I have recently been listening through a collection of essays by C.S. Lewis, and have been having a wonderful time. I don’t have a long commute, three or four minutes is more like it, but it is amazing how much steak you can eat when you cut it up like that.
I just recently finished listening to his essay “Lilies That Fester,” and something he said there struck me forcefully. I want to agree with his central point in that passage, and then use that agreement to disagree with another point he was making in that same passage. To all my effronteries, I will now add this one to them all. I am going to argue with Lewis.
“I would go further. The loftier the pretensions of the power, the more meddlesome, inhuman and oppressive it will be. Theocracy is the worst of all possible governments. All political power is at best a necessary evil: but it is least evil when its sanctions are most modest and commonplace, when it claims no more than to be useful or convenient and sets itself strictly limited objectives. Anything transcendental or spiritual, or even anything very strongly ethical, in its pretensions is dangerous, and encourages it to meddle with our private lives” (C.S. Lewis, Essays, “Lilies That Fester,” p. 372).
My agreement with part of this, and disagreement with the other part, is why I have in the past called myself a theocratic libertarian. As should be easy to see, my agreement with Lewis is on the “live and let live” end of things. Like Lewis, I want government to be modest and to set for itself strictly limited objectives. Unlike Lewis, I believe that requiring government to be modest in this way is a “strongly ethical” requirement. And as a strong ethical requirement, it requires a transcendental grounding.
When I tell an ordinary citizen that he must not steal, I should be in a position to answer the question if he wonders why. If I tell my government that it must be modest, what do I do in the face of the same question? For — believe me — governments want to misuse their power more than ordinary citizens want to steal. My elected representatives want to steal from me more than my next-door neighbor does. That being the case, they must be told not to — which is a strong ethical requirement. As such, like all ethical requirements, it requires transcendental grounding.
The natural assumption that many make is that the higher the claims for governing authority, the higher the aims of actual governance will be. This is the assumption that Lewis is making here. In other words, if we grant that God has established the authority at all, then the authority must have a double-0 rating and can do whatever it wants.
But this does not follow. A government appointed by God to be a ministering servant is not a government appointed by God to be a swaggering bully. Divinely established authorities can also be put under severe restrictions — and in Scripture, the authorities have been.
So if we withhold divine sanction from government in order to keep them from claiming too much authority, we discover that we have simply opened the door to allow them to claim all authority. If there is no recognized God over the state, then who has now become god? Who is now the highest authority in the lives of those governed? I am far more likely to find myself governed by a swaggering bully who recognizes no authority whatever above him than by a swaggering bully who feels he needs to justify his behavior from Scripture. In a dispute with the latter, I at least have something to appeal to.
But the former situation is precisely the position we are currently in. We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, powers, and pecksniffs. Lewis worried about “meddlesome” rulers — you know, the kind who would make you sort your garbage into different colored bins. The kind who would shut down your kid’s lemonade stand. The kind who would confiscate half your income. The kind who fine florists for not celebrating vice. That kind. The kind we got.
It turns out that overweening conceit in rulers requires a strong theocratic restraint.
If there is a court of appeal past our human government, then in principle I have admitted theocracy. If there is no court of appeal past them, then I have just made them god. Having made them god, I discover that I am still in a theocracy, but instead of a loving Father, the theos of this system is corrupt and grasping, mendacious and low, and full of flatulent hubris. Requiring government to remain modest and within the bounds of sanity is therefore one of the most profound ethical requirements that has ever been promulgated among men.
So if you agree with Jefferson, as I do, that that government is best which governs least, then it follows from this that that government is best which appeals to the divine will of Heaven the least. But for what it does do, and with regard to what it forbids itself to do, it must learn to heed and obey the most powerful “thou shalt nots” ever uttered.
Whatever appeals there are to Heaven must therefore be the kind of appeals that reinforce the limitations and boundaries on government. One of the central things that this government must learn to appeal to is the fact that Heaven insists that the rulers refrain from overreach and arrogance. This is why I have argued so often, and so forcefully, for the jealous protection of free markets. The issue at stake is this issue. Because Jesus is Lord, we proclaim free grace, which results in free men, which results in free markets.
This doctrinal point about the nature of men is one that Lewis himself makes in his essay called “Membership,” when he says there are two approaches to democracy. He believed the “false, romantic” view of democracy was that which thinks all men so good “that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice.” This view really is pernicious.
“On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows” (Essays, p. 336).
I take a brief moment here to dismiss any form of Christian anarchy. What governmental power exists must be fixed, defined, nailed down, watched very carefully, even though it is swathed in the duct tape of multiple Bible verses about man’s depravity. To take government down to zero is simply to create manifold opportunities for ad hoc warlords. Theocratic libertarianism suspects the heart of all men, all the time, while anarchy, eternally suspicious of the current rulers, fails to suspect the hearts of those forming hypothetical militias on the fly.
But some still react to the word theocracy in superstitious ways. They are like the ancient Romans who were willing to turn over the whole operation to Julius Caesar, but would not permit him the use of the word emperor. Or like Americans, who have granted their presidents more authority than many medieval kings would ever dream of, but would flip out over use of the word king.
Why are we so afraid of theocracy? What might happen? Might we go on a rampage and kill 50 million babies? Yeah, that would be bad. Better not risk it. Might we set up a surveillance state, with camera clusters pointed in every direction at all the intersections? Right — theocracies are terrible like that.
The real reason why our current rulers want us to react violently whenever we hear the word theocracy is that petty gods are always jealous of their position, and dread any talk of a Lord who rose from the dead.