When you think about the purpose of the US federal government and the basis of its legitimacy, where do you start, and what do you include?
Obviously one has to think of the Constitution. But how to think about it? There is a temptation to think about canonical texts ahistorically, as though it were desirable or possible to treat them as free-floating utterances from nowhere which we then with disinterested mathematical precision apply directly in our contemporary judgments on various matters. But they do not come from nowhere, and we are not really disinterested, and our applications are never as precise as we think they are. So we can never quite get the application entirely right. But we are helped to get closer when we study the historical context in which the documents first appear, so that we can understand them as answers to certain prior questions and assumptions and begin to allow them in turn to expose and challenge our own assumptions and not only answer but revise our own questions. That means that we always not only look at the historical context of the canonical documents but always also subject our own point of view to questioning.
These thoughts are prompted by a comment from a friend of a friend, a person whom I have not otherwise met, named Ördög Rafael, which I quote here with his permission:
“I think the core problem here [he was commenting on an article on Steve Bannon’s statements about “deconstructing the regulatory state”] is that many Americans see the state as some sort of evil force restricting their freedom, instead of what it really is: an agreement between all of us that we will treat each other fairly in return for being treated fairly by others.
“This agreement is not only between all of us, but it is part of the core values of almost every religion be it Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and many others. It’s even at the core of most agnostic and atheist value systems.
“The government’s purpose is to enforce this pact. Dismantling it leads to anarchy and the worst form of Dickensian capitalism. Dismantling it is an attack on religious values and secular values alike.”
To me, this comment from Ördög implies that we should not think of the federal government only by way of a strict-constructionist (which I would say means hermeneutically naive, i.e., ignoring the considerations that I sketched very briefly above) reading of the Constitution but also by way of a much larger conversation that includes asking from other angles (including, for a Christian, some basic questions about God, world, and the role of the people of God in the world): what is government, in any time and place? What is its significance and its aim? I think Ördög’s formulation is a good prompt for such thinking. And I think it exposes very concisely the foolishness and immorality of political sabotage (e.g., of voting for an unsuitable candidate for president or appointing an unsuitable person to high office for the express purpose of gumming up the works or bringing the whole thing crashing down). Political sabotage—anti-politics in place of constructive politics—on a large scale is precisely what we have been seeing lately. It is foolish, and destructive, and immoral, and it needs to be stopped and reversed.
When political sabotage hides behind slogans which have some legitimacy when approached differently (such as “limited government”) it needs to be differentiated and exposed; this is the internal battle that we see happening in conservative discourse. When we once again have a conservative movement or party that has escaped and denounced the forces of anti-political sabotage, the competition between conservative and liberal visions of the nature and destiny of the American state can resume. Until then, morally serious conservatives and liberals need to join forces in mutual aid against the sowers (and sewers) of strategic chaos. This week we saw three Republican senators step up to that challenge. We need to see a lot more courage of that sort from both parties. I think such courage is fostered by deeply historical, philosophical, and—for those who are willing and able to go there—theological reflection on the meaning and mission of government in our American setting.
If you don’t follow anything else I have said here, I hope you will at least ponder Ördög’s first sentence.