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  • Coziness with State Power

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    July 8, 2024

    Idols in Our Midst : Christ, Caesar, or Self:  Recognizing Political Idolatry-Part 3

    By Dr. Jeffery J. Ventrella

    Introduction

    Last week, we explored St. Paul’s cosmology and showed how it informs and structures real reality.  In particular, Paul explains that there exists a “law above the law” because of the fundamental Creator-Creation binary.  Yet, when man worships creation instead of the Creator,[1] creation, not God, functionally becomes the “law above the law” resulting in idolatry.  And, this idolatry manifests itself in ethics – unrighteous practices – those practices seek approval culturally, politically, and legally – punishing those who disagree or dissent.  Who or what approves??  Here’s a clue:  When people reject God and thereby substitute something in creation for God – they often latch upon the strongest, most coercive thing in creation, the State.  In this pagan scheme, the State becomes a powerful “approving agent,” a “savior” to which the people now look.

    Consider how in the last week or so the public square pundits bantered about the Supreme Court’s rulings regarding Presidential immunity,[2] abortion regulation by the States,[3]deference to federal agencies[4] – and then, there was the embarrassing Presidential “debate”[5] – in all of this every faction and pundit – whether Left or Right – clamored in some way about State power:  its extent, how it should be directed, and how it could solve these public issues.  All avenues rested in using State power.

    Whether advocated by the Left or the Right, this dialogue presupposed that the solution to all these social issues resides in the exercise of State power.  Capture State power, folks contend, and the future becomes rosy:  friends will be rewarded, and enemies will be punished.[6]  This mode comprises an idolatrous and pagan use of the State – often with Christian cheerleaders.[7]  This idol continues to deeply impact American law and policy.  Let’s get to the gist.

    Non-Pauline Cosmology:  The Idol of State and Modern Jurisprudence

    Modern jurisprudence has consciously rejected Paul’s cosmology of divine Transcendence.  How so? By walking through a reductionistic door that locates Transcendence – or its ultimate standard – within the created order, instead of in God Himself.  Modern law and policy have rejected the true “law above the law.”  Thus, modern jurisprudence has embraced idolatry by default, if not design. As one unnamed legal historian boasted:

    “No longer inhibited by the “transcendental nonsense” which has from time immemorial blinded lawyers to the function of law, we are for the first time capable of using law to attain socially determined ends”[8]

    How does one detect and unearth these silent, but poisonously pagan assumptions driving today’s public ethics and law? Are there some telltale, but faint, hints?  Consider the following. When culture lacks a true transcendental — that is, where the Creator-creature distinction is ignored or blurred — then “evil” or “what’s wrong” becomes increasingly rooted in metaphysics(being and things), not ethics (conduct, norms, and standards).  Here are some historical – and decidedly pagan – examples:

    • Body and Passions (Plato)
    • Culture (Rousseau and Romanticism)
    • Authority figures (psycho-dynamic psychology)
    • Economic forces (Marx)
    • Technology and management (Heidegger and existentialists)[9]

    Consequently, disciplines and their anointed “prophets,” the experts, become functionally normative, instead of the Creator and His law.  Just “defer to the experts,” which was the creed of the modern Progressive movement under Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and its later iterations such as FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society.  The State and its power expanded greatly under these regimes; and people, including Christians became increasingly cozy with State power.  

    Next, consider the privileged role – and dubious deference – attached to professions – the experts – in our culture and today’s “news” reporting:[10]

    In another striking example, well-known and celebrated jurist Benjamin Cardozo advised judges how to “do modern law” as follows.  Notice the empty, but euphemistic rhetoric:

    History or custom or social utility or some compelling sentiment of justice or sometimes perhaps a semi-intuitive apprehension of the pervading spirit of our law must come to the rescue of the anxious judge, and tell him where to go.[15]

    These are thin and barren fig leaves; there is no true standard presented here — instead only formalistic, yet relativistic “cut outs” pose as transcendental standards.  This in practice means that unelected “judicial experts” become the standard for law, not the Constitution, let alone a true law above the law. This is Oneist jurisprudence.  Foolishness dressed up as wisdom.

    Real reality, however, embraces the “Twoist” notion expressed by the Creator-creation distinction. And, the impact upon law is profound in both substance and intelligibility.

    If Twoism or hetero-cosmology is true, it follows that:

    • Man is Created by God and thus he is defined by God and is necessarily and invariably a religious creature
    • Therefore, the Purpose of the StateDerivedfrom this Created Reality—must be to the Protect that which the Creator Bestows
    • Laws (and hence the State rightly configured), therefore, do NOT Confer Fundamental Rights; they Protect them

    Described legally, hetero-cosmology may sound like this:

    “The principle aim of society is to protect individuals in the enjoyment of those absolute rights, which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature.”[16]

    This summarizes the Christian Western Legal Tradition that pre-dates the US’s founding.[17]  This is the legal instantiation of the virtuous liberty undergirding Classical Liberalism.[18]

    Put in political parlance, this notion might sound familiar – the triggering words of the American Revolution:

     . . . . We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men , . . .[19]

    Accordingly, it follows as the former President of the Italian Senate, an agnostic himself, recognized and explained:

    “Basic human rights must be seen as a gift of God, to use Jefferson’s phrase. They must be understood as the properties of men as human beings rather than as citizens, a possession not as the mercy of legislators, but prior to the law, and hence pre-political and non-negotiable.  Their rights must be religiously cherished.”[20]

    In Contrast — If Oneism or homo-cosmology prevails:  

    • Man is only or merely a Political Animal, a creature of the State and nothing more
    • Man’s “higher law” begins – and ends – with the State and nothing more  

    Historically, this has sometimes been acknowledged; but whether acknowledged or not, it always produces bad results long term, as the following examples illustrate.  And, there exists no reason to believe that today’s pining for capturing and using increased State power will be done the “right way” thereby avoiding these catastrophic consequences.[21]  

    First note the French Revolution. Following Rousseau, this Revolution rejected God and enshrined “Reason” and thereby intentionally rejected a divine transcendental – Man became the measure of all things with bloody consequences. Yet, a transcendental surely still existed in that system.  Rousseau candidly affirmed that the State fills that role:

    “The source of all sovereignty residesessentially in the nation; no group, no individual may exercise authority not emanating from it.[22]

    Second, consider the Fascism of Mussolini.  He too embraced this reductionistic, yet totalistic Statist approach:

    “For the Fascist, all is comprised in the Stateand nothing spiritual or human exists—much less has any value—outside the State. . . . The Fascist State—the unification and synthesis of every value—interprets, develops, and potentiates the whole life of the people.”[23]

    In contrast, Christian orthodoxy, which Paul systematizes and trumpets, rejects this Oneist predicate and instead embraces a Twoist or hetero-cosmological construction of reality.  The State is not ultimate, nor does it set the standard of justice or law.  Caesar must answer to a higher authority because he and his authority exist to be a minister/servant of God – not a cozy companion to a political agenda.[24]

    And, in the Christian narrative, orthodoxy provides yet another optic which informs public ethics and thus law:  Christian Orthodoxy holds that God became man.  Jesus is the theoanthropus, the God-Man, one person with two [fixed] natures.[25]  This formulation valorizes humanity as it exists with a fixed nature.  Jesus became like us – human, assuming the same fixed nature yet without sin.

    In stark contrast, modern political and legal efforts, stemming from Oneist assumptions, whether acknowledged or not, undermine or repudiate the notion of a fixed human nature.  As Charles Murray explains, this generates consequences:

    “The advocates of the welfare state in both Europe and the United States reject this view [of a fixed human nature], substituting instead the belief that human nature can be changed.  The purest expression of optimism about the plasticity of human beings comes from Marxism, which held that, given the right social setting, humans could become selfless and collectivist, making it possible for Marx’s goal—from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs—to become a reality in a communist society.”[26]  

    Both pagan moves, that is, rejecting (1) a fixed human nature; and (2) a divine transcendental directly affects law and politics:

    It was in their rejection of natural law that [Justice] Holmes and other historicist judges broke  . . . [with the] very notion that human are creatures of a certain type, with transcendent purposes and ends that do not change with time.[27]

    Apart from these predicates (higher law and fixed human nature), the purpose of government necessarily changes, impacting the nature of rights and thus the telos or purpose of law:  Get “human” wrong and one will not get “human rights” right – instead the law will be distorted, including the purpose of the State:

    The denial of human nature as the mooring for equal rights — no longer focusing on the fundamental things inherent in our humanity — changes the purpose of government.  The inevitable result is that rights are asserted as claims for government benefits to which one is entitled in order to have economic security and independence.  This leads to a redefinition of equality to be an outcome [what is now deemed “equity”], to be achieved by government through various (and usually) unequal means.[28]

    So, under pagan notions, the State increases in power, but its purpose is distorted.  The State more powerfully does the wrong things.  In contrast, conceiving the State under Paul’s cosmology is crucial for promoting human flourishing.  Why?  Because in Paul’s thinking, the State, while legitimate, is not to be totalistic.  Its jurisdiction and purpose are both derivative and delimited.  Consequently, there are places the State may not intrude or dictate; Twoism therefore provides a jurisdictional boundary for and restraint of the State and its coercive power, even a State led by a fanciful “Christian Prince” hypothesized by Christian Nationalists:

    By recognizing a moral code that stood above all merely human laws and judged them, the Christian Roman civil law instilled in the minds of the converted the profoundly revolutionary truth that the sovereign’s will is only law insofar as it conforms to God’s revealed moral law—and no farther.[29]

    In contrast, when Paul’s Twoist teaching is rejected, politics ceases to be about promoting justice and instead becomes simply about power.  As one commentator summarized:

    “It was time for man to lay aside the anachronisms of natural law, traditional religion, constitutional liberty, capitalism, and the like and rise to the responsibility of remaking the world in his own image.  God was long dead, and it was long overdue for men to take His place.”[30]

    This ethical reductionism spawns liberty-reducing consequences.  If the State is the transcendent authority, it will not in principle permit any rival authority, except by the State’s revocable permission: “You are free so long as – and only so long as – Big Brother says so.”  This means that true Religion, which maintains a transcendent metaphysic and ethic, will always be targeted by supposedly neutral statist rulers:

    Religion is always a target of totalitarian regimes, which wish to control it if they cannot destroy its influence, and it was a particular target of Communism.  The reason is that it [Religion] provides an alternative system of influence to that of the state, proposing an authority to which the state should be subservient.  It threatens to restrict the power of the state, and its leaders are judged by a set of standards they themselves cannot control.  This can become institutionalized in a clash between the church and state, and then it can become a power struggle like any other.  More dangerous for would-be dictators, is the appeal to transcendent norms, and a supernatural authority beyond this life.[31]

    This of course undercuts and chills societal diversity.  When the State is idolized in this way, the State will be divinized, ala Hegel:

    The “State is the actually existing, realized moral life . . . The divine idea as it exists on earth.  [A]ll worth which the human being possesses—all spiritual reality, he possesses only through the State.”[32]

    As Benjamin Wiker notes, a rejection of a true transcendental does not mean nothing functions as a transcendental.  Rather, it means that transcendence will be anchored to something within the created order. The problem of course is that good goods make bad gods, and history is littered with good intentions and bad destinations as Wiker notes:

    Since they cannot allow a [transcendent] Lawgiver, they seek an alternative source of moral order—and that is, indeed, another defining characteristic of modern liberalism, the [they] attempt to ground morality in anything but God [that is, in creation].  Modern liberalism has tried one scheme after another of not-God morality:  morality as arbitrarily defined by a totalitarian sovereign (Thomas Hobbes); morality defined by an agreement (“social contract”) not to harm others if they don’t harm us, or not to steal their property if they don’t steal our (Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau); morality understood as providing the greatest amount of physical pleasure for the greatest number of people (Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill); morality defined by the stronger (Friedrich Nietzsche); morality defined as tolerating everyone else’s entirely subjective view of morality (contemporary liberalism).  The one common element in this liberal moral menagerie is the rejection of the essential element defining conservatism:  that morality is defined by the Way, the natural law; that is, by conformity of our minds, hearts, passions, and actions to a moral order created and defined by God.[33]

    Unsurprisingly then, Charles Merriam, one of the architects for the new discipline of Political Science,”[34] sets forth a thoroughly reductionistic, Oneist political philosophy that rejected inherent “natural rights”:

    “In speaking of natural rights, therefore, it is essential to remember that these alleged rightshave no political force whatsoever, unless recognized and enforced by the state.  Rights are considered to have their source not in nature, but in law.”[35]

    Accordingly, 

    “It is denied that any limit can be set to governmental activity.”[36]

    This idolatrous thinking influences the Law.  In judicial lingo, how are such assumptions applied?  What does this pagan idol look like today?

    Consider a fundamental question:  What is marriage?  Marriage is, according to the US Supreme Court speaking via Justice Kennedy’s pen:

     “[A] legal acknowledgment of the intimate relationship between two people, a relationship deemed by the State worthy of dignity in the community.”

    “The federal statute [the Defense of Marriage Act] is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”[37]

    Note:  dignity is deemed conveyed by the State, not something inherent, pre-political, or metaphysical.  Of course, if the State can convey or recognize dignity, then it can withdraw it as well, as did Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Mao’s China.

    Sometimes politicians actually recognize this truth, but tardily, as this French statesman noted a century after the bloody Revolution.  He explains how this idolatrous mechanism came into play:

    “The Revolution . . . puts the human reason as Sovereign, in the place of the law of God.  From this flows all the rest – especially the prideand rebellion which is the source of the modern state.  The State has taken over everything, the State has become your God.”[38]

    One would expect this fondness for State power to recur throughout history since Paul’s normative analysis is not confined temporally or geographically. And indeed it does so. Consider another example.  In 1931 the Vatican warned against this same Oneist impulse, couching things in distinctive Pauline-derived parlance:

    [The Vatican denounced as promoting “Statolarty,” that is, the Statist effort in Europe] “to monopolize completely the young, from their tenderest years up to manhood and womanhood, for the exclusive advantage of a party and of a regime based on an ideology which clearly resolves itself into a true, a real pagan worship of the State.”[39]

    In this sense, Hitler was very French, or at the least Rousseauean, as he stated on July 13, after coming to power via a democratic election:

    “If anyone reproaches me and asks why I did not resort to the regular courts of justice, then all I can say is this:  In this hour, I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge of the German people. . . .  Everyone must know for all future time that if he raises his hand to strike the State, then certain death is his lot.”[40]

    It is no coincidence that the current interest by the New Right in seizing and using State Power is also accompanied by a rise in antisemitism, or softer, but equally inane ideas like excluding certain citizens, like Hindus, from voting.[41]  Make no mistake.  This is a National Socialist move, as Hitler noted:  corralling Religion for the use and control of the State.

    Hitler understood the role the next Generation played and how Religion must necessarily be seen as an obstacle to the State and its inter-generational agenda.  The State seeks to dictate and control education as a means to inoculate children against religious truths that conflict with the State’s purposes.  This pagan worldview demands religious constriction, because competing transcendentals cannot admit any rivals.  Der Fuhrer continues:

    “From tenderest age, education will be imparted in such a way that each child will know all that is important to the maintenance of the State . . .

    We’ll see to it that the Churches cannot spread abroad teachings in conflict with the interests of the State.”[42]

    The same dynamic operates today, particularly in public – that is, Statist – schools that seek to impose or conceal from parents the LGBTQ agenda affecting their children.[43]  The parent’s fundamental right to parent as well as their religious convictions get trumped by the Statist idols.

    This means in no uncertain terms:

    “Tyranny is thus inevitably in conflict with religion because it cannot tolerate a law which denies that the people are the source of law, which asserts that there is a divine order which stands in judgment over the human order.”[44]  

    Religion always comprises a target of totalitarian despotism, whether hard or soft.  Calls for expanding State Power will necessarily target Religion and education.  Yet, God has created the conscience of mankind with liberty, a zone of non-coercion.[45]  Consequently, even well-intended appeals to using State power, even dressed up in conservative garb, nevertheless undermine the nature of the human person.  Christians should politely, but firmly reject the tempting calls to “fight fire with fire” using State power.  Means matter.  The fruit of the Spirit is never out of date.

    Next week we will address the flip side of this Statist idolatry:  The Idol of Self, its commitment to radical autonomy, and its deleterious impact on law and life.


    [1] Romans 1:25

    [2] https://www.foxnews.com/politics/how-blockbuster-supreme-court-presidential-immunity-ruling-impacts-biden-trump-2024-rematch

    [3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2024/06/27/abortion-supreme-court-emergency-care-emtala/

    [4] https://natlawreview.com/article/loper-bright-and-relentless-101-what-regulated-businesses-need-know-dawn-post

    [5] https://www.bbc.com/news/articles/crgrwgnvqgvo

    [6] Josh Hammer: “The imperative of this late hour, in order to even attempt to rebalance our wildly off-balance pendulum, is to wield political power to reward friends and punish enemies, to reward good and punish evil, within the confines of the rule of law.”   https://x.com/josh_hammer/status/1556798218754736128?lang=en

    Compare, Daniel Larison, ‘Rewarding Friends and Punishing Enemies’ Is a Gangster’s Motto, Not a Foreign Policy Rule,https://www.theamericanconservative.com/rewarding-friends-and-punishing-enemies-is-a-gangsters-motto-not-a-foreign-policy-rule/

    [7] See Note 6 and Allie Beth Stuckey’s remark: 

    The way forward is going to require the people we elect to exercise a lot more power than conservatives have been traditionally comfortable with.”   And also, see the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 and Nat Con’s Statement of Principles, which, when read carefully, depict a Statist backstop as a means for fulfilling its stated vision.  https://nationalconservatism.org/national-conservatism-a-statement-of-principles/

    [8] Bradley C. S. Watson, Living Constitution, Dying Faith—Progressivism and the New Science of Jurisprudence (2009), 168, citing a legal historian.  Note carefully:  This Progressive ethos posits using coercive law to achieve certain social ends, instead of having ethical cultural goals shape the applicable law.

    [9] Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your work to God’s Work, (2012), 161-62, citing Al Wolters.

    [10] Consider mainstream news broadcasts:  they all have a myriad of “special consultants” and experts “interpreting” the facts:  medicine, civil rights, international politics, the environment, Capitol Hill dynamics, et al.

    [11]Cf., Thomas Sowell, Economic Facts and Fallacies, 2d Edition (2011)

    [12] Cf., Abigial Shrier, Bad Therapy:  Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up (2024)

    [13] Except concerning gender ideology which treats biology as irrelevant at best or bigotry at worst.  See, Ryan P. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally – Responding to the Transgender Moment (2018)

    [14] Recall the mantra “trust the science” associated with Dr. Fauci during the so-called COVID pandemic.

    [15] Bradley C. S. Watson, Living Constitution, Dying Faith—Progressivism and the New Science of Jurisprudence (2009), 149.

    [16] Wm. Blackstone, Commentaries, I:123, cited in Justin Buckley Dyer, Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition, (2012), 49, 50.

    [17] For an exhaustive and detailed history and explication, see Harold Berman, Law and Revolution:  The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (1983)

    [18] P. Andrew Sandlin, Editor, Virtuous Liberty:  A Christian Defense of Classical Liberty and the Free Society Against Cultural Leftism and the New Right (2023)

    [19] Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

    [20] Marcello Pera, translated by L.B. Lappin, Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians: The Religious Roots of Free Societies(2011), 45.

    [21] Similarly, on the Left, the Idol of the State imposed by Marxism has failed at every application, leading to death and tyranny – this Idol will fare no better if applied to “socially conservative” policies by the Right.

    [22] Gary North, Healer of the NationsBiblical Principles for International Relations, (1987), 55, citing The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, 1789, in John Hall Stewart (ed.), A Documentary History of the French Revolution (1951), 114.

    [23] Cited in Thomas Molnar, Utopia—The Perennial Heresy, (1967), 148.

    [24] Romans 13:4

    [25] See, Formula of Chalcedon, https://anglicansonline.org/basics/chalcedon.html

    [26] Charles Murray, Coming Apart (2012), 297.

    [27] Bradley C. S. Watson, Living Constitution, Dying Faith—Progressivism and the New Science of Jurisprudence (2009), 144, 45.

    [28] Matthew Spalding, We Still Hold These Truths—Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future, (2009), 202.

    [29] Benjamin Wiker, Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became Our State Religion (2013), 70.

    [30] Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism—The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, (2007), 31.

    [31] Roger Trigg, Equality, Freedom, and Religion (2012), 29

    [32] Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism—The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, (2007), 218, citing Hegel’s The Philosophy of History.

    [33] Benjamin Wiker, 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read:  Plus Four Not to Miss and One Imposter (2010), 80,81

    [34] “Political Science” is a fairly recent academic discipline – its creators intentionally distanced itself from the former discipline known as “Politics” ala Plato and Aristotle which posited a higher law as well as a telos of social ordering.  This is one reason Hillsdale College, rooted in the Classical Liberal tradition, offers a Politics, not a Political Science major.

    [35] Matthew Spalding, We Still Hold These Truths—Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future, (2009), 200.

    [36] Matthew Spalding, We Still Hold These Truths—Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future, (2009), 197.

    [37] United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. ___ , slip op. at 25-26 (2013).

    [38] Comte de Mun, conservative deputy speaking November 16, 1878 in the Paris Chamber of Deputies, quoted in Owen Chadwick:  The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, 31 (, 1975, 1977); Quoted in Rushdoony, Christianity and the State, 167 (1986).

    [39] Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism—The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, (2007), 41, citing Non abbiamo bisogno.

    [40] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer—Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2010), 231.

    [41] See the June 10th Dicta.

    [42] Id. at 67

    [43] See, e.g., Parents can’t opt K-5 children out of LGBTQ curriculum:  appeals court [capitalization in original], https://www.foxnews.com/us/parents-cant-opt-k-5-children-lgbtq-curriculum-appeals-court

    [44] R.J. Rushdoony, The Nature of the American System (1965), 53.

    [45] See, Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 20.2, Of Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience: “God alone is Lord of the conscience . . .”