Just how much power a human government should have has been a perennially vexing problem ever since. Founding Father James Madison famously wrote in Federalist No. 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Alas, of course, men are not angels, so how much external government do they need? Robert Charles Winthrop, erstwhile Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (1847-1849), stated, “Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled, either via power within them, or by a power without them; either by the Word of God, or by the strong arm of man; either by the Bible, or by the bayonet.”
Personally, I prefer the Bible to the bayonet. Consequently, I think that America’s Founding Fathers—despite their differing understandings of the Christian religion—came pretty close to solving the problem of government correctly. In the Declaration of Independence they affirmed that government’s raison d’être and sole legitimate function is to preserve, protect, and uphold man’s God-given unalienable rights. The key principle in governmental administration was to be negative law—that is, the government should enforce the essential laws outlined in the Mosaic Decalogue—and not the “positive law” of ordering what good things citizens must do. The great moral philosopher Adam Smith explained this fundamental and practical difference between law and gospel in his classic work, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.”
Many American Christians have a different opinion about the proper role of government today. Some desire to expand the scope of government as strongly as I favor shrinking it to the size our founders envisioned. And I must concede the possibility that we living in America today don’t deserve the limited government that our founders established. Perhaps Joseph de Maistre was at least partly right when he wrote, “Every country has the government it deserves.” John Adams believed, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.” It may be that the American people have moved away from moral self-government to a degree that renders our original constitutional order impracticable today.
Christians hold many opinions about the proper role of government today. Perhaps the only point we can agree upon universally is that the only perfect government is found in the kingdom of heaven.
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