Or, why Protestants can’t be libertarians
Too Much Government or Too Little?
Traditionalist conservatives today face a paradox. On the one hand, as conservatives, they have inherited a habit of healthy suspicion toward state power, a sense that much that is wrong with the world today comes from governments trying to do too much. At the same time, as traditionalists, they recognize that there are a great many goods today in desperate need of conserving, which—human nature being what it is—cannot be conserved without resolute government support. Among these are faith, family, truth, and virtue—in short, many of the moral and spiritual goods which are essential to human happiness and flourishing, but are routinely neglected by modern markets and modern governments in our headlong pursuit of merely material goods.
So which is it? Are our governments doing too much or too little? Do they need to scale back or expand? Libertarians are always eager to accuse conservatives of hypocrisy, demanding that government get out of their own lives but get into everyone else’s. And with the recent resurgence of “common good conservatism” or “national conservatism,” freedom-fixated conservatives like David French and George Will have repeatedly worried about this newfound willingness to invite government to step up its role in society. On closer inspection, though, I think the perceived paradox evaporates, for at least three reasons.
First, while it is true that modern governments have in many ways abandoned the traditional political responsibilities of nurturing a virtuous citizenry, of statecraft as soulcraft, they have at the same time vastly expanded their control over the management of man’s material happiness. This process should not surprise us, for we see it readily in the lives of individuals: quite often, we are tempted to fill the vacuum in our souls by distracting ourselves with material pleasures. Just so, modern society as a whole, having tried to banish God, goodness, and beauty from its midst, is feverishly engaged in finding new ways to generate and maximize physical satisfaction, and clings desperately to bodily goods when they seem to be under threat. This was one of the most troubling features of our societies’ responses to the Covid-19 pandemic: myopically focused on the preservation of physical life and bodily health above all else, governments tended to sideline all other considerations, dismissing religious worship as just one more boutique lifestyle choice, rather than a basic constituent of social flourishing. Precisely to the extent that our rulers get out of the business of cultivating virtuous citizens, they tend to expand their reach over other aspects of life.
Second, for societies that prize the cultivation of authentic virtue, there is perhaps a built-in restraint to the growth of government in a way that there is not for materialistic societies. Why? Because virtue and satisfaction of soul requires a certain self-direction that mere bodily satisfaction does not. As in some dystopian sci-fi story, it is easy to imagine a future in which all-controlling technocrats ensure that every individual is cocooned within a sanctuary of safety and pleasure from cradle to grave, passively enjoying sensual satisfaction with little to no personal agency. The deeper joys of authentic human flourishing, however, require the cultivation of spheres of self-directed activity beyond the reach of the state. Governments may be able to encourage virtue, but they cannot simply supply it in the way they can supply material goods. Indeed, when such self-government flourishes, the need for external government is reduced.
Third, it is always important to remember that in many ways, our societies’ supposed renunciation of the business of public morals is a sham. Such claims of genuine liberal minimalism might almost have been believable during the last quarter of the twentieth century, but over the past two decades, concern with virtue (or at least the signaling thereof) has returned with a vengeance. The campaigns for social justice or diversity that have come to dominate our education, media, and politics, are nothing if not religious in their overtones and aspirations. Statecraft again has become soulcraft, albeit in perverted form. The trouble is that it still persists, more often than not, in denying its true objectives. Profoundly metaphysical and moral claims continue to be robed in the liberal garb of mere material concerns, as crusaders for justice demand for marginalized groups the same access to material benefits and sexual pleasures that the vanguard liberal elite has already long enjoyed. The moral ambitions of the modern state are all the more sinister and potentially totalitarian because of their hiddenness. By refusing to come out in the open and admit that the state is in the business of forming human souls for the pursuit of transcendent goods, modern governments are enabled all the more readily to smuggle revolutionary agendas into their now routine operations of pleasure-maximization.
Retrieving the Spiritual Dimension of Politics
All of this suggests that it is high time for conservatives to overcome their shyness about government’s role in cultivating moral and spiritual goods. As the great Awokening demonstrates, such a role is unavoidable in any case, and will be better pursued out in the open than in the shadows. Moreover, such an “expansion” of government into concerns that liberal ideology has labeled off-limits can actually go hand-in-hand with longstanding conservative efforts to roll back the sprawling behemoth of the modern utilitarian state. By remembering its responsibility for the higher things of human life, governments may be enabled to again exercise some restraint in their thirst to regulate the lower things.
As Christian conservatives in particular, we cannot pretend that our rulers have no responsibility for the souls of their citizens. God alone is able to give the gift of salvation, but he uses human instruments to prepare the soil for the seed of the Gospel. Moreover, Scripture teaches us that sin brings misery, not only to each individual trapped within it, but to every community entangled with it. Therefore, although civil authorities may be tasked chiefly with securing merely the earthly happiness of their citizens, this task requires attention to moral as well as material concerns.
Nonetheless, it matters how we make this argument. It would be easy enough for a theonomist, armed with the thundering edicts of the Old Testament law, to outline the moral and religious duties of a godly magistrate. But such an approach is riddled with theological and practical problems. Theologically, it errs by conflating the specifics of the positive laws established for Israel with the general principles of law that bind all people, and by importing into the Christian era the specifically covenantal dimension of the Jewish monarchs’ responsibility to guard the boundaries of the sacred. Practically, it suggests that there is little or nothing of use for Christians to contribute to contemporary politics prior to a wholesale conversion of our societies to the gospel. If it is only upon specifically Christian premises that a nation can be rightly governed, there can be no political persuasion, only religious conversion. Moreover, the endpoint of such a politics would seem to leave little room for the religious liberty that modern Western societies have come to prize—in part due to the leavening influence of Christianity and its regard for the individual soul.
Thankfully, our Protestant tradition is rich with resources for what we might call a natural law argument for the spiritual dimension of politics. In what follows, I want to share with readers one fascinating articulation of such an argument in the political writings of Reformation-era theologians Peter Martyr Vermigli and Richard Hooker.
“More than a Swineherd“
Vermigli, an Augustinian monk from Italy, spent a fascinating life as a peripatetic Reformer, first exiled from Italy to Zurich, then Strasbourg, then Oxford—before again facing persecution under the Catholic Queen Mary and returning first to Strasbourg, then to Zurich. All along the way, he cultivated a dazzling reputation as a biblical scholar and theologian of the first rank, and fostered bands of dedicated disciples who were to play outsized roles in the development of Reformed Protestantism throughout western Europe. Among these was John Jewel, appointed Bishop of Salisbury under Queen Elizabeth I and soon recognized as the leading theological light of the early Church of England. Jewel, in turn, soon discovered an extremely precocious young student from nearby Exeter named Richard Hooker. Promising to fund his education, he sent Hooker to Oxford and entrusted him to the tutelage of other prestigious former students of Vermigli, who trained Hooker not only in Scripture and Reformed theology, but in the philosophy of Aristotle and the scholastic natural law tradition. Hooker would later express his reverence for Aristotle as one who “achieved more in almost every branch of natural knowledge than anyone else has ever done in any single branch” (Laws I.6.3).1
This Protestant Aristotelianism (Vermigli had written a highly-regarded Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics) was to play an important role in moderating the course of early Protestant political theology. Although the battle cry of “Scripture alone!” had originally been deployed only when it came to the definition of doctrine (that is, Christians could not be required to confess and believe teachings not grounded on Scripture), it had a tendency then, as now, to expand and colonize other areas of Christian thought and life. Perhaps, reasoned some English Protestants (derided by their opponents as “puritans”), “the Word of God containeth the direction of whatsoever things can fall into any part of man’s life,” as Thomas Cartwright would put it. Applied to politics, this style of reasoning became a form of theonomy, suggesting that English law and society must be comprehensively reformed according to the blueprint of Old Testament Israel.
Although mainstream Reformers had never gone so far, they had sometimes tended toward a reflexive biblicism in describing the religious responsibilities of the godly ruler. Faced with rampant idolatry, as they saw it, and the dangerously overweening power of the Pope and the church hierarchy, they looked to the models of Hezekiah and Josiah as great reforming kings who would cleanse their kingdoms of corruption, and to David and Solomon as rulers who patronized and ordered the public worship of God. On the basis of such biblical examples it was clear that “the care of religion belongeth to princes,” as a host of Protestant leaders argued.
Vermigli and Hooker did not disagree, but saw the importance of establishing the conclusion on broader philosophical grounds. Drawing a clear “two-kingdoms” distinction between matters spiritual and temporal, between God’s hidden work of justification and more visible work of sanctification, both theologians argued that when it came this-worldly affairs of life in human society, natural reason and even pagan philosophy would often concur with the teaching of Scripture. Only God, working by the secret power of his Word, can produce true saving virtue, but the “civic” virtue that breeds temporal peace and some measure of earthly happiness can and should be produced by this-worldly means. Such civic virtue necessarily requires some form of civil religion, as Hooker eloquently argues:
It is hardly a strange opinion, but rather a sound deduction, that the more religious a man is, the better he will perform all his duties. So if the course of political affairs can in no way go forward without fit instruments, and it is the virtues which fit them for their purpose, let political order acknowledge its great debt to religion, godliness being the capstone and wellspring of all true virtues, even as God is of all good things. Indeed, so natural is the union of religion with justice, that we may boldly affirm that neither is present where both are not. For how should anyone be sincerely just, who is not motivated by religion, or how should anyone be deemed religious if they cannot be recognized as such by their just actions? (Laws V.1.2).
Hooker goes on to survey a list of different virtues, each of which are essential to a stable and peaceful society, and notes how each is nourished by “religion”—by the conviction that there is some divine power above us that demands our worship and obedience, and holds us accountable for wrongdoing. Without such conviction, as the American Founders also argued, society would either fall apart, or would require the heavy-handed arm of civil law to enforce behaviors which conscience would otherwise encourage. Any such religion, Hooker recognized, was far better than atheism when it came to nourishing the virtues of a peaceful and free society, but that did not mean that all religions were of equal value. On the contrary, assuming there were any truth in the claims of religions, it stood to reason that the truest religion would be the best of all for society, since to live in accord with it would be to live in accord with man’s true nature. Even the superstitions of the ancient Romans, he argues, helped nurture real virtues that strengthened their commonwealth, but along with them, many evils as well. Accordingly, “the purer and more perfect our religion is, the worthier effects it has in those alone who steadfastly and sincerely embrace it” (Laws V.1.3).
It followed therefore that just as wise rulers could not afford to be neutral in matters of public morals, neither could they be agnostic with regard to the religious convictions that nurtured such morals. On the contrary, said Hooker, “we have reason to think that all true virtues should honor true religion as their mother, and all well-ordered commonwealths should love her as their surest anchor” (Laws V.1.5).
Neither Hooker nor Vermigli was oblivious to the possibility of a more “liberal” construal of the purpose of politics, as serving the mere provision of material well-being, but they were contemptuous in their dismissal of it, both reaching for the same memorable metaphor:
neither must Princes have only a care over the bodies of men, and neglect their souls. For we do not imagine that a Prince is a neteherd [cowherd] or swineherd, to whom is committed a care only of the flesh, belly, and skin of his subjects, yea rather he must provide that they may live virtuously and godly (Vermigli, Common Places, IV.13.10)
A gross error it is to think that regal power ought to serve for the good of the body and not of the soul, for men’s temporal peace and not their eternal safety; as if God had ordained kings for no other end and purpose but only to fat up men like hogs and to see that they have their mash? (Hooker, Laws, VIII.3.5)
Indeed, ironically given the fashionable modern claims that the Reformation ushered in “secularism,” both men saw it as a characteristically Roman error to deny this close connection of religion, justice, and temporal happiness—a connection attested by pagan philosophy as much as by biblical revelation. So Vermigli charged:
So would they have princes to be only certain herd men to pamper the body. But the very philosophers doe not so absurdly judge. For Aristotle in his Politics sayeth, that the office of a magistrate is, to provide that the people may live well and virtuously. And no greater virtue there is, than religion. And God commandeth in Deuteronomy that the prince should write out for himself the book of the law, not only for himself to keep, but also to compel others to keep it. And the law containeth not only civil government, but also Ceremonies and the worshipping of God. And whereas the law is distributed into two tables, both of them are committed to the power of the Magistrate (Vermigli, Common Places, IV.14.2).
Christianity, Freedom, and Human Flourishing
Scripture and reason, in short, unite in opposition to a merely materialistic vision of politics; Aristotle and Moses, whatever their differences, can concur that statecraft must involve soulcraft, and any ruler worth his salt will seek to publicly honor the divine and encourage his people to do so as well. Of course, there is a key difference between the pagan and the Christian (especially the Protestant) approach to public religion. Pagan philosophers like Aristotle and Cicero may have recognized that there was in some sense one God over all, but they considered such knowledge above the capacity of the ordinary sort. Civil religion, then, would necessarily be mixed with corruptions, while truer religion remained the province of an educated elite. Christianity not only brought into the public consciousness profound insights into the nature and character of God, but insisted on democratizing this revelation, an enterprise intensified by the Protestant Reformation. No longer would it be enough for rulers to fund temples and sacrifices; they must also fund wide-ranging education efforts, so that the whole citizenry could have opportunity to learn true religion, and with it, true virtue.
The early modern educational initiatives that sprung from this conviction in places like Germany and England were truly unparalleled in history, and although they never succeeded as fully as their advocates hoped, the results were truly transformative for the world as we know it. It turns out that a citizenry inculcated in worship of the one God really is capable of internalizing, in the voice of conscience, the kinds of virtues that make for flourishing life together and at the same time contribute to limited government. By the time of the American Founding, the architects of our republic could confidently declare, “Rational Freedom cannot be preserved without the aid of Christianity” (Timothy Dwight), and “Without this, there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments” (Benjamin Rush).
It is important to note, however, the implications of framing this argument in natural-law, rather than theonomic terms. If it is only by virtue of direct Scriptural command that governments are to promote Christianity, there is no way of making this argument until our rulers (and to a large extent our societies) have first fully accepted the authority of Scripture. Moreover, once they do so, they will have only an awkwardly-fitting one-size-fits-all blueprint drawn from the pages of the Old Testament, one which offers little guidance on how to adapt the promotion of right religion to a democratic and pluralistic age. Vermigli and Hooker, however, offer a broader starting-point. If the public promotion of virtue and religion is a universal obligation that is in fact accessible to reason, it is possible to begin arguing for the importance of Christian norms for public life even in an age of unbelief (after all, even those ill-disposed to believe in Christianity are unlikely to be able to point to other religions better-suited to the institutions of the Western world).
Moreover, the form that this public religion will take will itself be shaped by reason, history, and circumstance. Although in his own time, Hooker would defend Queen Elizabeth’s role as “Defender of the Faith, and Supreme Governor of the Church of England,” with all that entailed, he was careful to insist that these arrangements should not be read straight out of Scripture. They were, on the contrary, prudential human-law institutions for embodying the basic Christian Aristotelian principles of public religion in his own time and place. A very different set of prudential institutions, though geared to the same basic end, were propounded during the period of the American founding, and a different set again may be needed in the twenty-first century.
Figuring out how to articulate and implement such foreign ideas in our own libertine age will not be an easy one. The difficulty of the challenge, however, cannot excuse us from making the effort. The alternative, after all, is an ever-deeper descent into the politics of “NICE,” as C.S. Lewis chronicled them in That Hideous Strength: an ever-more-totalitarian quest for earthly happiness in service of a tacit post-humanist religion, engineered for us by elites who deny the existence of virtue while simultaneously demanding that we embrace their own conception of it. To avert such a future, we must take a deep dive again into our past, and there are few better places to start than the political theology of Vermigli and Hooker.
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