Politics 101: Belonging to Nature's God
“In this great experiment that is American democracy, ‘secular’ is the only word we have to describe the idea, handed down by the Founders, that our leaders do not belong to God, they belong to us.” Thus ends another of Lisa Miller’s infamous “Belief Watch” columns in Newsweek (2/25/2008). In this case, however, I come neither to praise Miller nor to bury her. It’s just that her typically misstated conclusion raises important questions about representative government.
Belonging to Us
America is not, and can never be, a pure democracy on the model of a Greek city state, in which all citizens could sit together in a single assembly and vote. Large societies which prefer to act democratically (that is, to be ruled by the demos, or people) must inevitably resort to representation. Representation in America is defined and orchestrated in unusual ways. We have various checks and balances, various ways of weighting the interests of sparsely populated states against their more populous neighbors, and various ways of filtering the vote through arcane institutions (such as the Electoral College and a labyrinthine court system) which are designed to minimize the possibility for tyranny by the majority. But the idea of representation remains.
One does well to question, therefore, the sense in which our representatives “belong to us”. While it is true that people expect their representatives to protect their legitimate interests, it is not true that representatives are (or even ought to be) bound to vote always according to the majority view of their constituents. Many people, probably most of them, value representative government partly because it saves them the trouble of acquiring a deep knowledge of all the various public issues and proposed solutions. They happily delegate this responsibility to elected officials, and they vote for candidates whom they believe are most likely to make sound public decisions about which issues to address, which solutions to support, and which solutions to oppose.
In this sense, our representatives do not “belong to us”. We do not expect them to suspend their intelligence upon taking office, to fail to investigate public problems thoroughly, or to check their own consciences and values at the assembly-room door because they “belong” to some institution, party, group or mogul. We all understand, I think, that in the last analysis the only human persons our representatives belong to are themselves. Certainly from their own point of view, our representatives regard it as their responsibility to vote as they think best, even while taking due account of the interests of those they represent. Any representative worth his salt will regard himself as “belonging” to his constituents only in the sense that he has an obligation to do his best for them.
And Not to God
Given this normal understanding of representation, it is not only historical nonsense but also logical nonsense to suggest that the American idea of secularity handed down from the Fathers is that our leaders belong to the people as opposed to God. It is historical nonsense because, of course, our founding fathers—even the mere Deists among them—would have found the idea that they did not belong first to God appalling. It is logical nonsense because there is absolutely nothing in any normal understanding of representation to suggest that a representative is obliged to do anything more than pursue his constituents’ best interests as he himself understands them. This leaves full scope for his own values, his own conscience, and his own relationship to God.
Miller is right, of course, that, within our current culture war, there is an escalating battle over the proper meaning of secularity. The traditional American concept of separating Church and State is under attack by a militantly atheistic secularism more typical of Europe. The former is completely compatible with Christianity. The latter is incompatible with anything other than itself, and so can never possibly serve the public good. It is precisely for this reason that we must always and everywhere resist the strange notion that our representatives belong to us in a sense which prevents them from belonging to God.
Legitimate Public Order
The confusion about this “belonging” is in some ways understandable. The idea that Church and State should be separated—that is, that the Church should not rule the State, nor the State the Church, nor should their respective missions be unnecessarily juridically or financially entangled—is difficult to properly understand in a culture which no longer recognizes the existence of God even as a necessary source of the natural law. Militant atheism denies the natural law, and therefore reason itself, and this eliminates the fundamental basis for legitimate authority in any civil society. On an atheistic reading of our situation, any reflection of God or the natural law in our public life becomes an unreasonable establishment of a specific religion—that is, respect for God—against the desires of those who claim that the non-existence of God is the normal and rational position of unprejudiced minds.
But the non-existence of God is little more than the pipe-dream of those who wish to have everything their own way. It is an idea that runs counter to nearly the entire history of man’s reflection on his place in the universe. Indeed, the non-existence of God not only lacks rational support but has to be carefully taught and inculcated to overcome man’s natural inclination to thirst for something beyond himself. Moreover, the non-existence of God carries with it the inevitable removal of any reference to a higher moral law, without which legitimate government (as opposed to the mere tyranny of a particular person or group) is impossible to conceive. For the legitimacy of government, the legitimacy of its purposes or ends, and the legitimacy of the means for which it rules are totally dependent on our rational perception of, at the barest minimum, the natural law. It is within the natural law that we first encounter, in broad terms, the “right” ordering of our human relationships, the distinction between private and public, and the purpose and constraints of the public order itself.
The natural law presupposes an ordered universe—that is, a universe ordered rationally by an intelligent being generally called God. In the absence of natural law, only the vestiges of forgotten virtues or the formal teachings of religion itself can interpose themselves between the private person and his public destruction. This was recognized at America’s founding, and the founders deliberately based our government on principles they believed to be derived from nature and nature’s God. As I said, they would have found it appalling to consider that the public order must be devoid of respect for God and His natural laws. They would not have believed it possible for any nation to thrive in such a setting. And they would have been right. Accommodation of the public order to the denial of the principles on which its legitimacy rests, and within which it must function, can only lead to self-destruction.
The Only Reasonable Political Slogan
All of this is Politics 101, for politics has no possibility of success except when those who rule, be they kings, citizens, or representatives, retain the implicit understanding that everything and everyone belongs to God, that everything and everyone can be successfully ordered only through a vision of the good which is ultimately authored by God, and that this Good therefore stands outside and above any person’s or group’s desires, fallacies, stupidity and sins. Thus the slogan “our leaders do not belong to God, they belong to us” can never serve the public purpose. The only possible slogan for “this great experiment that is American democracy”—or indeed for any other political and social experiment—is a paraphrase of St. Thomas More’s last words: “We live and die the public’s good servant—but God’s first.”
An appeal from our founder, Dr. Jeffrey Mirus:
Dear reader: If you found the information on this page helpful in your pursuit of a better Catholic life, please support our work with a donation. Your donation will help us reach five million Truth-seeking readers worldwide this year. Thank you!
Progress toward our March expenses ($26,810 to go):
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!