Jun 10, 2015

John Donne: The Equipossible Legitimacy of Varying Political Forms

An Ideal Miss Leading the People or an Idol Misleading the People?
Sharp political theology from the Dean of St. Paul's:
All governments may justly represent God to me, who is the God of order, and fountain of all government, but yet I am more eased, and more accustomed to the contemplation of heaven... as heaven is a kingdom, by having been born and bred in a monarchy: God is a type of that, and that is a type of heaven. (S 4:240-41) 
In other words, choice among forms of government cannot be grounded on universal conditions for legitimacy. God has given authority to many forms of government, like monarchies and republics, and has not limited the obligations of obedience to certain forms thereof.  But preference among forms may be grounded in personal and national practicalities. For example, in Donne's high minded case, he prefers monarchy because of the ability of government to draw his mind to God.

After Donne, early modern Christians famously and rightly insisted that God could authorize democratically elected governors as well as kings. If a democracy would clearly be better for ensuring the ends of government, e.g., holiness, justice, order, then a kingship could fairly transition to democracy. Their attacks on the view that only non-democratic, regal leadership could be legitimate was critical to our modern political systems. But it was, more importantly, orthodox. The ultimate ground of Christian arguments for democracy is the equi-possible legitimacy of all basic political forms plus its practical preferableness in certain contexts. This argument is grounded on Romans 13, and more specifically, the indifference taught there in assigning legitimacy based on the form of government.

But this orthodox position has been misinterpreted as the claim that God can only use democratically elected governments or that only democratic governments can be governments that must be obeyed. Worse than politically wrong; this is against faith. It destroys our faith in God's providential provision of political authority. The Scriptures teach us plainly and unmistakably that there is real legitimate political authority outside of democratic government because authority does not flow from the form of political organization; God teaches us to trust Him, not the form of governments.

The Christian's attitude of faith, more than permits, rather encourages practical concern over which form of government would be better for a given social circumstance, but not an insistence that any one form is the unique form of legitimate government. The high offense of the kings of Christendom against faith was their assertion that only monarchs could exercise divine right. This was offensive, not because democracy is uniquely legitimizing, but because the kings denied that God is the source of governmental legitimacy rather than monarchical form. Today, we embrace the divine right of the people and the individual rather than the king as the solely authorized form of government, but the offense is the same.

The Choice of the People is Golden
Rationally, all forms of government may draw their authorization from God and, as Donne reported about his monarchy, direct man's gaze back to God as the source of all authority. Commitment to a particular form of government cannot rest on any universal and absolute principle -- though very broad practical principles might be argued for once national preferences are established. Only personal and national temperament and character can link individuals and nations to particular forms of government. The broadest proposition that might be sustained is that a certain kind of government is best for a certain kind of nation, stipulating to the national unities of that nation. But it is the secondary nature of the nation as a particularized people that allows us to prefer one type of government and not the universal structure of humanity or all nations as nations over another.  

This is, incidentally, why cultural changes to a nation justify and precipitate political changes. For example, if a nation were to lose all its prior moral self-control and cultural identity, then the question of the soundness and usefulness of institutions founded on prior national identities would be rightly re-interrogated.

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