Now, all of the preceding has one huge asterisk attached to it; everything I have argued holds if and only if Obamacare falls within the normal spectrum of good, mediocre, and bad law. Now don’t get me wrong; my own view is that it falls very decidedly on the “bad law” end of the spectrum, in a whole host of ways. But America has seen a lot of very bad laws—Patriot Act, anyone?—that have not warranted, or have certainly not evoked, this kind of response. If the Right is not going to be hypocritical, they have to show why this is different and unique. If in fact it is an abomination before God or against man, an attack on the body politic, a form of tyranny or gross injustice, or sure to do incalculable harm to the common good, well then, we may be in a state of justified exception to the principles I articulated above. Hooker after all says, “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”; obviously there comes a point at which “it’s the law of the land” should not be sufficient in itself to compel obedience. If, for instance, to pick an issue of particular concern to conservatives, Congress were to pass a law requiring that all doctors without exception must perform abortions on demand, civil disobedience on the part of doctors would be the only acceptable option, and ferocious opposition by legislators might be in order. In cases such as this, we would celebrate the many checks and balances in our constitutional system, and seek to use whichever ones we could to obstruct the implementation of such an unjust law. But is the Affordable Care Act, as such, of this nature?
The biggest objection I received to my invocation of Hooker on Obamacare and the government shutdown, unsurprisingly, was that these statements of his could not take into account the particular Constitutional structures of the United States. He wrote in an age and in a constitutional setting where there really was very little recourse if you didn’t like the law—it was the Queen’s way or the highway, so to speak. Sure, there was a Parliament through whom elected representatives made decisions on behalf of the body politic, but its power was limited, and its claim to meaningfully represent the people was fairly tenuous by our modern standards. The right and wrong current debate in the United States Congress could not, of course, be adjudicated by standards from 16th-century England, but only by standards applicable in 21st-century America—including, above all, the Constitution. So the objection went.
Of course, I was well aware of the anachronism of the post, which I sought to humorously highlight in its title. I do not think, however, that the appeal to the American constitutional system affects my core point in invoking Hooker; for, as I have sought to highlight in the previous installment, this concerned the rhetoric and attitude behind current Republican obstructionism, rather than its mechanism per se. It is quite possible to stay within the letter of the law in the means of political opposition used, without in any way maintaining an attitude of respectful obedience toward the law. Indeed, it is my contention that the forms in which this objection has been voiced simply reinforces the fundamental problem of political and societal breakdown that I wanted to highlight in my post.
I have been told that using such measures as a government shutdown or potential debt default as bargaining chips to pass legislation is simply “democracy at work,” and that the “power of the purse” is a “political weapon” that the Constitution “granted to the House to be employed as it was found to be necessary.” Of course, debates over to what extent the current crisis is unprecedented or routine have become a prominent part of the partisan back-and-forth over the past week. I do not feel historically-qualified to resolve them entirely, although I have become reasonably convinced of the following conclusions:
(1) there is considerable precedent for using government shutdowns as leverage for resolving policy disputes, even if the current situation is uncharacteristic by virtue of the sheer boldness of the Republican demands, which, requiring as they did the overturn of such a signature and significant piece of legislation, could not really be considered as a good-faith negotiating position
(2) there has been considerable precedent of negotiating against the backdrop of an impending debt-ceiling, in which the possibility of default loomed as an implicit threat above the heads of both parties, but the current situation is largely distinctive inasmuch as Republicans have turned this implicit threat into an explicit ultimatum, inasmuch as their core demand (the repeal of Obamacare) is essentially extraneous to the budget debate itself, and inasmuch as their demands were so exorbitant that they could never conceivably be attained by ordinary political means. (For more on this, see the interaction between Jonathan Chait and Ross Douthat here, here, here, and here).
So commentators on the left are unfair to treat all of this as wholly unprecedented political terrorism. However, that does not mean that it is reasonable to describe all of this simply as business as usual, or “democracy at work.” Read More
From his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:
It is also shown here that the magistrate’s main duty (for when Aristotle mentions the political faculty, he is speaking of him) is to produce good citizens. It is doubtless important for him to enrich his subjects, to extend the limits of empire, and to fortify the city with defenses and ramparts; but the magistrate’s main job is to produce good citizens. Those who hold the reins of government should think nothing that contributes to this irrelevant to their duty. They will not, as some do, regard the pure and chaste observation of religion as beyond their purview. This being so, the best view is that a very close connection between the magistrate and the ministers of the church is beneficial for states. (Peter Martyr Library Edition, p. 227)
We should now add to this that it ought to be a magistrate’s concern that his people behave virtuously and that their prime virtue be piety. So it will be a good magistrate’s responsibility to do everything possible to see that pure and sincere religion prevails in his territory. Those who do not do this do not keep the true way of governing a state. It is easy to understand how the application of virtue follows from a design to make the citizens good, since the virtues are the causes of goodness. . . .
We see here very clearly which virtues are excluded from this consideration, namely, those of the body. These are commonly said to be four in number—health, shape, clarity of the senses, and strength. . . . Only those located in the soul are to be treated. . . .
Since the soul is the subject of the virtues, he must find out some things about it before discussing its accidents. Aristotle confirms this procedure with a comparison: a doctor acts in exactly the same way, for he studies the nature of the body and the ey before turning his hand to cure them. . . . For medical science is considered far inferior to political science; if therefore the doctor is not ignorant of the limbs he is about to treat and heal, it will be much more important for the politician to learn about the soul in which the virtues are located. This comparison between doctor and politician is quite apposite and appropriate. For just as the former heals the body, the latter seeks to care for the soul with good customs. It is almost as if we were saying that the two principal parts of man are to be governed and restored by a twofold faculty: the soul is entrusted to the statesman and the body to the doctor. Before everything, the doctor wants to know what is proper to each part of the body in its own particular nature, then he observes what thing contrary to its nature is brought on by disease; once he has understood this, he looks for remedies that will bring those parts of the body back to the proper state of their nature. (pp. 266-67)
It is striking in particular how in this latter passage, by appearing to say that the politician’s task is chiefly concerned with the good of the soul, rather than with the body, Vermigli almost perfectly inverts the consensus of modern liberal politics (in both its right-wing and left-wing forms).
EDIT: It was brought to my attention by one of the commenters that the tone of this post was unduly flippant, harsh, and caricaturing. In short, I violated my anti-pontification blogging rule. I stand by all the concerns articulated here, but they should have been voiced in more measured and moderate tones. Given that lots of people have already seen the post, I won’t attempt to re-write it accordingly, but read it with this apology in mind.
A strange anomaly afflicts our conservative Reformed institutions of higher education. No other institutions can be relied on to insist, at every possible opportunity, on the importance of our theology for all of life. As the leader of one such institution often puts it, “Theology should come out of our fingertips”; another common slogan is “Faith for all of life.” At such institutions, you will hear, nonstop, the need for Christians to “engage and transform culture,” to bring every square inch of creation under the lordship of Christ, etc., a legacy of the neo-Calvinist triumph of the last century. The great bogeyman in such circles is “Gnosticism,” which refers to any account of the Christian life that is overly intellectualist, insufficiently “incarnational,” which is more about having the right ideas in your head than concrete Christian living. Given all of this, you would expect such institutions to be zealous for the recovery of the lost tradition of Christian ethics, eager at every opportunity to flesh out a theological account of the moral life, as it relates to business, to politics, to family, to creation, etc. Surely, such institutions above all would be interested in answering the question posed by Francis Schaeffer, a giant in these circles, “How shall we then live?”
Apparently not. A consultation of the course catalogs of four leading Reformed-worldview colleges yielded very slim pickings indeed when it came to ethical subjects. At one school, only 2 courses out of 37 in the Bible and Theology department dealt with ethics, although in fairness, some courses in the philosophy department did as well. At another school, it was 1 of 34 (plus, again, a few philosophical ethics courses). At a third, it was 1 of 31, with 2 other courses incorporating substantial ethics content. At the bottom of this ranking, one school dedicated only one half of one course, out of a total of 24 Bible and theology courses, to the Christian moral life, and didn’t supplement this with any business ethics, political ethics, or philosophical ethics courses. Of course, this is a rather rough method for determining the actual teaching at those schools, since ethical issues could be woven into other courses, even when they’re not the subject of a separate course. However, a little leaven of ethical reasoning in a business course is no substitute for systematic and historical reflection on the Christian ethical tradition. The dismal picture that emerges from this survey confirms, in any case, what I have found autobiographically, impressionistically and anecdotally. And while my indictment here is focused particularly on Reformed institutions, the same could probably be said of most of American evangelicalism—we simply don’t know the first thing about the history of Christian ethics or about how to go about the task of moral reasoning. And it shows when we look at the level of much evangelical discourse in contemporary ethical and political debates. Read More
In his introduction to his Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, Peter Martyr Vermigli has some excellent, pithy remarks about the relationship of politics to ethics. Vermigli’s schema offers us an attractive articulation of what Jordan Ballor has in a recent post designated “subsidiarity from below,” recognizing that the establishment of virtuous societies must proceed from the individual to the family to the commonwealth. Yet just because good citizens are a prerequisite for a good commonwealth does not mean that the commonwealth has no role in moral formation; for Vermigli, the order is “circular”:
“I will . . . distinguish practical philosophy by providing the rules that refer to the life and upbringing of one person or man. If an individual is concerned, it is ethics; if more than one is concerned it is important whether they are many or fewer. If fewer, the subject is domestic economy; if more, it is politics.”
“Among these moral subjects, the first place is surely held by ethics, then economics, and finally politics. I see this order as circular. Through ethics, those who are its students will, one by one, become good. If they prove upright, they will raise good families; if the families are properly established, they will in turn create good republics. And in good republics, both law and administration will aim at nothing less than each becoming a good citizen, for they have eyes for the spirit as well as the body, and will take care that citizens live according to virtue.” (In The Peter Martyr Library, vol. 4, Philosophical Works: On the Relation of Philosophy to Theology, 9, 12)