Isildur, the Ring, and the Glory of Limited Government

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So let us talk about revolutions, you and I. Historically speaking, the word can mean anything from a simple change in government, like a revolving door, or it can be a nightmarish spectacle that doesn’t ever want to quit. The word admits of quite a range of meanings. It can refer to something as noble as the American Revolution, or to something as devastating as the Russian Revolution.

I know, I just called the American Revolution noble. I am prepared to defend that, but first we have to go back to the days of Robin Hood for a minute. Work with me here.

Feudalism Staggers into the Modern World

In England, the king used to be a feudal lord. Now feudalism, with all its twists and quirks, did have a basic structure. A feudal lord owed his vassals protection, and the vassals owed their feudal lord allegiance. If a vassal lived to the west of his lord, and that lord got attacked from the east, the vassal needed to show up with whatever troops he had. If the vassal got attacked from the west, the feudal lord had to show up with all the other vassals in order to defend him. There was a lot more than this involved, obviously, but this arrangement was right at the heart of it. This is the way that Christian Europe toddled along for centuries.

If the lord failed to protect, or if the vassal failed in allegiance, the covenant was broken. All bets were off.

This feudal system was very complicated, and often required a true balancing act. So as time progressed, men with ambitions and plans wanted to “streamline” this older idea of monarchy, meaning that they wanted the monarch to be more of an “absolute” monarch. As John Adams once put it, there is nothing more “simple” than despotism. The early seeds of the divine right of kings began to take hold, but this collided with the older feudal way of doing things. There was an early skirmish between the barons and Prince John, resulting in the Magna Carta, pulling things back in a feudal direction, but this just slowed things down. A few centuries later there was a real showdown between Parliament and Charles I.

Charles was aggrandizing to himself all kinds of royal prerogatives, and there was clash between him and Parliament. According to the divine right of kings approach, the king could certainly sin, but only God had the authority to deal with anything like that. As far as the people were concerned, the king had absolute sovereignty, which meant that they should just shut up and do whatever the king said. This was a pretty high-flying political theory, and Parliament didn’t like it.

Now as it happened, Parliament also had within her ranks a military genius, a gent named Oliver Cromwell. The English Civil War resulted in the victory of Cromwell’s forces, and the eventual execution of Charles I for treason. In the English-speaking world, this was the first revolution. Cromwell ruled as the Lord Protector for a short time, and after him, his son Richard could not really hold it together. The Restoration brought Charles II back to the throne, setting the stage for the second revolution. As one of the terms of bringing him back, Charles had sworn allegiance to the Solemn League and Covenant, a promise he naturally broke—being a king and all.

After Charles II died, he was replaced by his brother James II, who was a really unfortunate combination of incompetent, arrogant, and Catholic. He mangled things enough that the powers that be decided he needed to be replaced, and so in 1688 he was. This was the second revolution, sometimes called the Glorious Revolution, and other times the Bloodless Revolution. James was run out of the country, and William and Mary were brought in and installed as king and queen.

Now—as you might guess—the significance of all of this was not lost on Parliament. They had executed one king in 1649, and had run another one out in 1688. I said earlier that Parliament didn’t like the absolute sovereignty of kings as an idea, but as it turns out, they did rather take to the idea of the absolute sovereignty of Parliament. Parliament started assume to herself a number of the prerogatives of sovereignty. In other words, like Isildur, upon the death of Charles I, they had the opportunity to destroy the ring, but decided not to. They took the ring for themselves.

Meantime, Across the Ocean

I am going to jump to the bottom line right at the top, as it were. The colonies had been planted when England was still functioning in a recognizably feudal manner. The feudalism was certainly fading, but you don’t turn the practices of centuries off with a light switch. After the colonies were established here, with charters from the king, the relationship was basically a feudal one. They owed the king allegiance as vassals, and he owed them protection. They had nothing whatever to do with Parliament.

But then all those other events began to happen back in the old country, with monarchical sovereignty being claimed in the first instance, and parliamentary sovereignty being asserted after that. This didn’t change how the Americans were thinking about it. They just went about their business, developing the old ways in a new land. The basic localism of feudalism took deep root here. And the turmoil back home in England didn’t have a huge impact because there was a lot of water between them.

Now in their charters, they had been granted the ancient rights of Englishmen. This included the right to representation in their own legislatures. The king was their feudal lord, but they each had their own legislatures. Parliament was the legislature for England, and the House of Burgesses was the legislature for Virginia. They all had the same king, but different legislative bodies—just as Georgians and Vermonters have the same president, but different state legislatures.

In the early half of the 18th century, a war had happened back in Europe which resulted in some action over here. We call it the French and Indian War, but our part of it was simply one little podunk operation in what could arguably be called the real First World War. Back in Europe, France and England were mixed up in it, not to mention a bunch of other countries. When that war was over, Parliament began looking around for ways to recoup expenses, and their eyes fell upon the colonies. Ah, somebody must have said.

The problem was this. According to the Americans, and according to their charters, according to the law, Parliament had no legal right to tax the colonies. This is the meaning behind the phrase “no taxation without representation.” The Americans were not represented in Parliament and so Parliament had no right to tax them. The Americans were represented in their local legislative assemblies, and so those assemblies did have the right to tax. If you lived your entire life in Oregon, and one day got a tax bill in the mail from Connecticut, you would simply round file it. This was like that.

This is why Edmund Burke, the fierce opponent of the French Revolution, was an advocate for the American cause. Even before the Terror, he had seen the radicalism implicit in the French revolt, and he had also seen the profound conservatism of the American effort. The real Revolution was taking place in England, and the Americans were fighting it.

A Row of Revolutions

If we view the ushering in of the modern world as coming through a series of cascading revolutions, we might be tempted to set them up in a row—the English revolution/s, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution. The mythology that attends this is a secular mythology, telling us all about the ascent of man and the rise of the democratic spirit.

But this is like an IQ test, and one of these things is not like the others. The American Revolution, better called The War for Independence, was a profoundly conservative and Christian counter-revolution. It was the one political movement that was genuinely headed in the opposite direction. All the others contributed in one way or the other to the idea of statist supremacy—the sovereignty of the central government. All the others contributed to the rise of arbitrary power, and the American effort was a concerted effort to fight that, and to set up checks against that in order to protect future generations.

This is not to say that the United States did not have its equivalent of the French Revolution. We did, and that is what the War Between the States was. The 19th century was a century of revolutions, book-ended just outside that century’s calendar by the French Revolution in the late 18th century, and the Russian Revolution in the early 20th. Our Civil War was the terrible event right in the middle that broke down a number of the federal firewalls against a centralized and arbitrary power. It was the event that greatly hobbled the Founders’ insistence upon limited government, and set the stage for the growth of Leviathan on the Potomac.

When this structural reality was coupled with the invention of the copy machine—the sound of which is nirvana for bureaucrats—and the invention of the air conditioner, which made it possible for people to live in DC year round, our fate was sealed.

But by the grace of God, our federal system (read, feudal vestiges) is still capable of getting in the way of some arbitrary power grabs. That granted, we are still in a terrible way. The growth of the swollen administrative state has created exactly the kind of government that we fought to outlaw at the Founding. But we still have counties with actual power. We still have states that are willing to resist the federal gorgon. And we still have a separation of powers in the Court, the Congress, and the White House. Each of them is still capable of gumming up the ambitions of the other two. Those in the grip of their lust for power, their libido dominandi, love to lament the occasions when “gridlock” happens. But for some of us, that is a feature, not a bug.

Last Thing, the Crucial Thing

For Christians, only God is unlimited. Because man is both finite and fallen, he dare not take upon himself the role of governmental omnipotence. But in his hubris, he keeps trying.

Some Christians are fond of saying that Christianity has nothing to say about this form of government or that one. “The church is the church, and we can function equally well under any political order.” This is radically false, because all notions of unlimited human government are essentially idolatrous. They all, by design, will set up some version of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue, and they all summon the musicians to play so that we might all know when to bow down. And when, by act of Congress, they make the statue bigger, or decree that the musicians play louder and longer, some Christians circulate in the crowd, handing out copies of Romans 13, edited and redacted, and they accuse the people who are still standing up of advocating for Christian nationalism.

To which the reply should be, “Well, I am against pagan nationalism, so yeah, you got me.”

Every Christian refusal to bow down is simultaneously a religious act of devotion to Jehovah and a political act of defiance. It all goes back to the Council of Chalcedon. Because the church at that time confessed that the union between the divine and human was found in the Lord Jesus Christ, and nowhere else, this closed off every attempt to arrange for the apotheosis of the State, the Dear Leader, the Voice of the People, or the Right Side of History. Christian political theory demands that all human governments be bounded, limited, constrained, defined, circumscribed, checked. Why? Because God is God and man is not. God is good and man is not.

And so this is why faithful Christians are so resistant to the arbitrary dictates coming from our globohomo managers of Trashworld. The living God is immutable and He is good. The laws that He assigns to us are therefore laws that reflect His character, which means that His laws are good, and His laws are fixed and absolute. The moral law is unchanging, and the moral law is good. Why? Because God is in Heaven, and no one can defy His authority.

A failure to see the evil that was resident in the French Revolution from the beginning is nothing other than a failure to see. A failure to see the goodness that was represented by the American Revolution is, again, a failure to see at all. A great many lies have been told about the American Founding in retrospect, trying to make it an honorary member of the parade of humanistic revolutions, but it was in fact, the opposite.

So when we base our laws on our humanistic jitney-deities, what then? All laws reflect the character of the gods who issue them. The humanist gods are not immutable, and they are not good. We are as unstable as water, and because we are a race of sinners, we are not good. We are as unstable as dirty water.

This is why the decrees that issue forth from these lords of the earth are so irrational, confused, and contradictory. “And the king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city Shushan was perplexed” (Esther 3:15b).