Can the state ever really make men good?
In recent months, this author has been accused of blasphemy by one of his intellectual friends, allegedly over the above political question. But though the question is simple, and the accusation upon first glance appears to be an isolated case, the charge upon further inspection assails far many more than myself, and comprises a collision between two very different, but often improperly defined, doctrines: those of the Christian libertarian and the Biblical conservative. It is this theological and political collision which I seek to explain, should the reader bear with me.
The foundational doctrine, over which the argument occurred, is as follows: man, having been condemned by God as thoroughly wicked, and having no hope of redemption apart from the sacrifice and acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, cannot be made good by any but God. This work of spiritual regeneration, entirely caused by the Almighty, and inaccessible to human endeavors apart from grace, is alone gifted to those inheriting the Kingdom of God, and is the sole reason by which the Kingdom can exist; and earthly kingdoms, having both regenerate and unregenerate unequally dispersed throughout them, cannot expect but to live as shadows (if even those) of the future heavenly glory.
On these points, although I don’t believe he understands why, my detractor and I agree. His charge consists in the idea that man is imperfectible by human means, and so attempting the standards of justice proposed by God Himself in the Bible (with which the English tradition concurs, according to John Locke in Second Treatise of Government and Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, among many others) amounts to a usurpation of the power which only God Himself possesses: the transformation of the human heart. In essence, though I do not believe he intends to do so, he implies that another non-Biblical legal standard is necessary, so that men do not attempt true justice, and “pretend themselves Godlike.”
About this we disagree, for both our systems of law propose a similar end: that the religious persuasions of men are individual choices, but that those whose reason becomes dominated by sin are subject to the penalty of law. His system, being thoroughly libertarian, recognizes only some infractions as impermissible (rape, murder, theft, etc); mine condemns a wider scope, limited solely by the moral Law contained in the Old Testament — neither priestly, nor cleanliness laws being enforced. But because I acknowledge certain Biblically-condemned evils as prosecutable which he does not (for instance, adultery), as they do not involve destruction of property or involuntary subjection, he views a Biblically-based justice as an infringement of the right to think, and thus derides my system as claiming the power to transform hearts. He thus decries my position as blasphemous.
The apostle Paul was clear about the purpose of government, that it exists to punish evil and reward the good (Romans 13:1-5), and Paul’s acknowledgment of every government’s divine value — those governments being non-Israeli — shows that governments may deviate, in appropriate ways, from the methods of punishment. Thus, every government mustn’t mirror the Mosaic code in every way to fulfill its role. But even supposing governmental methods may vary in the pursuit of justice, that variance never excludes the God-given purpose of government: to punish evil, and reward good. If a society accepts evils, and punishes good, or, according the the Apostles Peter and John in Acts 4:19, if it seeks to contradict the commandments of the Almighty, it then opposes the very purpose for which God allows its existence. My detractor’s definition of evil is based upon the current Westernized liberal standard, granting authority only to popular opinion in the contradiction of evil; mine is based upon the written word of God, and stands upon the word alone (for if the Apostles themselves commanded us to obey the authorities [1 Peter 2:13-17], but they themselves required disobedience upon injustice (Acts 4:19), how can any law be legitimate, if not weighed against the divine standard?).
My libertarian opponent is correct in that he decries conversion at the point of a sword, but wrong in that he mistakes a Biblical attempt at justice for an attempt at conversion. It is true that one’s beliefs are one’s own, and that conversion is an act of God; but when character failures result in evil, government oftentimes must necessarily intervene, oftentimes denoting the great difference between free and enslaved peoples. The former live without need of government, and so are truly free; the latter beg their own chains with every vice, and every act of lawlessness. And while certain men may label as totalitarian the government which imposes an unpopular standard upon a lawless people, this should lead all thinking men to wonder whether modern society confuses democracy with justice itself. A people may prefer injustice, but that preference doesn’t make their government just; liberty is not confined to democratic processes, but is a pursuit of divine justice against the unjust.
As a further point, let us not only consider historically revered philosophers such as Plato and Locke (see The Republic and Second Treatise), but indeed the word of God, and every sensible person, when they unanimously agree that this same principle of external moral pressure is upheld in every society, when parents are granted authority over children, simply so that children’s characters may be developed according to the Laws of Nature (once again, Law best defined by Scripture). If my detractor believes my position overreaching and blasphemous, then he should be willing to relinquish all his claims to parental authority, and request the same of others as well, as parental authority grants certain rights to men over others for the sole purpose of character development. And if he is not willing to admit that government supplies incentive to conform to a certain pattern of justice, against the will of some, he must give an example of how governments may exist at all, without contradicting the beliefs of an immoral minority.
If I am a blasphemer, then he is one as well, for we both assume that upon the individual’s moral failure, the state is to press upon him with law. The difference between us is not so much that I believe I can change the hearts of men, but rather that he believes God’s justice is isolated, and inapplicable to any but the Christian and Jew. I rest my case upon these principles of justice, and upon the word of God; and should I ever base my case upon any other standard, then I say let me be proven wrong.