, only with much inconsistency. We eat pork[9], and sometimes hare[10] and swan.[11] We wear clothes of mixed fibre.[12] We are uncircumcised.[13] Yet, these ones ignored, why obey the other commands? Why put blasphemers to death[14]? or persecute idolatry[15]? or live under a theocratic oligarchy?.[16] But of greater force than this is that the Old Law stands abolished. The "Council of Jerusalem"[17] resolved that Gentile converts need only "abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood".[18] "We conclude" since then "that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law".[19]

We turn then to the New Testament alone for guidance. Yet we find none – or none, at least, justifying a very active state. We find a complete code of personal morality, but scarcely a word on the duties of government. We are told "thou shalt love thy neighbour"[20], but not to make him love his. We are told "go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor"[21], but not to give away anyone else's. The injunctions of the New Testament are wholly personals binding each soul directly, and not through any human coercive medium. On the state, we have the text "Render…unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's".[22] Christ here approved the paying of taxes, but gave no rule on their level or use. Or we have the text "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation".[23] Whether this contradicts our first, or is qualified by it, it again says nothing of what the powers should do. Efforts have been made, by selective quotation or wholesale allegorisation, to find guidance. But the results have not been entirely happy. For the greater part, it has given free rein to fanatics or the unlettered to force on us whatever nonsense took their current fancy. In any case, the Bible is surely to be read with humanity and common sense, and not as a set of crossword clues.

If therefore it is silent regarding the political structure of a Christian society, it must be so from God's Deliberate Intention. It must be that, revelation being incomplete, He wishes us to use the second eye of our understanding, which is the light of reason. And so we proceed from this alone, beginning with two starting assumptions

First, there is a God, who is the supreme, benevolent Governor of the Universe. Second, He desires us, His creatures, to be good, and dispenses punishments and rewards on the basis of merit. Whether either of these is true – or, if true, can be proved – is of no account. Most Christians believe both to some degree, and our present purpose is to enquire what practical consequences follow from the belief. If, before then, however, we examine the meaning of our second assumption, we raise two important preliminary questions.

The first of these has to do with the problem of free choice. Now, there is no reason in itself to doubt that every event is predetermined, and every soul marked out from the beginning of time for salvation or damnation. But, most plainly, it contradicts our first assumption, of a benevolent God. To see this, suppose I were to train a child of mine to love starting fires, to love the act of kindling flame more than anything else in the world. Suppose then I were to hand him a box of matches and lock him into a fuel store. I could, perhaps, blame what remained of him for the ensuing explosion – just as God could damn a murderer, having been knowingly the first cause of the murder, and the murderer himself just the final link in the chain of causation. My determining influence on the child's actions must be infinitely smaller than that of God on the murderer, yet who would call me a just or loving father, except from fear of offending me? To generalise from this, careless mistakes aside, there is no action whatever we can call sinful where there is no voluntary participation. We laugh at Xerxes, who had the Hellespont scourged for washing his bridge away. Are we to say God is equally childish and arbitrary? Certainly, taking the will as free brings its own problems; but these are not ours at present. It is a necessary assumption, following on from our first.

The second question concerns what facts God takes into account when delivering His Judgement on each soul – actions or intentions? Our own earthly law, by and large, can only judge according to actions, all else being too uncertain to sway the verdict. To the Divine Court, though, nothing is uncertain. Take an example from Dr Johnson: if were to throw coins at a beggar, hoping without success to break his head, the law of the land would have to regard my action as charitable, if suspect. But, to God, my intent to commit murder – even my precise degree of resolve in the matter would be perfectly clear, and so a cognisable fact in reaching His Verdict. Hence, we can sin against Divine Law both with our bodies and in our hearts.

Yet, this being said, it seems unreasonable to claim all breaches of that law as being equally serious – a desire to commit genocide, an actual rape, an evil intention bungled and producing only good: all equal grounds for damnation. Go back, moreover, to the example of murder: if I no more than contemplate the action, I harm only my own prospects of salvation. If I make my intention actual, I also harm another soul, which I may have prevented from excelling in a life of subsequent virtue. To intend is clearly easier than to act; yet, to know myself damned already for the former, what more have I to lose by effecting the latter? The notion is plainly unreasonable, since, so far from deterring, after a very low point, it even encourages sin. Granted, anything is conceivable of God, and there may well be some divine equivalent of the English conspiracy laws. But to suppose this is again an evident contradiction of our first assumption. It seems better to accord putting our sins into an order of gravity. We might then imagine so much time in Purgatory for one kind of sin, so much for another one, and so on. Or we might instead conceive each to carry a given number of points, a sufficient number earned resulting in one's damnation. There can be no certainty on details here, but there can be little dispute whether actual sins are not judged more severely than potential ones.

So we take it that man is a creature capable of freely choosing good or evil, and is judged on how he chooses. Now, in the wild, isolated from others, our opportunities for choosing either are at best limited. Without others round us, our actions must be morally neutral for the most part, only those affecting ourselves and God counting e.g., suicides masturbation, blasphemy etc. Even those sins we could commit in our hearts would be limited by our ignorance of what sins there were to commit. However, being social by nature, this problem seldom faces us. Living in close proximity to others, we find fresh opportunities with each new day for shining in God's eyes, or not. And, insofar as our contact with others increases, so increase our opportunities, and, insofar as it is diminished, so our opportunities are diminished. Which brings us to the logical outcome of our two first assumptions. God's full sanction is reserved for those societies alone of which the members can in the greatest degree possible choose good or evil for themselves: any other is a frustration of His Plan.

It might at this point be objected that our argument, being entirely analytic, cannot prove more than is already assumed, and is therefore only a useless multiplying of words. Descartes' Cogito ergo sum may be urged in support of this. An almost indisputably true statement, its words need only be clearly understood for us to see their relationship: "I think, therefore I am". Yet, looking closer, we see the predicate as superfluous to the subject, being contained there already. Running over all the necessary conditions for thought, we come at once on existence. The statement is a tautology. But, while this is so with all non-empirical reasoning, it leaves certain kinds of it no less useful. The cause of this is the limited nature of our minds, which can usually see only the most apparent connections between ideas. Define the terms, and every person of common intelligence grasps at once that a straight line is the shortest route between two points. With a little effort, we understand that, in any right-angled triangle, the hypotenuse squared is equal to the sum of the other sides squared. But told that through a point outside a line more than one parallel may be drawn, we must then be shown every link in the chain of reasoning before giving our assent. Each of these geometrical statements is equally tautological: they differ only in complexity. What barriers we find to comprehension exist wholly within ourselves. Perhaps there are beings elsewhere in the universe who, unlike us, need no mathematics, having the same intuitive grasp of its complex truths that we have of its most basic. The same may be true of metaphysical theology. Our two assumptions already contain the whole answer to the question we asked; but our minds are too feeble to comprehend it without demonstration. We are perhaps like children who need a chair to stand on before they can see over a wall five feet high.

Granted, our conclusion above gives no new information in itself. Yet, like mathematics, it does provide the means of using that obtained elsewhere. Consider this; Whether government is institution favoured by God. Now, government in every instance involves coercion. It exists only by levying taxes, which are had from those who might well have used the money otherwise, to secure grace or damnation. It acts only by interfering with what people do, compelling some things, forbidding others. It is inevitably a hindrance to the free choice of good or evil by its subjects. But, while evidently God abhors the regulating of human action for its own sake, equally He cannot approve the possession of more freedom than is compatible with its own survival. Without some government – perhaps protecting life and property – such chaos might result that either society would dissolve, or it would fall into the hands of some tyrant, who might promise stability, but deliver somewhat more. If this were so, there would be e Christian case for government. And since both the common sense of mankind and the overwhelming balance of the philosophers believe it so, as theologians we may provisionally accept that government must exist. Moreover, letting it keep the internal peace, only a fool would deny it the means of foreign defence. Of course, the mode and degree appropriate to each nation differs, and no one kind is suitable to all. But it must be said that spending on armaments may never without sin be greater than is needed for bare defence against aggression. England needs a great navy, and, in the modern world, a great air force. Unhappily, we must also have a nuclear deterrent of sorts. But whether we need 60,000 troops constantly in Germany seems quite another matter – as is whether we need bases in Cyprus and Hong Kong. In deciding, we must think as strategists and not theologians; though we require no great depth of learning to see from our own past that having so many distant commitments is to cast a net for troubles.

We turn now from what hardly anyone contests to those functions of government which are currently most fiercely debated. We take first the state welfare system – in discussing which may be subsumed the giving of foreign aid. Has this the Divine Sanction? Many Christians would either claim so, or accept the claims of their brethren with little question. It is said that "[t]he high incidence of unemployment and other forms of deprivation obliges the State to provide compensating "benefits" to those who do not share the relative affluence of the rest".[24] Charity is a very fine and Christian virtue, and it seems only reasonable to say that want should be relieved, wherever it appears. To have plenty when others have nothing, and not to give, is to be covetous. Even to have enough is possibly sinful, when others have much less. Yet, this said, if we look more closely into the matter, we see, as above[25], a very obvious distinction between our own stripping off our surplus for giving to the poor and having the government do it for us. For what is a compulsory transfer of wealth but a double sin – firstly of theft, secondly of denying the voluntary – and, hence, true – virtue of charity? If I drop money into a collector's box, I do what I need not have – forgoing consumption for the sake of others and by act of uncompelled choice. That is charity. Put between us the tax-gatherer, and the element of free choice is at least diminished. Give me the best will in the world, and still I shall give now partly to avoid being punished. "We cannot delegate the exercise of mercy and generosity to others".[26] Perhaps, without some state-imposed system of reliefs the poor might rebel, as in some of the Greek city-states. If so, welfare taxes might justly be levied for the avoiding of a worse confiscation. This is a matter of contingent fact, for the economist and politician to investigate. Until then, we have no proper means of forming an opinion. But we can say that welfare spending is at the very most a necessary evil – and never, as many insist, an absolute good of which we may be proud. The Bishop of Durham is welcome to believe the keeping of a few meals from the bellies of the feckless poor "wicked".[27] But, in the absence of any serious revolutionary threat, he is speaking less as a man of God than as a ranting politician.

We take next the matter of personal conduct. It need hardly be said that the Christian should desire the most unfettered freedom of speech. Censorship is justified only on the grounds of avoiding a collapse into anarchy or tyranny. Perhaps racialist and pornographic writings tempt men to violence. But they do not compel it. Violence is the fault of the violent, not of anyone else. They have chosen between good and evil, and chosen wrongly. The same applies regarding homosexuality – something, it seems, never far from certain Christian minds. "Know ye not" says Paul[28], "that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind." Yet no more than common fornication should sodomy be a crime. For what would follow from making it one? Evidently, many of those inclined to sodomy would think again. Desiring to sin – and, as said above, desire alone counts as sin – yet not actively sinning, they might avoid some fraction of the torments decreed by God as punishment. But holding men from evil holds them also from good. No longer can they confront their sinful longings, fight them, and overcome them by act of will and piety alone, so gaining salvation. By strict enforcement, the law might vastly diminish sodomy; but the resulting virtue would be like that of a chaste eunuch – derived not from conquest of temptation, but its absence. If a clear connection were found between sodomy and great social disruption, the way would be open to its control or, insofar as could be done, its entire prohibition.[29] Without this excuse, though, to regulate morals, no matter how pious the intent, is to frustrate the whole purpose of society, which is to be the stage on which men act under the watchful eye of God. Any ruler ignoring this commits blasphemy. Indeed he commits worse. He will be responsible for the damnation of any souls on account of his denying their right to choose good of their own accord, desire to sin overcome. It may be said, moreover, that even the open blasphemer will find the path to Heaven more smooth than will the despotic moralist. offering temptation, he at least provokes choice, and may therefore save many who would otherwise have let themselves fall into Hell for lack of positive virtue.

Before going to our conclusion, two clarifications are needed if we are not to be misunderstood. First, Just because a law is unnecessary, or harmful, is never sufficient reason for ostentatiously breaking it – nor for trying to bring down whatever government imposed it. Every legal system that ever existed has contained laws most of us would think bad, and by which it might even be said to have failed our test of what is and what not proper grounds of coercion. Our own statute book is certainly very blemished. Look at the trade tariffs and gun control laws. Look at the laws against taking or dealing in addictive drugs, or the restrictions on shop opening hours. All these are arguably superfluous, and should probably be repealed. Nor, believing them improper beyond all common doubt, have we any strict obligation to obey such commands – which we may privately ignore as often as suits our pleasure.[30] But to say aloud to everyone that a bad law may lightly be broken is something else entirely. To make a cult of civil disobedience as a whole section of our political class appears to have done – is often only slightly less than preaching rebellion. It opens the way to a contempt of law in general, and by those least able to tell what is bad from what merely inconvenient. This is not to condemn all resistance – certainly not in cases of open tyranny. But, recalling what its effects most usually are, it remains that, no matter what their deeds or policy might be, active resistance to the authorities should normally be the very last option of the ruled. This is most obviously true in England, where, despite a century of misgovernment, we can still call think our laws and institutions on the whole sound, and can still agree to accept specific blemishes pending reform. It applies with equal force, however, abroad. For, on our principle stated and explained above, in this less than perfect world to claim the Divine Sanction, a society need only enjoy the greatest degree of freedom possible, whatever more of it could be thought desirable. And so, to any reasonable man who may consider the overthrow of a bad government, the proper question is not – as the modern intellectual might occasionally pause to ask – whether he really will be assaulting some unbearable tyranny, but to what extent his acting will result in any better state of affairs.[31] So, even by European standards, the reign of James II was quite respectably humane; yet, in seeing him go, the Whigs allowed England, if only for a while, to reach a state of freedom never before known. And that was the glory and justification of our Revolution. The Russians are not so lucky. Their existing government, admittedly, is so bad that it might once, in better days, have staggered belief. But would overthrowing it lead to anything better than renewed civil war, ending in the rule of a despot worse even than Mr Gorbachev? Probably not. Much the same might be argued of South Africa and most of the other countries certain foolish people enjoy being seen to condemn.

We turn to our second clarification. From what we have so far said, it may seem as though a disturbing paradox has been raised. Going on from our assumptions, we conclude that the most perfectly Christian society could also be the most ungodly. There need be within it no public care whatever for the poor, the old or the sick everything being left to private initiative and charity. At the same time, its laws might allow almost absolute free expression to the individual – not hindering even the wildest extremes of perverted sex. The only acts to be prevented are those directly harmful to its continuing existence. Yet to suppose from this that every Christian need automatically be a liberal is to miss the point of our main argument. For liberalism and Christianity are by no means identical doctrines. Relying on contingent theories of social and economic behaviour, the liberals actively maintain that government is at least largely unnecessary, and that private property and contract are the main regulators of a viable way of life. They see as the highest good the promotion of individual happiness on Earth, however this may be defined. A Christian, as such, can do no such thing, but only desire the minimum possible of coercive authority – the exact content of that minimum being a matter of further enquiry in which secular bias has no place. He may find that a liberal society can exist with reasonable stability over time. It may be dominated by material interests, or wretchedly poor. Those living in it might easily be imagined so miserable that only the most intrepid liberal could decline to rethink his views. Assuming it can exist, though, it must be acknowledged the most Christian, and liberalism therefore the doctrine most pleasing to God, On the other hand, it takes little effort to conceive the opposite, that society has no prospect of survival without detailed control by the state – even requiring utter suppression of all contrary opinion. In giving us free will, after all, God is assumed to have suspended part of His Dominion over us. It therefore involves no contradiction or blasphemy to believe we have become so corrupted as to nullify all those principles of our nature in which the liberals place such faith and by which He may originally have wished us to live. In which case, the Christian may quite properly be as tory or socialist as conditions of the world might seem to require.

Subject to this, we may now state our final conclusion. This is that the Christian opponents of Mrs Thatcher are guilty of a fundamental misconception – that it is the duty of government to make people good or to make them happy, or to compensate them out of the taxpayers' pockets for the hardships of their own misfortune or folly. In the record of all the heresies which have clouded the pellucid stream of Christian truth, there is none more damaging nor impious than this. For we know that our life in this world is but a brief prelude to that in the next, its purpose being to see which of the two great categories there our souls shall fall within. There is no reason, on this view of things, why our lives should be particularly happy, or filled with good things. The only requirement is the regular proximity of others in an orderly environment. The only place of authority here is to maintain that environment. Sod, most emphatically, wants no part of any Kingdom on Earth – none, certainly, of that dreamed of by the Commission on Urban Priority Areas. It cannot be denied that Mrs Thatcher is often as great an authoritarian as her opponents. Her Government has carried, and continues to carry, statutes the tendency of which is to abolish our Constitution. Nor can many of them be justified on strictly Christian grounds. Yet her theological views, though flawed, cannot be claimed a gross "distortion of the Christian Bible". And, in these degenerate times, there is not one important British politician with a more truly Christian outlook than Margaret Thatcher.


1. His most famous remembered words are "Everyone who is not a revolutionary, and is not on the side of the revolutionaries, lives in mortal sin" (New Theology No. 6, ed. Marty & Peerman, Macmillan, 1970, p.95). His last known act was to point a machine gun at some Columbian soldiers.
2. Faith in the City – A Call for Action by Church and Nation, The Report of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Commission on Urban Priority Areas, Church House Publishing, 1985.
3. Ibid, 3.11.
4. Published in the issue of 22/5/88.
5. Guardian, 23/5/88.
6. Guardian 23/5/88.
7. Daily Telegraph, 26/5/88.
8. Guardian, 23/5/88.
9. Lev, 11:7-8.
10. Lev, 11:6.
11. Lev, 11:8.
12. Lev, 19:19.
13. Josh, 5:2-8.
14. Lev, 25:15-16.
15. 2 Kings, 18:4-6.
16. Deut, 1:13-15.
17. See Acts, 15.
18. Acts, 15:20.
19. Rom, 4:28.
20. Matt, 5:43.
21. Matt, 19:21.
22. Matt, 22:21.
23. Rom, 13:1-2. It may be noted in passing that the "powers that be" for St Paul were the Emperor Nero – who had come to power by helping to poison his step-father and step-brother, had slept with and killed his own mother, had married several men (including a specially castrated youth), and one of whose relaxations was to prance round in a lionskin biting off the private parts of boys. Though beyond doubt a very wicked man, Mr Botha is not known to have done any of these things. Nor has he yet lit up his garden parties by soaking live Christians in pitch and setting fire to them.
24. Faith in the City, 3.17 (ii).
25. Observe how closely reason corresponds with revelation.
26. Margaret Thatcher, op. cit.
27. Church Times, 8/4/88.
28. 1 Cor, 6:9. The Greek is more direct: oute malakoi oute arsenokoitai.
29. "Human law does not prohibit every vice from which virtuous men abstain, but only the graver vices…[which]…unless prohibited would make it impossible for human society to endure"(Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II,q96,a2).
30 "Such laws do not oblige in conscience except perhaps to avoid scandal or disorder" (ibid, I-II,q96,a4c).
31. "The overthrow of such governments is not strictly sedition, unless perhaps when accompanied by such disorder that the community suffers greater harm than from the tyrannical government"
(ibid, II-II,q42,a2c).

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