States’ Rights and Christian Liberty
No Other Liberty, No Other Protection
The following is a speech that I delivered to the Mississippi Constitution Party's Seminar on States' Rights & Christian Liberty on August 4, 2001 in Pearl, Mississippi.
At the beginning of my career as a professional defendant, I had occasion to file some papers in Marion, Arkansas, the Crittenden County seat. Now I was coming out from under over ten years of wandering in the wilderness of Randianism and libertarianism. My idol had been Liberty—complete autonomy.
I found the building, a red brick Grecian revival style with white columns. I parked my car and got out. Imagine my confusion when I looked at the courthouse and read on the frieze these words: "Obedience to the law is liberty."
I have spent the last 17 years learning what those words mean.
WHY CHRISTIAN LIBERTY?
The theme of this conference is "States' Rights and Christian Liberty." But why Christian liberty? Does Christian liberty differ from any other kind? Christian liberty is reserved for the people of God alone. It does not belong to all mankind, although they may enjoy the blessings of political liberty in its shadow. "Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." (II Corinthians 3:17) At the same time, where the Spirit of the Lord is not, there is no true liberty, nor can there be any liberty.
LIBERTY IS A CHOICE OF SLAVERIES
What is Christian liberty? It is the opposite of something, but what? Bondage to sin. What is the natural state of man? Slavery to sin. It is to choose sin always. It is to be unable to choose the good, unable to obey God willingly. It is always to rebel against the Most High God. But Christian liberty is also positively something in itself, namely, Freedom to obey God, Freedom from sin, Freedom to choose good, not evil.
NO ABSOLUTE LIBERTY
Ultimately (and most importantly to refute the Revolutionaries) there is no absolute liberty, only contingent liberty.
Why is absolute liberty impossible? Because man is neither self-existing nor independent, but created, he is wholly dependent on his Creator. There is no sense in which man, nature, good, or evil exists apart from or outside the all-sovereign God. There is, for instance, no cosmic standard of "the good" apart from the character of God. If "good" exists, it exists only because it originates in God. No abstract "good" exists out there as a yardstick by which we can measure God's goodness. God is goodness, and apart from him there is no measure of goodness. No abstract "Reason" stands judge over his actions or will. Nor does "Mother Nature" stand as some sort of third party to God and Man. Nature is the creation of God. All of these depend on God's character or work for their existence.
The Revolutionary concept of "liberty," however—and what most people mean when they use the word—is the temptation of Eden. It is the claim to autonomy, to self-rule and total independence, where man judges for himself, independently of God, what is good and evil.
In Eden, God created man free to sin or not to sin. After the fall, our nature and our will was so wholly corrupted that it was not possible for us not to sin. Mankind fell into bondage to sin.
Christian liberty is complete freedom, freeing the will and heart and mind and redeeming us from that slavery to sin. The glorious liberty of the sons of God returns us to Eden and once again makes us able not to sin. It revives in us the ability to choose from our own free will what God calls good.
Because we are contingent beings, ultimately there is no absolute "human freedom". There is only a choice of slaveries—slavery to sin, or slavery to righteousness.
Christian liberty, then, is not license. It is not the freedom to do whatever we want, not even the freedom to do whatever we want as long as it hurts no one else. In the words of Robert Lewis Dabney, liberty "is only privilege to do whatever [a man] has a moral right to do." The essence of Christian liberty is self-control.
But today Americans view any restraint as a moral evil. Why? The revolutionary ideal is autonomy, and the common morality in this country is not Christian, but Revolutionary, cultivated in the public schools. Compare autonomy and Christian liberty. Exactly how stringently does Christianity restrain man? Isn't it cramped and narrow, a vast collection of dos and don'ts as far as the eye can see? No, rather it is a vast plain of free choices crowned by peace of conscience and peace with God. Rules? What rules? There is only one rule, the rule of love with its two great commandments.
Compare this to the counterfeit liberty that human autonomy holds out to us. It promises freedom, but delivers only a more perfect bondage. We are "freed" to enjoy gambling and pornography and fornication and homosexuality and abortion, only to find ourselves in a deeper, more terrifying, and more degrading bondage than we had ever known.
What else does autonomy deliver? How has the Revolutionary ideology (more aptly termed "religion") played itself out in the last 200 years?
Was it Christian states that erected totalitarian dictatorships more thorough and more brutal than history had ever before witnessed? Were those Christian regimes that massacred millions upon millions of their own citizens—21 million by the Nazis, 62 million by the Soviets, 37 million by the Red Chinese? During the Twentieth Century, governments have murdered somewhere between 170 million and 360 million people. What Christian state in previous centuries, for all their sins, ever amassed a record of such murderous bloodlust? None. The most searching, unrelenting, and bloodthirsty tyrannies mankind has ever suffered have been those founded on the Revolutionary ideal of autonomous freedom.
IS CHRISTIAN LIBERTY ONLY SPIRITUAL?
"Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage." (Galatians 5:1) Precisely because Christian freedom is the gift of God we have a duty to protect it against all attackers. Although love is free, it still constrains us to obey God, to do certain things (positive duties) and refrain from doing others (prohibitions).
Now be careful here than you distinguish matters with a Christian conscience. Whatever government exists by the providence of God—republic, democracy, monarchy, even dictatorship—commands our wholehearted obedience. We submit to authority for conscience's sake. Whatever it lawfully commands, Christian conscience obliges us to obey.
At the same time, whoever hinders us in our Christian duty rebels against the Almighty God and must be resisted. So Calvin, who counseled such careful submission to ordained authorities, can write,
"[E]arthly princes lay aside their power when they rise up against God, and are unworthy to be reckoned among the number of mankind. Rather than obey them, we ought to spit on their heads." But, you might object, the Scriptures that talk about liberty speak only of spiritual liberty. You are mingling two different spheres. What does spiritual liberty have to do with the physical world—let alone the world of politics?
First, because the spiritual and material are so intricately conjoined and commingled that no surgeon may tease them apart. Everything physical represents and reflects an underlying spiritual reality, if no more than attesting by its very existence to the power of the creator God. Second, this spiritual freedom—freedom from the bondage of sin and freedom to obey God from the heart—has only an insubstantial and feckless existence if it does not express itself in some physical reality, in our actions. What good is a liberty never used and unusable? None. If spiritual liberty frees us from not only the yoke of sin, but also from the yoke of the law and its ceremonies, then no man may bind our conscience beyond what God has already bound. (Obviously, authorities in church, state, and family may command us within those bounds. Obedience to authority requires that.) However, no man may restrain us from performing any of those duties we owe to God, nor yet to compel us to do what God forbids.
NATURAL RIGHTS WON'T WORK
Therefore all the talk of "natural rights" is useless, for it can never secure our liberty either in fact or theory. A natural man is not free at all, only a slave to sin. If we therefore rely on nature to protect or ground our rights, we will be sorely disappointed, for we see that nature—red as the poet says, in tooth and claw—knows only tyranny, hatred, and exploitation, rule or be ruled, rob or be robbed, kill or be killed. Natural men will be ruled by nature, not by God. And if they have any sense of justice at all, any respect for rights, it comes not from their own fallen nature, but only from God's gracious revelation of himself in creation—that dim light they cannot snuff out, as relentlessly as their fallen nature tries.
But give natural rights the most generous interpretation. Let us stipulate that the liberty God intended for man from the beginning can indeed be inferred from creation. The so-called law of nature still suffers from the fallenness of man the interpreter. Blackstone—author of the most popular book in Colonial America before the Revolution (other than the Bible)—recognised this problem, and wrote,
"If reason were always, as in our first ancestor before his transgression, clear and perfect, unruffled by passions, unclouded by prejudice, unimpaired by disease or intemperance, the task would be pleasant and easy; we should need no other guide but this. But every man now finds the contrary in his own experience; that his reason is corrupt, and his understanding full of ignorance and error.
"This has given manifold occasion for the benign interposition of divine providence; which, in compassion to the frailty, the imperfection, and the blindness of human reason, hath been pleased, at sundry times and in divers manners, to discover and enforce its laws by an immediate and direct revelation. The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the Holy Scriptures. These precepts, when revealed, are found upon comparison to be really a part of the original law of nature. . .
"But we are not from thence to conclude that the knowledge of these truths was attainable by reason, in its present corrupted state; since we find that, until they were revealed, they were hid from the wisdom of ages. As then the moral precepts of this law are indeed of the same original with those of the law of nature [he means, both the natural law and the revealed law originate in God himself], so their intrinsic obligation is of equal strength and perpetuity. Yet undoubtedly the revealed law is (humanly speaking) of infinitely more authority than what we generally call the natural law. Because one is the law of nature, expressly declared so to be by God himself; the other is only what, by the assistance of human reason, we imagine to be that law. If we could be as certain of the latter as we are of the former, both would have an equal authority; but, till then, they can never be put in any competition together."
Only if our liberty has a better guarantor than natural rights, an unshakeable foundation, can it survive. The nature of men is to destroy the liberty of other men, with restless energy and unsleeping ingenuity. Only if our liberty reaches for a foundation outside and above time and space, to the transcendent Creator, can it find a lasting footing.
If liberty cannot be founded on the natural law, what can secure it? Do rights exist at all? Yes. If God, in love, created us for love (to love him and our neighbour), then we as his creatures must have a duty to fulfil that fate. Duty from the All-sovereign God, becomes a right against all other creatures. By hindering our duty, they rebel against God. To obey those who rebel against the Most High God who purchased our liberty with his blood, is the most ungrateful treason imaginable. To prevent another man from obeying the Most High constitutes not only rebellion but also blasphemy.
Spiritual liberty, then, makes us free to do all things whatever that God enjoins, and free not to do all things he forbids, and it is bound to express itself in politics. So can Calvin write, commenting on Galatians 5:1,
"[Paul] now reminds them that they ought not lightly to despise a freedom so precious. And certainly, it is an invaluable blessing, in defense of which it is our duty to fight, even to death. For [this] subject comprehends not merely the world and the benefits of this life, but also holy things, and those which relate to the worship of God."
Even though Paul here speaks directly only of exemption from the ceremonies of the law, Christian liberty does not—cannot—stop there. Calvin continues,
"That liberty is only a part of what Christ has procured for us, for how small a matter would it be, if he had only freed us from ceremonies? This is only the stream, which must be traced to a higher source. It is because 'Christ was made a curse that he might redeem us from the curse of the law' (Gal. 3:13), because he has revoked the power of the law, so far as it held us liable to the judgement of God under the penalty of eternal death. Because, in a word, he has rescued us from the tyranny of sin, Satan, and death. Thus, under one department [freedom from ceremonies] is included the whole class [i.e., all liberty]. Christ procured this liberty for us on the cross; he bestows the fruit and possession of it upon us through the Gospel."
IS THERE ANY OTHER LIBERTY?
When I started I wondered aloud if we could honestly connect the spiritual liberty of Christians with political liberty. Really, no liberty is possible but Christian liberty. For even if men are free politically, without the Spirit of God to restrain them their natural bondage to sin will eventually defeat and banish those arrangements in civil government. If it is correct that all true liberty, spiritual and political, must be founded on Christ, then we would expect history to show that political liberty based on any other foundation always fails. What in fact does history show? Were the Greeks free? Only long enough to attack their neighbours. Were the Romans free? Only to build an empire on blood and iron, and then to cast aside their own freedom to follow a Caesar. Were the Revolutionary French free? Yes, free to behead all those who refused to follow their religion. And Americans? Were they free? Only for a while. Only until they began to found their freedom on some footing other than the eternal God.
STATES' RIGHTS AND CHRISTIAN LIBERTY
What is the connection between States' rights and Christian liberty? Indeed, is there any connection?
History makes plain that natural men are always busy trying to destroy liberty and erect tyranny. As Lord Acton said, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." That was from the standpoint of a Christian man. From the standpoint of a natural man, Henry Kissinger testifies, "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac."
Armed with the power of the state, fallen mankind will always threaten the continuance of liberty. Individuals, families, and communities are legally disarmed before the state. Worse yet, they are too few and too weak to defend themselves.
Given this threat, how can States' Rights help us protect it? By jealous division of power. By setting one power against the other. By keeping some power at home where it can be watched and tamed, and by interposing that power between citizens and communities on one hand and the federal government on the other.
THEOLOGY RECOMMENDS FEDERALISM: THE ONE and THE MANY
But first, in addition to practical reasons there are theological reasons to recommend states' rights.
It is not too much to say that every state exists only to express some religion. The doctrine of the Trinity undergirds the Christian religion, and forms all Christian understanding. But what theology undergirds the unitary national state? Monism, the belief that God is one, and only one. And if God is one, then the ancient question of philosophy—which is ultimate, the one or the many?—can only be resolved in favour of the one. The unitary state easily justifies tyranny, because its religion decrees that the many must always yield to the ultimate one. Over against such a state, individuals can have no rights, only temporary privileges.
The Trinitarian state also reflects the nature of its God. In such a state—the sort that federalism always produces—the components and the whole are equally ultimate. One harmonious whole reconciles in itself the competing many. This balance between states' rights and central power allows individual and community rights to flourish in its shadow.
THE OFFICES OF CHRIST
Another Christian doctrine demands the division of power that states' rights represents. The offices or powers of Christ are divided into three, prophet, priest, and king: declaring the law, mediating between God and man, and executing the law. Only in Christ are these three offices combined. In the Old Testament, the king was forbidden to usurp the power and duties of the priest. Nor was the priest to rule the state, or the king to repress prophets.
This doctrine does more than merely establish the separate jurisdictional spheres of Church and state. It establishes a principle of division of power in society. Whenever the unitary state concentrates all power into itself, the power of the church, the power of the family, the power of creating law ex nihilo, the power of executing law, then the state claims to be God, the Messiah.
ENFORCING STATES' RIGHTS—LAWFULLY
Finally, states' rights finds both a theoretical footing and practical proof in the Reformation doctrine of the lesser magistrate. It is a doctrine that preserves obedience to lawful authority, enforcing order in the state by correcting tyrannical rulers yet without inciting or justifying rebellion. It is true, the magistrates of a nation—the officers of its civil government, in today's language—hold power by God's providence. Yet that by no means exempts them from submission to his law or the law of the nation. What can we do when they exceed their lawful bounds? Since vengeance belongs to the Lord, we can be sure that he will punish the disobedient, no matter how long he delays. And as much as we may personally suffer under that tyranny, as private individuals we have no jurisdiction to punish evil magistrates, or overthrow those who pervert the law. However, the constitution of every land vests lesser magistrates (lower officers) with public power. These officers do have jurisdiction and power to punish those who overthrow the people's liberty. In the face of tyrants, these lesser magistrates have both the right and the duty to intervene in favour of the oppressed, and the people have a duty to follow them against the tyrant. It is from this doctrine of the lesser magistrate, the statecraft of the American Founders, and the philosophical insight of Calhoun and others that states' rights takes its shape.
Today the centralised tyranny in Washington, whether born in Congress, the President, or the Supreme Court, meets no opposition other than rhetoric and impotent protest. No one acts. In truth, we need not merely to apply states' rights, with all its potential for interposition by individual states, but to apply as well the doctrine of the lesser magistrate on behalf of communities and individuals.
What would have happened, do you suppose, if the sheriff of Pontotoc County, when faced with Supreme Court suppression of public prayer there, had said, "Not in my county!" Would the people have followed? Would the federal government have sent down scores of troops and marshals to arrest or shoot hundreds of praying Christians—for praying?
Or what would have happened in 1973 when the Supreme Court imposed murder by abortion on the United States, if the officers of the states, and the officers of the church, armed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ, had joined to declare, "Not in our state!" There were not then, and there are not now, enough soldiers to enforce that deadly decree. Besides patiently suffering tyranny's depredations, rebuking and resisting its evils in the courts, and praying for vindication from God, I know of no other way to oppose tyranny without violence, and without the taint of rebellion.
The only example that occurs to me where the doctrine of the lesser magistrate has been applied in recent decades took place in Alabama. There the Federal tyrants ordered Judge Roy Moore to remove the Ten Commandments from his courtroom. Standing on his authority from God and from his office in the state, he refused.
Roy Moore lives today. And he is not in jail. The people followed him, and today he sits on the Supreme Court of Alabama. I suspect that the people are ready, waiting only for the leaders to step forward. And they must be Christian men.
More than 100 years ago the Swiss philosopher Henri Amiel stated the case with perfect accuracy, "If liberty is to be saved, it will not be by doubters, men of science, or materialists; It will be by religious convictions; by the faith of the individuals who believe that God wills men to be free."
Originally published August 2001