manifold-option quiz :: political theology

Here’s a question that I’m working through right now. I’m looking for some help from outside my own head. What is your gut reaction to the question below? If you don’t feel qualified to answer the question then you are exactly the person I’m looking for – give it your best shot. I don’t feel qualified to ask it – so if you don’t like the options provided, feel free to invent your own, combine mine, or do something else altogether.


What is the basis for a government’s authority? Why does it exist, what is it for?

A: Government is a necessity designed to control our selfishness and mutually impose boundaries on one another for the benefit of all. The basis of a government is the protection and provision of basic human rights to its citizens.

B: the authority of a government is constituted from above. Those who hold power do so by God’s will with the command to serve and tend creation. Those who exercise power at God’s command are likewise under God’s judgment. The basis of the government is the will of God for his creation.

C: there is no legitimate basis for governmental authority. Governments are run by people whose desire for power and ability to accumulate it outstrip the rest of us. The basis of government is the desire to impose one’s will upon others.

D: the authority of a government is constituted from below by an agreement of the people governed. People give power to the government in exchange for certain liberties, securities, and services. The basis of the government is the flourishing and prosperity of the people it governs.

What do you think?

8 Replies to “manifold-option quiz :: political theology”

  1. I think it’s mostly A but I don’t know if it is absolutely necessary. Government is supposed to be a construct that helps us play well with the other children in the sandbox but it doesn’t necessarily always do that. On the one hand government means I get to drive down roads I didn’t build, go to hospitals I don’t pay for (yay for Canada) and if something bad happens a police officer I have never met will come and help me. On the flip side, Government also means that a sensible idea will take years (decades) to put into practice, that some people who aren’t that great at their job will get to keep it because they can afford better ad guys and that I will have to put up with some rules that I think are dumb. So I guess government means that I get to play with other people’s toys in the sandbox, but it’s not really my sand anymore.

    (Mark Colvin’s little sister via the rabbit hole that is blog links)

  2. Thanks for wandering down the pipeline in this direction… I followed the same rabbit hole back, and it turns out that you aren’t too far down the road either. It’s been a glorious spring in Vancouver, eh? (ever since your brother told me that that I used “eh” like a true Canadian I’ve been exercising my talent as much as possible – I’m quite proud really).

    I like the sandbox analogy – I think we might get some milage out of it.

    Thanks for your vote…

  3. My somewhat Ideological answer to the question is that the government’s authority should rest in the people that give it authority. In a perfect democracy the citizens of the country govern themselves and so the people have authority over the government rather than the government having power over the people. Of course the question is raised, What authority should the government have? WE ARE THE Government.

    History has shown me that it is a bad idea for the government to think that it is performing the will of God, because the will of God has often been construed to fit whatever desire those government’s have. The long line of Kings and rulers who thought that they were God’s chosen for leadership have often been very tyrannical. This, I don’t think is God’s will.

    However, In a democracy, theoretically, the leaders should know that their constituency has absolute power over their position. They should serve the people. Is this happening today? Not so much. It seems more that at least the American government has been given its authority by the people in this country who have the money, or the support of corporate money, to get them into leadership. I might be fairly cynical about this, but I do not feel that the government’s power comes from the people anymore. It comes from money, and the ability to promise comfort to whoever votes for them.

    From a Marxian point of view, truly human needs are not being fulfilled by the social economic structure that is imposing itself on the American public. We have put that structure into place, and we should have the power to affect the structure so that it more closely aligns with what is most human in us all. Instead we have a bureaucratic system which is more interested in self-preservation than it is in serving the people.

    Ultimately I think government’s role is to make sure that every human is free and that every human need is filled. This sort of government is a far cry from one that supports corporate growth, does not support free education, and one who’s overarching interest is in control rather than freedom.

    Marx certainly has gotten his hold in my brain hasn’t he? This is all idealogical and doesn’t do much in the way of tangible answers about how to make our government better. But I think ideals are good dreams to have, though they should not be the source of our being.


  4. Chris,
    Thanks so much for your thoughts! This is good stuff – exactly what I was hoping for.

    First, I think that you are exactly right in questioning our current system. The extent to which our representative democracy in the States (much less elsewhere in the world) actually represents the “will of the people” is a great question. It is an enormous question for a few reasons.

    As it turns out, the “will of the people” is quite malleable, and is determined in large part by the information promulgated from media outlets (this flips the usual meaning of “remote-control” on its head!) If you control the information, you control the will of the people. The folks who put together our constitution recognized this – it’s the reason behind the guarantee of free speech (unfortunately that conversation too often lands in the rubbish bin argument about someone’s right to publish porn). At present, it seems fairly clear that major corporations (not local entities) primarily control the media. This tends to slant the information that “We the People” receive toward the interest of the corporations. We need to support brave and responsible journalists who stand against this trend.

    Second, the strength of big business lobby in the Capitol is alarming. Even beyond the lobby the strength of big business’ representation in the government is alarming. The economy is certainly important, but we need to encourage a sense that the well-being of our nation is far more complicated than the current trends in the economy. If the health of the nation is measured in dollars, we lose sight of community coherence, family connections, ecological integrity, moral fiber, beauty, art, literature, and all manner of other “goods” not intrinsically attached to dollars. (Or we become tempted to express the value of these things only in monetary terms).

    Plato recommended that philosophers rule the nation, it’s not a bad idea. When the philosophers refuse to get their hands dirty in the political cesspool, the merchants are certainly not timid in that regard. We live in a polis ruled by the merchants.

    All that to say, that you and I probably agree to a great extent about government’s responsibility to limit and control the interests and pursuits of commerce.

    The historical question is a thorny one, and a very important one. It is also a question ill-served by generalizations. We could dig up tyrants who espoused Marxism at least as seriously as many tyrants espoused “God’s will.” In the end, there are a lot of bodies prematurely underground – regardless of the ideology that put them there. If it turns into a debate, both sides will claim that that the tyrants on the “other side” were faithful to the corrupt ideals, while the corrupt tyrants on “our side” were unfaithful to the ideals. The points can be made strongly, but in the end, I’m not sure that the historical question actually circumvents other questions about which line of thought provides a better framework for the government. That conversation cannot ignore history, but history should not be the only determining factor either.

    It sounds like you’d vote for D, if it came down to it…

  5. I’m afraid my answer to this question has gone from specific to hopeless these days, and I could ramble on forever about the various twists and turns in trying to perceive the best form of government, so I’ll stick to your question – from whence does government derive its authority and why does that government exist.

    I have to confess up front that I used to be one of those starry-eyed optimists about democracy, capitalism and the benefits of globalization. The past 5 years have been a time of sometimes harsh deconstruction and disillusionnment as I’ve travelled a bit and read more widely. I’m now sifting out which parts of that disillusionment are helpful God-granted chastening and which parts are reactionary despair in an attempt to move forward. I’ve finally come to a point where I resist the denouncement of liberal democracy as much as I denounce the naiive assertion that it is the *only* just form of government. The great modern systems of liberal democracy and Marxist-socialism in practice have often been unjust to a greater magnitude than any other system that has preceeded it and though we can chalk this up to industrialization and technology, we can’t completely dismiss our demons with such historical wrangling. The systems that were constructed as a reaction to the injustice or limitations of previous arrangements (i.e. monarchy, feudalism, autocracy and tribalism) ended up allowing and even enabling far greater injustices to be perpetrated and greater limitations on human freedom, though I don’t want to over-state that point. In the end, I resist the temptation to put forward the system which seems to boast the greatest empirical track-record OR the one that boasts the most durable philosophical basis as it seems to some extent that any form of government can be a vehicle for justice, freedom, security, and general human thriving. Any form of government has also historically been a vehicle to subvert the very purposes of life as well. Reinhold Neibhur points out in his essay, “Moral Man and Immoral Society” that (and I’m paraphrasing considerably here) the agglomeration of free human agents in democratic government can be far worse than just a sum of the parts… i.e. a gathering of perfectly good and “moral” people produce great evil in their coming together to form an “immoral” society. Now I don’t think Neibhur made such a proposition to advocate for a return to monarchy of virtuous kings (or of philosopher kings for that matter), but rather to heighten human awareness to the fact that any political system can be subverted, no matter where it derives authority from and to chasten some of his Enlightenment-excited friends who may have too enthusiastically denounced the system without denouncing the behavior of individuals within what could be construed as an “a-moral” framework.

    Such a conclusion seems to in some ways to a hopeless compartmentalized/individual ethic that focuses solely on what I can accomplish in my personal relationships, leaving the power brokers to do what they will and I surely don’t want to suggest such a thing. In the end, I guess my point is that political arrangements are somewhat culturally/historically encapsulated and I thus hesitate to settle on one source of authority, or on one “just” arrangement but rather would affirm A, B, C, and D as valid sources of authority. Proposition A offers helpful Jeffersonian style realism, B offers a necessary focus on the divine leadership that supercedes and watches over all human manifestations of political ordering, Proposition C offers an anarchistic preference for open-ended possibility – productively suggesting that we may not have arrived at the best solution, also reminding us that government is ultimately a provisional arrangement in lieu of divine authority, and Proposition D provides another angle on the realist paradigm – Rousseau and the contract folks – that is results focused, judging the merits of a system. So in the end, my answer would be that government derives its authority through its effectiveness to serve the will and purposes of God, which are regrettably opaque in a post-Christian world. Further this authority is subsequently legitimated inasmuch as each of those options is submitted to the active will of our creator. A virtuous king (or queen, or autocrat) can be a helpful counterbalance by which God can mitigate against a more terrible potential of human mobs; just as liberal democracy can displace an evil and oppressive regime; just as anarchists (and there are plenty of Christian anarchists) remind us that pragmatic politlcal-power arrangements of any kind are not what human communities were designed for.

    Unfortunately, or perhaps instructively the scriptural witness seems to offer more of what Stackhouse calls “holy pragmatism” than normative political systems. And I take this ambiguity to be an escatological reminder – do the best with what you’ve got in front of you (your suggestion to “focus” is quite helpful in this case), but concurrently maintin an eye on the Christian eschatological vision where the servants are leaders.

    As I’ve wandered a bit around your question, to circle back around…

    What is the basis for a government’s authority? Why does it exist, what is it for? The basis for any political arrangement is found in its ability to serve the creational purposes of our immanent God (who reguluarly works pragmatically through human arrangements – validating them equally by the spirit through theologians, analysts, and average citizens). The ongoing viability of such a government is demonstrated in the ability of that arrangement to serve the stated purposes of our creational God: to enable humans to flourish in worship of their creator.

  6. Jeremy,

    Thanks so much for your insightful response. I think I’m with Mr./Ms. Benia gaining a lot of knowledge. I would not have known the names to attach to the various accounts – you’ve obviously wrestled with the question for longer than I – thanks for sharing your wisdom. I apologise that it took me over a week to respond.

    I like the idea that all of the options above (which don’t presume to be an exhaustive list) are sources of authority. I’m working toward throwing out an post that talks about Bonhoeffer’s concept of government – he motivated me to ask the question in the first place. Apart from “C,” I think that he would see all the options as valid, though he would understand A and D as “divine tasks” given from above rather than agreements binding on the government from below.

    The “holy pragmatism” is a good reminder as well. I can’t make it too far from Bonhoeffer these days. The way he would express that same idea would be to say that the Church while it is responsible to speak the word of God to the government (i.e. expose injustice, call for repentance, encourage love of neighbors) does not demand any particular form of government in God’s name. Government has a measure of independence, and the church is to recognize this. While the church (as the church) does not speak God’s word to the state with regard to the construction and daily business of the state, Christians are responsible within their vocation to act with wisdom and consider the concrete problems of the state. In Bonhoeffer’s mnd, Christians involved in government will do their best to construct the best form of government possible, and will be faced with decisions about democracy, socialism, welfare, militarism, etc. The Church supports its members in these positions, but the task of the church is not the same as the task of the government. The Church’s task is the proclamation of the whole gospel (which is of course, a political gospel – there is considerable overlap between church and state), not the construction of the government. I’m sure that I’m expressing this awkwardly, and I’m not sure that I’m sold 100%, but Bonhoeffer’s vision is more fully developed than mine by a long shot, so I’d like to see just how far it can go…

    Thanks again!

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