An Open Letter from Richard Hooker to the Republican Party of the United States

The following is adapted, with small changes, glosses, and additions (for clarification and contemporary re-specification), from sections of the Preface to Richard Hooker’s Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie. Any modifications or additions are in italics; omissions are marked with ellipses. Key passages are marked in more prominent typeface.

A Preface to them that Seek (as they term it) the Repealment of Laws, and Orders Regarding Obamacare in the United States of America

Notwithstanding, as though ye were able to say a great deal more than hitherto your interviews on Fox News and denunciations on talk radio have revealed to the world, earnest challengers ye are of trial by some public disputation regarding the merits or demerits of the Affordable Care Act. Wherein if the thing ye crave be no more than only leave to dispute openly about those matters that are in question, the schools in universities (for any thing I know) are open unto you, as are the airwaves, the press, the daily and hourly opinion columns of the internet news media and blogs. . . wherein the several parts of our own healthcare laws and regulations are oftentimes offered unto that kind of examination; the learnedest of you, and the not-so-learned, have been of late years noted seldom or never absent from thence . . .  and the favour of proposing there in convenient sort whatsoever ye can object . . . neither hath (as I think) nor ever will (I presume) be denied you.

If your suit be to have some great extraordinary congressional debate, in expectation whereof the laws that already are, having been passed by the duly elected representatives of the legislature, affirmed by the duly elected executive, and upheld by the duly appointed judiciary, should sleep and have no power over you, till in the hearing of thousands ye all did acknowledge your error and renounce the further prosecution of your cause: haply they whose authority is required unto the satisfying of your demand do think it both dangerous to admit such concourse of divided minds, and unmeet that laws, which being once solemnly established are to exact obedience of all men and to constrain thereunto, should so far stoop as to hold themselves in suspense from taking any effect upon you till some disputer can persuade you to be obedient. A law is the deed of the whole body politic, whereof if ye judge yourselves to be any part, then is the law even your deed also. And were it reason in things of this quality to give men audience, pleading for the overthrow of that which their own very deed hath ratified? Laws, such as Obamacare, that have been approved may be (no man doubteth) again repealed, and to that end also disputed against, by the authors thereof themselves; and Congress is welcome to take up the question of repealment in the course of its ordinary deliberations. But this is when the whole doth deliberate what laws each part shall observe, and not when a part refuseth to put into effect the laws which the whole hath orderly agreed upon, whether that be the obstructionist action of state authorities, or, as in the present debate, the refusal of part of Congress to fund the operation of that which by its own deed it has passed into law.

Notwithstanding, . . . might it please them on whose approbation the matter dependeth, the President and the Senate, to condescend so far unto you in this behalf as to reopen the question of the desirability of Obamacare, I wish for proof . . . that you would yourselves promise to be satisfied by the conclusion of that debate, or else could by satisfying others draw them to your part. Provided always, first, inasmuch as ye go about to destroy a thing which is in force . . . and to overthrow those things whereof we are possessed; that therefore ye are not to claim in any such conference other than the plaintiff’s or opponent’s part, which must consist altogether in proof and confirmation of two things: the one, that our orders by you condemned we ought to abolish; the other, that yours we are bound to accept in the stead thereof.

What success God may give unto any such kind of conference or disputation, we cannot tell. But of this we are right sure, that nature, Scripture and experience itself, have all taught the world to seek for the ending of contentions by submitting itself unto some judicial and definitive sentence, whereunto neither part that contendeth may under any pretence or colour refuse to stand. This must needs be effectual and strong. As for other means without this, they seldom prevail. By God’s grace, ye have such a means of judicial and definitive sentence in your Consitution, namely, the Supreme Court of your realm, which I understand hath yielded already its summary judgment on this present controversyI would therefore know, whether for the ending of these irksome strifes, wherein you and your followers do stand thus formally divided against the authorized guides of this nation, and the rest of the people subject unto their charge; whether I say ye be content to refer your cause to any other higher judgment than your own, or else intend to persist and proceed as ye have begun, till yourselves can be persuaded to condemn yourselves. If your determination be this, we can be but sorry that ye should deserve to be reckoned with such, of whom God himself pronounceth, “The way of peace they have not known.

Ways of peaceable conclusion there are, but these two certain: the one, a sentence of judicial decision given by authority thereto appointed within ourselves; the other, the like kind of sentence given by a more universal authority. The former of which two ways God himself in the Law prescribeth, and his Spirit it was which directed the very first Christian churches in the world to use the latter. The ordinance of God in the Law was this. “If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea, &c. then shalt thou arise, and go up unto the place which the Lord thy God shall choose; and thou shalt come unto the Priests of the Levites, and unto the Judge that shall be in those days, and ask, and they shall shew thee the sentence of judgment, and thou shalt do according to that thing, which they of that place which the Lord hath chosen shew thee, and thou shalt observe to do according to all that they inform thee; according to the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, shalt thou do; thou shalt not decline from the thing which they shall shew thee to the right hand nor to the left. And that man that will do presumptuously, not hearkening unto the Priest (that standeth before the Lord thy God to minister there) or unto the Judge, that man shall die, and thou shalt take away evil from Israel.”

When there grew in the Church of Christ a question, Whether the Gentiles believing might be saved, although they were not circumcised after the manner of Moses, nor did observe the rest of those legal rites and ceremonies whereunto the Jews were bound; after great dissension and disputation about it, their conclusion in the end was to have it determined by sentence at Jerusalem; which was accordingly done in a council there assembled for the same purpose. Are ye able to allege any just and sufficient cause wherefore absolutely ye should not condescend in this controversy to have your judgments overruled by some such definitive sentence, whether it fall out to be given with or against you; that so these tedious contentions may cease?

Ye will perhaps make answer, that being persuaded already as touching the truth of your cause, persuaded that Obamacare is contrary to the Constitution of your realm and to the rule of justice, ye are not to hearken unto any sentence, no not though Angels should define otherwise, as the blessed Apostle’s own example teacheth: again, that men, yea councils, may err; and that, unless the judgment given do satisfy your minds, unless it be such as ye can by no further argument oppugn, in a word, unless you perceive and acknowledge it yourselves consonant with God’s word; to stand unto it not allowing it were to sin against your own consciences.

But consider I beseech you first as touching the Apostle, how that wherein he was so resolute and peremptory, our Lord Jesus Christ made manifest unto him even by intuitive revelation, wherein there was no possibility of error. That which you are persuaded of, ye have it no otherwise than by your own only probable collection, and therefore such bold asseverations as in him were admirable, should in your mouths but argue rashness. God was not ignorant that the priests and judges, whose sentence in matters of controversy he ordained should stand, both might and oftentimes would be deceived in their judgment. Howbeit, better it was in the eye of His understanding, that sometime an erroneous sentence definitive should prevail, till the same authority perceiving such oversight, might afterwards correct or reverse it, than that strifes should have respite to grow, and not come speedily unto some end.

Neither wish we that men should do any thing which in their hearts they are persuaded they ought not to do, but this persuasion ought (we say) to be fully settled in their hearts; that in litigious and controversed causes of such quality, the will of God is to have them do whatsoever the sentence of judicial and final decision shall determine, yea, though it seem in their private opinion to swerve utterly from that which is right: as no doubt many times the sentence amongst the Jews did seem unto one part or other contending, and yet in this case, God did then allow them to do that which in their private judgment it seemed, yea and perhaps truly seemed, that the law did disallow. For if God be not the author of confusion but of peace, then can he not be the author of our refusal, but of our contentment, to stand unto some definitive sentence; without which almost impossible it is that either we should avoid confusion, or ever hope to attain peace. To small purpose had the Council of Jerusalem been assembled, if once their determination being set down, men might afterwards have defended their former opinions. When therefore they had given their definitive sentence, all controversy was at an end. Things were disputed before they came to be determined; men afterwards were not to dispute any longer, but to obey. The sentence of judgment finished their strife, which their disputes before judgment could not do. This was ground sufficient for any reasonable man’s conscience to build the duty of obedience upon, whatsoever his own opinion were as touching the matter before in question. So full of wilfulness and self-liking is our nature, that without some definitive sentence, which being given may stand, and a necessity of silence on both sides afterward imposed, small hope there is that strifes thus far prosecuted will in short time quietly end.

Shall there be then in the meanwhile no “doings?” Yes. There are the weightier matters of the law, “judgment, and mercy, and fidelity.” These things we ought to do; and these things, while we contend about less, we leave undone. Happier are they whom the Lord when he cometh shall find “doing” in these things, than disputing about “Doctors, Insurance Exchanges, and Medicare.” Or if there be no remedy but somewhat needs ye must do which may tend to the setting forward of your policies; do that which wise men, who think some statute of the realm more fit to be repealed than to stand in force, are accustomed to do before they come to Congress where the place of enacting is; that is to say, spend the time in re-examining more duly your cause, and in more throughly considering of that which ye labour to overthrow. As for the orders which are established, sith equity and reason, the law of nature, God and man, do all favour that which is in being, till orderly judgment of decision be given against it; it is but justice to exact of you, and perverseness in you it should be to deny, thereunto your willing obedience.

Not that I judge it a thing allowable for men to observe those laws which in their hearts they are steadfastly persuaded to be against the law of God: but your persuasion in this case ye are all bound for the time to suspend; and in otherwise doing, ye offend against God by troubling his Church without any just or necessary cause. Be it that there are some reasons inducing you to think hardly of our laws—that you deem that loss of freedom, increase of expense, and manifold injustices will be the result of these policies. Are those reasons demonstrative, are they necessary, or but mere probabilities only? An argument necessary and demonstrative is such, as being proposed unto any man and understood, the mind cannot choose but inwardly assent. Any one such reason dischargeth, I grant, the conscience, and setteth it at full liberty. For the public approbation given by the body of this whole nation unto those things which are established, doth make it but probable that they are good. And therefore unto a necessary proof that they are not good it must give place. But if the skilfullest amongst you can shew that all the books ye have hitherto written be able to afford any one argument of this nature, let the instance be given. As for probabilities, what thing was there ever set down so agreeable with sound reason, but some probable shew against it might be made? Is it meet that when publicly things are received, and have taken place, general obedience thereunto should cease to be exacted, in case this or that private person, led with some probable conceit, should make open protestation, “I Peter or John disallow them, and pronounce them nought?” In which case your answer will be, that concerning the laws of our nation, they are not only condemned in the opinion of “a private man, but of thousands,” yea and even “of those amongst which divers are in public charge and authority.” As though when public consent of the whole hath established any thing, every man’s judgment being thereunto compared were not private, howsoever his calling be to some kind of public charge. So that of peace and quietness there is not any way possible, unless the probable voice of every entire society or body politic overrule all private of like nature in the same body. Which thing effectually proveth, that God, being author of peace and not of confusion in the commonwealth, must needs be author of those men’s peaceable resolutions, who concerning these things have determined with themselves to think and do as the commonwealth they are of decreeth, till they see necessary cause enforcing them to the contrary.

Richard Hooker (1553-1600), the leading English Reformed or “Anglican” theologian, is widely acknowledged as one of the great fathers of the principles of conservative political thought, and as one of the great champions of liberty and of conscience, in the early modern period.  This passage is taken from Sections V and VI of the Preface to his Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie.

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