God raises up people like the men of Issachar who understand the times and know what to do (1 Chron 12:32), Al Mohler is one of them. On Tuesday evening in Indiana Donald Trump became the Republican nominee and Bernie Sanders won the state for the Democrats. With Tuesday evening on his mind, Al Mohler provides us with an excellent civics lesson.
The challenge of government has been a human preoccupation ever since sinful humanity was cast out of the Garden of Eden. We have a responsibility to think through the question of government because as human beings we cannot escape that responsibility. An historical review helps us to understand that for most of human history, the basic question that human beings have had is how they will respond to a government that was forced upon them. This places us in a very rare historical moment. Those of us who are living in the West, especially in the United States, understand that we bear the responsibility of forming our own government and of electing our own leaders. In the span of history, this is a very rare privilege, and it is one that stands upon certain assumptions and foundations that are absolutely necessary. Most people in history only faced the question of how they would respond to the government that they faced, not the government that they chose, much less the leaders that they elected. But when we do have the privilege of being citizens in a representative democracy, the responsibility of undergirding and preserving that democracy then falls to us. The idea of a Republic of citizens is a very rare idea indeed. And it is based upon a series of ideas that emerged out of the Christian worldview, an understanding of the right of the individual, of human dignity, and human rights that were, as the Founders of the American Republic recognized, granted to all humanity as the gift of the Creator.
But now we come to understand that the big questions that have perplexed human beings for a very long time have now come with a certain urgency to Americans in this particular moment. We come to understand that the idea of a Republic of citizens, rare and recent as it is in terms of the span of human history, is something that has a certain pedigree the takes us through the city states of ancient Greece, the Republic of ancient Rome, that takes us to the Magna Carta in terms of Britain, and finally to the Constitution of the United States. We understand that there is a philosophical pedigree and there have been various experiments in government that have led to the great experiment in the United States of a limited government, of a representative democracy, and of a Republican form of government. The American Revolution, we should understand, followed both liberal and conservative impulses. The liberal impulses were to recognize the gift of liberty, therefore, the word liberal. And it was a radical idea in a world that was framed by history of tyranny and established monarchy. But the American Revolution was also, as historians note, a conservative revolution; it claimed nothing more and nothing less than a reset of the natural order that God had intended in terms of the recognition of human rights and human dignity.
The Framers of the American experiment understood that this kind of government would require certain virtues in its citizens, a certain temperament. These would include a restraint of passions and an honoring of certain moral virtues, moral virtues without which a form of democratic government would not be possible. Edmund Burke, one of the most important political theorists in Western history, pointed out that government was necessary because human beings are, in his words, “marshaled by a divine tactic.”
That is to say, we yearn for a certain form of liberty, but we also yearn for a certain structure of order. It is the responsibility of government to find the right balance between these. That balance was framed by the American Constitutional Founders in terms of a Constitutional Republic, a Republic that would be bound by the Constitution in order to make sure that as a limited government with limited powers it did not become a form of tyranny against the very citizens that had placed it into power. The separation of powers was essential to the American constitutional order, an understanding based upon the doctrine of sin and an affirmation of what Lord Acton described in terms of these words:
“Power corrupts, an absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The avoidance of absolute power invested in any single individual or even a single branch of government is what led the Framers of the American constitutional order to establish the Executive branch, the Legislative branch and the Judicial branch, in order to make certain that there would be checks on the power of one against the other, or even of two against a third. The Founders of the American experiment also understood, as we have said, that certain moral virtues would be necessary of a citizen who would vote in such a Republic. There would be a certain temperament that would include the fact that passions would have to be restrained, that a demagogue should be avoided, and the honoring of certain moral virtues, without which a democracy cannot flourish. The idea of limited government requires that citizens fulfill many of the responsibilities themselves in order to avoid government coming in with a tyrannical hand to do what only the citizens should be honored to do. Furthermore, the kind of limited government that is envisioned in our constitutional order requires an honoring of basic institutions as well as basic rights. Those institutions include family, church and community.
The Framers of the American Republic understood that it would be impossible to have a representative democracy, a limited government, much less an experiment in self-government, if the people did not first govern themselves and if they did not, when they went into the voting place, vote for those elected leaders who would also demonstrates the same virtues, the same restraint of passions, the same basic disposition, the same basic respect for institutions including marriage, family, the church, and the local community. It is the primacy of those basic institutions, what are rightly defined as pre-political institutions—that is, each of those existed before the formation of any government, the government coming into existence merely is to affirm and to respect them—the existence and honoring of those pre-political institutions also requires the honoring of a set of moral virtues, virtues of temperance, virtues of responsibility, a basic moral structure in terms of right and wrong, righteousness, and justice that would be required if a people could indeed govern themselves, rather than to be governed by some kind of autocratic or tyrannical power. Thus the Constitution called for not only a limited government, but also of a government that would operate by explicitly enumerated powers; that’s the language of the U.S. Constitution. In other words, that is to say that the government only had powers that were clearly and constitutionally assigned to it. Assigned before government were the responsibilities of a married couple, the responsibilities of a family, the responsibilities of the church and other civic organizations in society, and the responsibility of local communities, local communities that were understood, like the family, of necessity to govern themselves long before there would be a responsibility of a national government or even for that matter of estate government.
But the idea of a limited government requires an honoring of these institutions, and it furthermore requires the health of these institutions. When a civil society is weak, government becomes incredibly strong. When the family breaks down, government grows stronger. When the essential institutions of society are no longer respected, government demands that respect for itself. That is a recipe for tyranny.
All that I just said was basically understood by most Americans and affirmed, for instance, even in the curriculum of the public schools until the early decades of the 20th century. When what was called a progressivist agenda came into place, that redefined the federal government in terms of an activist and expanding role. At the head of that lineage was President Woodrow Wilson; but by the time you come to the middle of the 20th century, the two political parties, though still standing in fairly common terrain, are beginning to represent two very different visions of government. And when it comes to the Democratic Party, that party became more and more committed to an increasingly powerful government, a government that would expand in terms of its powers far beyond those enumerated in the Constitution.
In the name of a progressivist vision and in the service of that vision, the Democratic Party and those who style themselves liberals and progressives at the midpoint of the 20th century began to call for a far more activist government; and at the same time, we need to note, they called for a basic redefinition of the American social compact and of the morality that shaped our common culture. The institutions, including, we should note, most recently the institution of marriage, was redefined and the morality itself, especially as relates to sexual morality and the moral relations of people in the family, all those were redefined as well. By the time you get to the 1960s, the two political parties were growing further and further apart in the cultural cleavage of that crucial decade. The sexual revolution in various ideological developments, including feminism, landed on the American scene, and eventually the two parties grew further and further apart. By the time you got to the 1980s, it was clear that the two parties represented two very different arguments, and over time these were rather consistent and coherent arguments. There were two political parties; there were two basic visions of America. By the time you got to the 21st century it was increasingly clear that the predictability of these two parties was part of what appeared to be the enduring presence of the 20th century and the 21st.
But now all that has changed. We look to yesterday and the primary in Indiana and both political parties and face the cold stark reality that neither of these parties is behaving in a way that was predictable just a few months ago, and both of these parties are now representing a basic crisis in American democracy, each in its own way.
To listen or read the rest of Al Mohler’s commentary on Tueday’s election click here.
Until Next Time
Solo Deo Gloria