Jesus famously castigated the Pharisees for building the monuments to the prophets their fathers’ had killed. While claiming that they would not have participated in their persecution, Jesus says that they effectively pronounce their own complicit guilt by how fastidious they are about the decorations on their tombs (Mt. 23:29-31).
A Theonomic Example
We need not accuse anyone of the exact hypocrisy, while still pointing out parallel tendencies in human nature. As a race, we often write hagiographies of those we would have had significant disagreements with, with those we would have opposed in the flesh. I’ve often wondered this in my presbyterian and reformed world. For example, there’s been a significant squeamishness to the notion of “theonomy,” which is a term meant to describe the ongoing authority of God’s law over all of life. As it happens, something of a resurgence of the term and related theology happened in the late 70s and 80s, and there was no doubt some unhelpful things said and done in the name of theonomy, understandably giving some people what can only be described as the screaming meemies, and a moment of silence for all of that. But as the great Voddie Baucham has recently said, in so many words: everybody is a theonomist now.
Look, we can dither about the details, but the question simply comes down to: is all of God’s word, interpreted rightly, thoroughly authoritative over all of life? You might not want to be associated with some rogue Bible studies that talked about stoning teenagers who had gone out and gotten tattoos. But the fact of the matter is that some of those 80’s tattoos were pretty awful. But I digress… What I was trying to say is that the authors of the Westminster Confession and the Founders of this American project would look to many moderns like the same sort of raving theonomists, judging by the legislation they actually passed into law. And yet many Westminsterian types stand there all sober-faced and pretend that “general equity thereof” simply means “the vague flatulent sensation thereof.” And while that may be rather Lutheran of me to say, if you actually examine the laws they passed in colonial America it was straight up theonomy. They took the laws of the Old Covenant and did their best to apply the moral principles found in them to their new 17th century context in light of the gospel of Christ. Some of it was admittedly very cringe-worthy, but I would take their Sunday school attempts at actually applying God’s word to the civil realm every day of the week over our current clown show which apparently consists of taking shots of vodka and playing pin the tail on the Scrabble Catan, and that’s just the “conservatives” in some places. Everybody wants to praise the pilgrims (as we should) for Thanksgiving and the Constitution, but even “conservatives” start getting nervous when we start talking about outlawing drag queens, sodomy, and no-fault divorce.
A National Review Example
For example, Joseph Loconte warns in a recent National Review article that ironically, modern Left and Right often seem to share the common ground of willingness for the unlimited power of government to achieve their goals, inevitably resulting in a Leviathan state, an omnicompetent totalitarian regime that “offers security and prosperity at the expense of freedom.” Loconte argues that the liberal project arose as a Christian corrective to the abuses of Christendom, personified best by John Locke, thus answering those on the Left who want to ignore the Christian roots of classical liberalism but also warning some on the Right that may want to jettison classical liberalism for some kind of pre-modern ecclesiocracy.
Now count me among those who want to preserve classic, Lockean liberalism and eschew Popes and mixing different governmental jurisdictions — I mean that’s the modern application of mixing different kinds of fabrics, right? But the question I have for Loconte or any of my friends of a similar persuasion is: Who gets to decide what is the appropriate limits of power for governments? What is the standard by which we will measure whether Left or Right are in fact calling upon the “unlimited power of government” to achieve their goals? Locke would argue rightly that the “law of nature and nature’s God” establishes norms of morality, tolerance, and political power. God’s Word, God’s law determines what limits are to be placed on ecclesiastical power, familial authority, and civil government.
If God’s Word says that families have authority over education, healthcare decisions, and welfare, and it does, then it is not appealing to the “unlimited power of government” to require the civil government to abandon all attempts to usurp family government in those areas. If God’s Word says that it is the civil government’s central duty to protect life and property through the prompt punishment of evil-doers, then it is not an appeal to an omnicompentent state to insist that the government execute murderers, suppress sexual perversion, and require a system of biblical restitution.
Loconte accuses the Christian right of a “murky” agenda leaning towards a renewal of the Spanish Inquisition, a “Leviathan wearing the robes of a priest,” exercising raw executive power to vanquish the enemies of conservatism. And I’m certainly against all such cross dressing, but his central defense for his claim seems to be what he calls an “uncritical embrace” of Trump. But Loconte’s summary of Lockean principles of “equality, natural rights, and religious freedom” all based on the “application of the golden rule” hovers in its own murky soup of ambiguity with hungry bureaucratic mosquitoes buzzing all over the thing. What I mean is that far too many conservatives are satisfied with using vague, idealistic terminology that’s wide enough to drive most of the Leftist agenda through.
Maybe I’m being a little hard on Mr. Loconte, and maybe we’re closer than I fear, but let us run a little thought experiment, shall we? Given what Loconte says about the Lockean spirit permeating the early American project, wouldn’t that spirit be well represented by the 17th and 18th century colonial constitutions and criminal codes? Everybody good with just cutting and pasting and going back to those idyllic Lockean days of yore?
For example, Connecticut’s 1639 constitution read in part: “That the Scriptures hold forth a perfect rule for the direction and government of all men in duties which they are to perform to God and men, as well in families and commonwealths as in matters of the church… in all public offices which concern civil order, — as the choice of magistrates and officers, making and repealing laws, dividing allotments of inheritance, and all things of like nature, — they would all be governed by those rules which the Scripture held forth to them…” There’s no Leviathan done up in priestly robes here, right? Just asking (for a friend).
Let the Prophet Speak
It’s all fine and good to bring out the quotes that tickle the ears of moderns, with vague words like “equality, natural rights, and religious freedom,” but what did the author of those words have in mind? I suspect something far closer to theonomy and Christendom than many conservatives at National Review are willing to admit. Just as one quick example to give some conservatives the creeping fantods, let us hear from our hero John Locke, who, speaking of the curses given by God in the Fall, writes: “God, in this text, gives not, that I see, any authority to Adam over Eve, or to men over their wives, but only foretells what should be the woman’s lot, how by his providence he would order it so, that she should be subject to her husband, as we see that generally the laws of mankind and customs of nations have ordered it so; and there is, I grant, a foundation in nature for it” (First Treatise on Government, 35).
Now quite apart from the exact exegesis of a much studied text, Mr. Equality and Natural Rights Himself says that there is a foundation in nature for a wife to be subject to her husband, as ordered by God’s providence and reflected in the laws of mankind and customs of nations. I’ll just leave that there. Ok, I can’t help myself: would lobbying for civil laws that recognize that providential ordering by God, a man and a woman in the covenant of marriage, with a woman naturally subject to her husband, would that be an example of the Right wielding “unlimited power of government” and a Leviathan in a surplice?
Or let me ask Loconte and others of similar persuasion another question: would Locke have supported a ban on public displays of indecency, pride parades, drag queen story hours, sodomy, and the like? I cannot imagine Locke disagreeing with such a ban. I cannot imagine Lockean Christians opposing such a ban until about 15 minutes ago, right around the time the Gospel Coalition formed.
In fact, Locke tips his hand on the matter when answering one fellow who claimed fathers have absolute authority over children, including selling or castrating their children, to which Locke replied that he may as well add murdering and cannibalizing them, and “if this proves a right to do so, we may, by the same argument, justify adultery, incest, and sodomy, for there are examples of these too, both ancient and modern; sins, which I suppose have their principal aggravation from this, that they cross the main intention of nature which willeth the increase of mankind, and the continuation of the species in the highest perfection, and the distinction of families, with the security of the marriage bed, as necessary thereunto” (First Treatise on Government, 43).
Now, it’s clear that Locke is primarily exposing his opponent’s faulty reasoning, but he does so arguing reductio ad absurdum, reducing his opponent’s faulty reasoning to absurdity. If a father has absolute power over life and death over his children because such a thing has been practiced in other cultures and civilizations, you may as well also argue for cannibalism and sodomy which are utterly repugnant to morality and nature as self-destroying practices. And if it is love of neighbor and the golden rule which causes civil magistrates to restrain and punish those who would murder or eat their own children, then it is by the same standard love of neighbor to refuse to allow grown men in dresses to groom our young children for unnatural and destructive sins. And to my point: John Locke would clearly understand the suppression of sexual immorality, as defined by the Bible, within a civil magistrate’s purview, and nothing approaching a totalitarian Leviathan in a pope hat.
What happened? Until only very recently, Christians were completely comfortable with the civil code reflecting Biblical morality. What happened was that a bunch of Christians bought the lie that some of that morality is purely “religious” and unique to the Christian religion, and therefore, it was necessary for the public square to embrace some other standard, some other neutral or semi-neutral common ground. Why? Because it would be wrong for civil government to force Christian morality on anyone.
But what is this neutral or semi-neutral common ground that you speak of? Where did it come from and what are its rules and standards? If it isn’t Jesus Christ, then it cannot be fixed and objective. And this tells you really all that you need to know. The play to get Christians to come away from Scripture as the standard for all of life, including civil criminal codes, is only a ploy to get power. And the accusation that Christians are only becoming like their liberal adversaries by insisting on “the laws of nature and nature’s God” is like accusing a math teacher of bullying because he marked an incorrect addition problem wrong. They don’t care about bullying; they are trying to destroy mathematics.
Now to be clear, I cannot actually tell from the article what Loconte means by his warning. The only specific thing he points to are a couple of medieval Catholics lamenting the loss of Papal totalitarianism and then a claim of uncritical embrace of Trump. But given the vagueness, at the very least Loconte has left a bunch of fuel for the Leftists to use against old school Lockean Puritans who simply want to require the government to do what the Bible says it must do which is to punish those who would castrate their children, encourage sodomy openly, and redefine marriage as anything other than a man and a woman in covenant union.
It is true that we must not require what God does not require, and I have no interest in going back to the high middle ages where the bloated Leviathan was an obese church, drunk on power. I’m a Protestant. But what Locke and Rutherford and others articulated was truly a Biblically-limited Christendom, a Protestant Christendom, and therefore a Christendom under Christ, not under any other human government. Under Christ, there is a plurality of governments as the original constitution of Connecticut recognized in the family, church, and state, and they are limited by the Word of God. When those governments are fully functioning, they check the power of one another, as they submit to the assignments given to them by the “laws of nature and nature’s God.” This was the vision of the covenantors, the Calvinists and Puritans who largely founded and settled our nation. Biblical Christian politics is the only structure that actually makes room for minority opinions, dissidents, and requires true Christian tolerance.
I suspect that Loconte would be leery of Michael Flynn’s recent call for a single recognized religion in America, but if we understand that not to be a single denomination, but simply trinitarian Christianity – Apostles’ Creed Christianity, then Michael Flynn is absolutely correct. And Locke and the Founding Fathers would have agreed. You cannot appeal to the golden rule and then say that the golden rule doesn’t have any authority. You cannot appeal to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” and then say that you have no idea if such a Being actually exists. That’s incoherent.
We need not go back to the Spanish Inquisition to return to an explicitly Christian republic, as our Founding Fathers intended. And when we do, there is nothing remotely similar between that project and liberal fascism. The gospel makes room for unbelievers, for other religions to exist, but it also suppresses idolatry and self-destroying sins and crimes. And it does that because it is committed to protecting individuals and their property even if they are not nearly as zealous for their personal freedoms as they ought to be. But that is what the golden rule actually does. It actually resists the evil desires of other people where God’s Word insists that we must. This is truly loving our neighbor. If you want the golden rule to actually, well, rule, then you must have Christ as King. But if you will not have Christ, then eventually you will not have the golden rule at all.