[EDIT FOR CLARIFICATION: A lot of people are being directed to this as a response to Wilson’s recent “Sermon to the Government and Legislature of Idaho.” In fact, it was written and posted before that sermon. However, many of the concerns voiced here certainly apply (along with additional ones) to what was said there.]
Let me begin with a few (big) caveats. I’ve been out of the country for three years now. That provides some helpful perspective, I hope, but it also means I’m pretty ignorant. Way back three years ago, when the original healthcare battles were being fought, I paid a good deal of attention, but never read up in detail on the final bill, which seemed to me to be a very poor piece of legislation, a compromise that combined the worst elements of both sides. Since then, I’ve turned a blind eye to the continued bickering, protesting, anathematizing, and so on that has continued to dog “Obamacare.” I mostly ignored all the lead-up to the Supreme Court decision, and I’ve read very little on the details of that decision. I’m basically glad John Roberts did what he did, if only because I felt like the whole brawl needed a referee to step in and say “Time out. Let’s not do anything rash in the heat of the moment.”
So, if you want to lob rotten tomatoes at me, I understand. But as a few folks really encouraged me to post these thoughts, I’ll go ahead and stick my neck out there anyway. In any case, the important questions here are at the level of theo-political principles, not the particular details of Obamacare.
Among Christians, perhaps particularly Reformed Christians, one is likely to hear these days that this is the last straw. Our government has crossed the line. It is the Leviathan, the Beast now. It has thrown out of the window “biblical principles of limited government,” making itself out to be infinite, to be God, to be Savior. Christians have a duty to resist it now, in some form or other (whatever that means…). If we aren’t going to stand up for “biblical principles of limited government,” then who is? Needless to say, I think this is a deeply misguided line of attack.
For one thing, if it’s really so black and white, and so serious, then what do these statements say about the tens of millions of American Christians who support something like Obamacare? Or the scores (maybe hundreds) of millions of Christians worldwide who support universal health care? For another, if these biblical principles of limited government are so obvious, could we at least hear a frank admission from most of their advocates that they have only become obvious to Christians quite recently. We could pick examples from the 4th century or the 19th, but let’s just stick with the Reformation, since I know that best, and that’s when all our greatest heroes lived, right? Calvin’s Geneva—really limited government, right? Ha! It would be hard to think of a more meddlesome commonwealth! Almost every aspect of the citizens’ lives—religious, economic, entertainment, apparel—were closely regulated. “Oh, but that was by the church, so it was OK.” (People will really say that, you know.) Well, not really, no—just check out my recent post on the politics of Geneva. How about Martin Bucer, author of that great Biblical treatise on government, On the Kingdom of Christ. If he published that book during the Cold War, he probably would’ve been imprisoned as a Soviet propagandist. Bucer’s Christian magistrate has his hands in everything—agricultural legislation, suppressing trade of luxury goods, education, church-building, welfare, etc., etc.
Now, we’re perfectly free to say, “Well yes, the Reformers were a bit totalitarian in their view of the Christian prince’s scope of responsibility, but we have since learned better, and we have the Bible verses to prove it.” But if men so zealous for fidelity to Scripture in every area of life saw no contradiction between what we now would call “command economies” and the Bible, this should at least temper the zeal of those who think that the plain teaching of Scripture is at stake.
But let’s turn now to ask what this plain teaching of Scripture is. The only possible guidance one can get out of the New Testament is Romans 13:4, which only helps you if (as a remarkable number of otherwise intelligent people have done) you take it as providing a complete description of the legitimate scope of governmental activity. Is universal healthcare a way of executing wrath on the evildoer? Doesn’t look like it, so obviously it’s not legitimate—so the argument goes. In the Old Testament, libertarians must face the inconvenient fact that Exodus through Deuteronomy seems to offer an incredibly meddlesome law code, complete with shocking infringements on private property like the gleaning and jubilee laws. Of course, the ready response at this point is that these are “laws” only in the moral sense, which God’s people, as individuals, are responsible before him to obey, but they aren’t civil laws, so it’s OK. Having done a good bit of work in this area, I have little hesitation in saying that this is anachronistic to the point of incoherence.
Ah, but then we come to 1 Samuel 8, a favorite passage among the monarchomachs, which portrays various kinds of governmental overreach as a divine judgment upon the people. Indeed, our modern-day Christian libertarians are eager to point out vs. 15 and 17, where Samuel tells the people the appalling prediction that this new king will tax 1/10th of their produce. Well, there you have it, we are told. Tax rates of 10% and over are unbiblical. But one might just as well complain that we have police forces, complex legal institutions, separation of powers in our government, standing armies, and pay our taxes in cash, not grain—all contrary to ancient Israel. The simple fact is that a more complex society demands a more complex (and more expensive) government structure. In any case, it’s worth noting that Scripture itself appears to recognize this, praising expansions of administration under godly kings—Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, Josiah. The godly kings are involved in all kinds of stuff—religious reform, economic reform, judicial reform, major building projects, military expansion, etc.—and they’re praised for it. It’s not so much the scope of royal power per se that seems to the problem, but the use of it. The problem with the wicked kings is that they used the great scope of their power for wicked ends.
To be sure, in Scripture, we are given certain key principles of “limited government.” Above all, the principle that God stands above and behind all governments, it is He who raises them up and casts them down, it is to Him that they are accountable. Governments cannot therefore seek to usurp his place. They cannot claim powers that are only his. They can not claim dominion over the whole world, or over human hearts. They cannot claim to define good and evil; rather, they are bound to the moral law he has established, and will be judged by Him if they violate it. While certainly not explicit in Scripture (all the attempts of 17th-century republicans notwithstanding!) we can also certainly develop from Scripture they idea that it is good for government to find ways to incorporate the consent of the governed. Indeed, we could continue along such lines, attempting to extrapolate reasonable principles from Scripture as to what governments ought to do and not to do. But already, we have moved beyond clear biblical principles (the violation of which is rebellion against God) into the realm of prudential reasoning.
If we’re looking for a list of enumerated powers, some very clear limits on the sorts of things government can legitimately take responsibility for, I’m afraid the US Constitution is where you’ll have to look, not the Bible. Christians today who claim about the ungodly expansion of government tend to confuse these two—the generic Biblical limits on government (don’t usurp the place of God)—with the concrete American constitutional limits on government. We seem to think that if a government transgresses these latter, it has claimed freedom from all bounds, has claimed equality with God. In particular, we are told that the judicial decision last week constituted a claim that the US government has a prerogative “without limit.” Really? Did John Roberts yesterday just certify that the US government has sovereignty over any territory on earth it desires to occupy? Did John Roberts just certify that the US government can tell you what you’re allowed to read? which church to attend? which God to believe in? Hardly. Of course, there is no doubt that the US government, by its sheer scale and pervasive wickedness, has bestial proclivities, a tendency to make itself into an idol which must be served, to make its own glorification the end of its existence.
But where will we draw the limit, if we abandon the enumerated powers of a strictly construed Constitution? If we don’t draw the line in the sand here, then where will it stop? There are no criteria, we are told. But this is to assume that the only criteria we have to work with are neat, concretely defined little checkboxes: national defense? Check. Police service? Check. Regulate interstate commerce? Check. Issue drivers licenses? Check. Define the meaning of marriage? Check. Ban abortion? Check.
The fact is, a great many nations of the world get by just fine without the kind of written limit that we are asking for. The idea of a Constitution with enumerated powers is by no means a ubiquitous one. Britain has no such thing. Britain relies on a slowly developing common law tradition, in which precedent, popular consent and the principles of natural equity serve as limits upon the legitimate scope of government action. Of course, I suppose most of the Christian Right, would have few qualms about dismissing much of the rest of the world, including Britain, as totalitarian. But this is just a combination of naïveté and hubris, or else depends upon the possession of a reliable concrete standard for defining what counts as totalitarian. And in any case, ultimately, the US too must fall back on these kinds of limits. If nothing else, this controversy is proof that a constitution with enumerated powers is insufficient. There is too much room for disagreement about how much these powers may be stretched, and even how much of a straitjacket a 220-year-old Constitution should be. Ultimately, while the Constitution provides certain limits on the scope of our government’s powers, legal precedent, popular consent, and the sense of natural equity play a bigger role.
But, aside from the Constitution, do we have no standard for determining the just limits of government? What do Scripture and natural law have to tell us? A good two kingdoms theology will warn us against the danger of seeking for detailed guidance on matters pertaining to the civil kingdom in Scripture. Even where Scripture does give detailed guidance, it is the nature of such matters is to be variable according to time and circumstance, so there is no a priori guarantee that the guidance still applies (e.g., the 1 Sam. 8 taxation question above). What does necessarily still apply (the “equity” of the law) does so because it belongs to the natural law, with which Scripture is “fraught,” according to Hooker. The general principles of Scripture and the natural law will coincide in helping us see that certain things governments might try to do are intrinsically beyond their God-given limits. So, although it is somewhat question-begging, we can of course start by saying that government oversteps its limits if it ever commands us to act contrary to the moral law, such as ordering its citizens into a blatantly unjust war, or requiring doctors to prescribe abortifacients, or requiring ministers to marry gay couples. Of course, such situations may require a good deal of discernment, and most cases are not so obvious. Natural law will also require that government abide by principles of justice, commutative and distributive. These too require discernment, and it is not always clear what belongs to the fundamental moral law and what are mere changeable positive laws of Scripture; thankfully, the Christian tradition of moral theology has already done a lot of the heavy lifting for us on this point. Most importantly, we can lay down, on the basis of a good two kingdoms theology, that government must never seek to intrude itself upon the realm of belief or to idolatrously claim religious devotion (though again, it requires a great deal of work to cash out what constitutes such violations and what does not).
In any case, though, natural law does not function well as a detailed set of prescriptions, or even a set of deductive principles from which we may arrive, a priori, at a detailed set of prescriptions. That is not the sort of thing it is, since it reveals itself in prudential reasoning in ever-changing circumstances which pose ever-new demands. Rather, it functions best as a means of testing, a posteriori, certain proposed actions, and seeking to discern whether they violate fundamental norms—in other words, much more in the manner of a common law tradition than an attempt to establish enumerated powers. So we do have means of determining the just limits to government, but they are no silver bullet or infallible answer key; they require a great deal of attention to particular needs and constraints.
So, finally, to come back to Obamacare, what might such limits have to say to this particular question? Has some fundamental line been crossed, now that the government can “coerce us to buy something”? Well, hardly. Although I haven’t read the opinion, I think Roberts was quite right in his basic view of the situation. To describe the individual mandate as a market transaction that you were required to engage in was the Obama administration’s attempt to compromise with the market model they were confronted with. In most health care systems, it is quite clear that the government is ensuring the provision of a service, and requiring you to pay for it in some way or another—in other words, taxing you for it.
Now, you can try to be a consistent anarchist and insist that all taxation is theft, but if not, you’re going to have to grant that we already accept any number of “coerced purchases” through taxation. We pay, through our taxes, for defence from enemies and from criminals, for the provision of justice at the courts, for the maintenance of a stable currency, for government safety inspections in various industries, for a transportation network, for weather measurement and forecasting, for public parks for disaster management and response, etc. (just to pick a few items that even arch-conservatives are unlikely to object to, though you never know these days). Of course, I have argued before, and will continue to argue, that it’s really misguided to think of such taxation in terms of coercion—or rather, it is only coercive if you first choose to think of it as such. But in any case, is there something special about healthcare that makes it categorically inappropriate for us to be taxed for the provision of, whereas it is perfectly fine to tax us for the provision of firefighters? In both cases, the reasoning is, “Some unforeseen peril or harm may suddenly come upon a citizen, which he does not have the means to rescue himself from on his own. As part of ensuring that we, as a society, take care of one another in our need, we tax citizens to provide the means to protect and care for them in their need.” Indeed, it seems rather easier to justify taxation for healthcare than taxation for transportation, for instance. Now, none of this is to say that universal public healthcare is necessarily a good idea, and certainly not that the particular ugly hybrid enacted in the US is a good idea. It may be poorly-conceived in any number of ways. But this is quite different from saying it is a grave injustice, a mark of rebellion against God, etc.
When we want to ask whether government has become tyranny, the chief question to be asked is whether it is seeking to serve the common good of its people, or whether it has turned aside to serve the private good of the governors. The tyrant has classically been identified as the one who turns on his own people, plundering them for his own private gain (to be sure, there are ideological tyrants, like Hitler, who oppress for the sake of some perverse higher end—but is that really what we’re dealing with?). This is the problem with Tea Party-type cries of “tyranny.” Where are the millions and billions that Obama is stealing from the American people to fill his own bank account? Actually, he, and almost all other government officials, make considerably less than most private sector executives. “Oh, well it’s not money, of course,” we’re told, “it’s the quest for power for power’s sake.” Well maybe, in the case of some people. But in general, most people who advocate universal healthcare do so on the basis of genuinely trying to serve the common good. They may certainly be going about it in the wrong way, but that doesn’t make them tyrants.
To show the ways in which Obamacare is flawed, we cannot point to some cut-and-dried Bible verse, or some blindingly obvious principle of justice. We will have to resort to detailed arguments and analyses, to the much more difficult but more rewarding task of persuasion, to show the ways in which justice and the common good are undermined, rather than advanced. And we will have to live with the fact that some Christians of good will may continue to disagree with us. And wherever there is legitimate room for disagreement about what the common good requires, then we are not talking about an issue of conscience on which we are bound “to obey God rather than men.” Many are loudly declaring that Christians need to stand up and resist this evil; otherwise, we are obeying men rather than God. The implication, of course, is that the tens of millions of Christians who disagree with them on this (within the US alone) are in rebellion against God. Really? Are we willing to go that far? No, it seems quite clear to me that what we are differing about is a question of the best pursuit of natural goods within the civil kingdom, a matter in which Scripture and the natural law will inform us but may not lead us to any one certain conclusion. That being the case, we are certainly free to continue to argue our case, but we are not free, it seems to me, to disobey our rulers. “Our judgments we are bound in this case to suspend,” as Hooker would tell us on such a matter—obeying the law even as we critique it.