Give me religious liberty or give me death? Free to be what in America? (part V of VII)

22 Nov
"government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."  Amen?

“government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Amen?

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

Yesterday, I said, “We want to handle it all ourselves – who else can we trust?  And yet, do we not need someone with wisdom who can help us see the bigger picture?”

Who is the “we” and “us” I am referring to?  Why all Americans, of course.  I am taking the “liberty” to speak for all, believing that my words should resonate with most any person who has pondered the political challenges of our day – or perhaps any day.  And yet, there are ways of using the word “we” that I do not think are as responsible.  For example, in response to a provocative post about the two kingdoms on the blog Crusing Down the Coast of the High Barbaree (here – you will now need to get permission from the owner to access the blog), one commentator argued that

“Whatever Lutheran theologians believe about how the United States came into existence (and I understand most believe it was through sinful rebellion against the God given authority of Great Britain) the colonists won, and presumably that gave them the God given authority to write the Constitution. When they did so, the constitution vested God given authority divers[e]ly, apportioning it between various branches of the federal government and the state government and even the common people.

One of the most elemental marks of those in “authority” is that they “bear the sword” (See Romans). Yet, the American founding fathers specifically reserved the authority to bear arms (the sword) to “the people”, i.e., you and me (see the 2nd Amendment). We have also have, pursuant to the Constitution, the authority to choose who serves in government and remove them if they displease enough of us.

Therefore, “We, the People”, are, in the United States, the “powers that be”. That being so, by conventional Lutheran logic, those who would attempt to take our power and our arms from us would be in rebellion against God, since it was He who ordained that we should have our political power and our arms in the first place. Thus, if anyone in the government should attempt to increase his own power at the expense of us to whom it legitimately belongs, we the people (to whom God has given the sword) should remember that we do not bear our arms in vain and be prepared to use those arms to punish the evildoers in government who may attempt to usurp powers that God has given to us.”

Click image to go to this American Conservative article and here for an interview with the author about the article

Click image to go to this American Conservative article and see Issues ETC for a recent interview about it.

In some ways, this seems similar to the argument from Vishal Mangalwadi I mentioned yesterday, about God wanting to “to give the [earthly] kingdom[s]” to the “poor, meek, and righteous” (added NOTE: I believe the author is saying that we can be organized this way, not that we should or need to be).  Now, I believe that a king could step aside, or even agree to establish a democracy, or democratic republic, but whatever we might think a democracy is, do articulations like those above suffice?   I do not see how it is a valid argument in that the “we” here seems to be given too much freight.  I think this relates to the recent critique of Dr. Richard Gamble (Hillsdale college) here and here about Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Gospel” – it is full of abstractions lifted from concrete history.  The statement above seems to me too lifted from the concrete reality of democracy in general.   Is it reasonable that it would be able to represent the collective whole here – in reality could and can the “we” really be as one man?

A case that will increasingly resonate with all Christians?  Grains of salt needed?  Click to image to read more about this book.

A case that will increasingly resonate with all Christians? Wisdom, let us attend?  Grains of salt needed? Click here to read more about this book.

Although the “we” functions this way in the argument, I think things are ultimately doomed to fall apart, as the power of one primary individual will always inevitably arise either to preserve order or to create it (in the midst of sufficient disorder and disarray).  It is particularly interesting to me how both conservative Lutherans and Reformed Christians will go to great lengths to argue for male headship in a marriage relationship, for example – noting that it is not God’s will for there to be two heads (“order of creation”) – and yet here, many are seemingly content to imagine a being with many heads, which, as critics of democracy have always pointed out, veers towards a picture of a monster.  How can fallen man hope to operate like the Trinity? – I note that even with the Godhead there exists both equality and roles that feature a particular order.

So I believe that this argument fails.  Again, in general, Lutherans have historically talked about how it is one thing to peacefully protest and resist impositions of ungodliness (something else that, rather unjustly, was taken away to some degree in one area by the RICO Act) and another thing to actively take up arms against those who have a legitimate claim to rule us. 

But we are in America after all, where that head is chosen – via “institutionalized rebellion” – through an orderly process based on trust in the rule of law.  How did we get there?  Here persons point to democracy in Greece, the Magna Carta, and things to this effect.  Particularly interesting to me is that in the year 1750, some 26 years before the American Revolution, the Reverend Jonathan Mayhew preached what evidently became a famous sermon, A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission, where he questioned passive obedience to the government.  He said:

 “It is unquestionably the duty of children to submit to their parents; and of servants to their masters.  But no one asserts that it is their duty to obey and submit to them in all supposable cases; or universally a sin to resist them.  Now does this tend to subvert the just authority of parents and masters?  Or to introduce confusion and anarchy into private families?  No.  How then does the same principle tend to unhinge the government of that larger family, the body politic?  We know, in general, that children and servants are obliged to obey their parents and masters respectively.  We know also, with equal certainty, that they are not obliged to submit to them in all things, without exception, but may, in some cases, reasonably, and therefore innocently, resist them.” (Hart, Faith and Freedom, 1990, p. 239).*

I am confident faith in Christ was there, but dare we consider that a lack of faith also played a role?

I am confident faith in Christ was there, but dare we consider that a lack of faith also played a role?

First of all, note how Mayhew, like Luther, bases his argument on the view that primary authority resides with fathers and mothers and then logically extends to that “larger family” of the state.  Second, however, note that what introduces confusion and anarchy is precisely Mayhew’s sermon.  It is one thing to object to your rulers – and even resist them without using force – when they ask you to obey wicked or unjust laws (and so you might try to protect your neighbor’s life or property where it is threatened, for example).  That said, it is another thing to remove them by physical force – even if you do think that the nation would be better off without them.  And perhaps even pray to that effect.

In the next post (probably on Monday), I will discuss challenges to this viewpoint.  This includes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who not only prayed that his ruler, Hitler, would be removed, but actually tried with others to assassinate him.


*It also does us well to remember that in most states of the union permanent legal abolition of religious establishment largely took place in the late 18th c., and “in several colonies, the establishment ceased to exist in practice at the Revolution, about 1776” (Wikipedia

Even if Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death speech” was about political freedom, it is not a stretch that many of the founding fathers, being “theistic rationalists” (actually, not so many deists (see post #2 in this series), considered religious liberty to be of some importance – perhaps largely because of the purpose they believe it served in making political liberty possible – where a largely Christian morality (the most highly developed of all the moralities, they believed) was necessary for a free people to be able to responsibly self-govern.  That said, to say that the American Revolution was largely about religious freedom would seem to be an absurd argument.

Perhaps one can argue that for many colonists who fought, they could not separate these notions of Church and State in their mind, and fighting for religious liberty had to go hand in hand with political liberty.  I grant that that may have been the case – even as I doubt that many thought this way – and yet I think that would have been wrong in their judgment.

Also regarding Henry it is interesting that he is one of the few founding fathers everyone agrees had more or less the disposition of an evangelical Christian, and he would years later advocate for the re-establishment of religion in the states (see this Wikipedia article where it talks about the disestablishment of religion in the states for helpful information) – even as Jefferson’s view prevailed, which many of us more evangelically-minded persons today are thankful for.

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Posted by on November 22, 2013 in Uncategorized


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