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Foundational Issues (6) – The purpose of government and civil society

The view of man that one holds influences the type of government that one believes is best and the type of government that one believes is best determines one’s view of the role of civil society. This is a topic that is far broader than anything I can cover in a short message, so I am going to limit myself to three basic understandings of man: the traditional pagan belief (men are bad by nature and cannot be made better so they must be controlled), the modern secular belief (men are bad because of environment and can and should be made better so that they can have unlimited freedom), and the Christian belief (men are made in God’s image, but are fallen. All people deserve liberty in recognition of their dignity, but that liberty will always be limited because people will never completely overcome sin and be perfectly good on this earth).

The traditional pagan view is that people are bad and can’t be trusted with liberty. This belief led to the formation of various forms of kingship and aristocracy. At most times and in most places this form of government has been the norm. Even Plato in his work The Republic believed that most people are enslaved to their desires so the best we can hope to do is to find one wise person to rule everyone else. Even outlying systems in the pagan world, like democratic Athens, limited political power to the warrior class.

This pagan pessimism persists into the modern age. The great English thinker, Thomas Hobbes, writing during the English Civil War said that people, when given power, create a world that is ‘poore, nasty, brutish, and short.’ He believed one man should be given unlimited power over everyone. From conversations I have had with some Russians (though this view is by no means held by all Russians), there is a belief that the people can’t work together or rule themselves and they need a strong ruler like Putin to control and protect them.

Modern thinkers, beginning with Rousseau, began to think differently about evil in the world. Yes there is evil in the world, no one can deny that. But instead of evil being an irradicable part of man, these thinkers began to think that evil wasn’t found in individuals or in man’s nature, but in society. From this assumption it follows that the reform of society leads to the reform of man. Further, if man can be made perfect, then man ought to be made perfect. Therefore all governments must be overthrown and remade so that mankind will be remade.  

This idea, that man is by nature good but becomes evil by his environment and that he can be made good by the proper environment, is a basic assumption held by all historical socialist and communist systems, from Rousseau to the French Revolution to Marx, Lenin, and Mao. The problem with this approach is that man’s nature is immutable—it can’t be changed, man can’t be remade. Instead of recognizing this, these systems have used more and more force to try to brutally remake man only to have their systems catastrophically fail.

Christians, in contrast, believe that man bears God’s image. Because of this, man has a certain dignity and certain rights he can never lose. But no longer bears God’s image perfectly. Man has sinned and marred the image he bears. Because of his dignity man is not something to be controlled, like the pagans of old believed, but because he now has a sinful condition man is not capable of being perfected through laws and education.  

According to Christians then, the purpose of government is not to control man, but neither is it to remake him. Governments exist to protect men’s rights and to restrain men from harming one another. One can observe this theory of government among the founders and admirers of the early American republic, among thinkers like Jefferson, Madison, and Tocqueville. According to these writers, man has certain inalienable rights (Jefferson), but he is also sinfully ambitious so we need to set up a limited system of government that will restrain tyranny and oppression (Madison). This will, in turn, allow man the liberty to engage in moral things that lead to human flourishing, to do things like forming churches, schools, businesses, and neighborhood associations (Tocqueville).  

Indeed, it is only this final theory that allows for a free civil society.

The traditional pagan view requires that the government control all aspects of society—if individuals can’t be trusted with liberty and must be controlled, then groups of people likewise cannot be given liberty and must be controlled.

The modern secular view also requires full governmental control. If government is to remake man, then anything that stands in the government’s way, from the family to a free market, must be destroyed. Karl Marx, for example, argued against giving Jewish people the freedom to worship. He said that freedom of conscience to worship as one wished was a bourgeois freedom, a false freedom. A true freedom would lead Jews (and everyone else) to recognize that religion is a lie and it is this type of “freedom” (i.e. a freedom from all religious belief and practice) that the government should impose upon people to make them into what they ought to be.

The Christian view is that government is instituted by God, but so are the family and the Church. What is more, as creatures that bear God’s image people have the right to create institutions and communities of their own—from private businesses to little league teams. These organizations, because they are voluntary, do a lot of good and bring a lot of joy and meaning to life.

Hopefully I am doing an adequate job of showing the thread here. Many people want to talk about politics, but they want to jump right into “who we should vote for.” But who we should vote for is grounded in a theory of government and civil society, which flows from an understanding of man’s nature and ability to choose, which in turn flows from our understanding of reality, ethics, and our ability to live morally.

Next week I will illustrate how it can be difficult to discuss these foundational questions in our society.