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Bucerian Totalitarianism?

February 15, 2010
Since moving to Europe, and also reading more widely in the Christian political tradition, I've become increasingly convinced that American Christian opposition to a wide-ranging role for the State is rooted not primarily in Christianity, but in Americanity (not that there aren't good Christian reasons to oppose the state, but it seems to me that those are not the reasons generally given these days).  Americans, from our political founding, have a powerful suspicion of civil government, and are very jealous to protect the freedom of our private lives from its grasp (a lot of good it's done us!).  This is simply innate in our disposition, and is simply not shared by Christians in Europe, despite the fact that they have suffered plenty from over-grasping States as well.  Also, despite the fact that all our conservative narratives tell of this explosion of state authority in the past 200 years that was part of a godless messianic impulse in the State that wanted to take over the whole of life and drive Christianity out, almost all of the state functions that Christians protest against have been around for a very long time, and were advocated strongly by Christians, going at least back to the Reformation.  At the moment, my interest is not in discussing why Americans and Europeans have had the attitudes they've had, nor in pinning the blame on the Protestant Reformers for initiating this fondness for statism (though they certainly played a big role), but simply to show how much of what American Christians decry in the State is neither new, nor, apparently, alien to Christianity.  

I use Martin Bucer's On the Kingdom of Christ to illustrate my point.  This treatise was written to King Edward VI of England, explaining to him how he should found a Christian state, and there is remarkably little about the institutions or officers of the Church in it, except for the discussion of how the king ought to oversee that good church leaders are appointed, that evangelists should be sent out, that they should teach good doctrine, and that if they do not, he should remove and punish them.  My concern on that point is not what interests me here.  Rather, I am interested by the ensuing discussion of how the king should ensure that the poor are provided for, and oversee the diaconal ministries in each town; should make rules about who should and should not be married, and what family agreements regarding marriages are valid, and should provide for divorces of those who cannot be happily married; should introduce compulsory education throughout the realm and ensure that every child is prepared for a useful profession that he is appropriately gifted for; should regulate industry, shutting down those industries which are unsuitable for the nation and introducing those which he things will be beneficial; should carefully regulate the foreign trade and make sure that only upright men are allowed to engage in merchant activity and only goods deemed useful are imported; should license only upright men to run public inns; should see to it that edifying recreations and entertainments are fostered in the commonwealth; and should make sure that no one in the country is allowed to be idle, but is put into some pursuit beneficial to the commonwealth.  Bucer's Christian kingdom is at least as intrusive as Plato's Republic--assigning citizens to their most useful occupations, making sure that only the right kind of art and dancing are fostered, etc. 

Here we have, long before Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, the advocacy of a welfare system, trade regulation, a command economy, state licensing of professionals, compulsory public education to prepare children to fill roles deemed useful in society, art censorship and sponsorship, oh, and of course, state oversight of marriage and family issues.

The point here is not to endorse either Bucer or our modern conservative Christian horror of this, but simply to point out how deeply embedded in our Christian tradition this sort of role for the State is.  


I know this is bait for me. And if you ever start using a consistent font type and size, I might just bite.

February 15, 2010 at 7:23 PM  

A couple posts ago, I explained how I was trying, but the new template was extraordinarily buggy.

I'm not really trying to bait you, though. If you look at my Goodreads, you'll see I very much enjoyed Bucer, and I'm quite sympathetic to what he's saying on a number of these points. It is certainly jarring to our conservative ears, and I certainly would like to put a number of questions to Bucer about how well he's thought through his separation of powers (or lack thereof), but, this is meant as more of a slap to Christian libertarianism than to Bucer.

February 15, 2010 at 8:40 PM  


February 16, 2010 at 6:45 PM  

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February 23, 2010 at 9:34 PM  

But are there only two options: the sort of libertarian state fostered by America's anabaptist tendencies and a state which leaves no room for private decisions, no safeguards for property or personal liberty, all in the name of our welfare?

I certainly agree that American conservatives tend to be too libertarian, but wouldn't you agree that a state which directs all and provides for your every need is becoming messianic, grasping at the lordship which belongs to Christ? And if the state begins working charity, then what room is left for the church or the family?

Basically, though I think Americans generally go too far, the move away from expansive states is generally a good thing.


David H.

February 23, 2010 at 9:35 PM  

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