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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Thoughts on Early Americans and Royalty--Happy 4th

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe has written a column entitled "Celebrating, Royal-free", which I recommend.

However, the article has led me to put down a few of my own thoughts as to how Americans came to be disenchanted with royalty, even though humanity's predilections for that form of government run very strong and deep. Indeed, even in our own times, leaders of states supposedly devoted to the egalitarian ideal have come very close to the imperial, if not the royal, style.

Having been schooled in the Reformed, or "Calvinist", kind of Christianity, many Americans knew their Old Testament.  The Tanakh is perhaps the best book in the world for instilling a healthy respect for the limits of royal competency.

As a young, 20th century American schooled in what the Psalmist called "the seat of the scornful" (Psalm 1), I "knew" early on that the God of the Old Testament was just an oriental despot writ large.  At least, that was something I knew until I actually read the Old Testament for myself in my late teens and early twenties.  What the Old Testament itself taught me about kingship was not what I had been led to expect.

Yes, the God of the Bible is a sovereign over the whole universe.  But he does not thereby teach that a human ruler of unfettered powers his living icon; and that long line of continental enlightenment and Marxist historiography that insists that royal absolutism of the Louis XIV variety is "the" Christian political ideal is flat out wrong--as even a cursory survey of the monarchomach literature of the 16th and 17th centuries (much of it by Calvin's disciples) would show. Indeed, Marx and Engels, who did so much to describe the "Christian" political posture as "abject", should have known a lot better, especially since they idolized people like Jan of Leyden and Thomas Munzer.

The argument held in early modern times over the powers of monarchs took the form of an extended debate on the character of Nimrod in the book of Genesis, Deuteronomy 17:14-20; and First Samuel 8.

Preaching a sovereign God, a host of Reformed writers from both the continent and the British Isles noted that the first king was Nimrod from the line of Ham, wgim on a strictly literal reading of Genesis 10 and 11, ruled when Shem, father of the line that led to Abraham, David, and Jesus Christ, was still alive (Locke says as much in his First Treatise of Government, and the observation is by no means original with him).  While the account of this first king in Assyria is terse, it is clear that the continental Reformed and their British Puritan brethren drew heavily from rabbinic sources such as the Midrash Rabbah, which portray Nimrod as ungodly and wicked.

Among Reformed authors, Knox, Buchanan, Althusius, Hotman, Beza, Goodman, Ponet, Rutherford, and Calvin himself note that Deuteronomy 17 limits royal power by law; for the Israelite monarch was expected to have a copy of the Torah by him and rule in its lilght.  Far from echoing "enlightenment" advocates of constitutionalism, these sons of the Swiss Reformation were among its pioneers; living a century or more before the first of the philosophes was old enough to read Locke.

Yet First Samuel 8 sparked more debate.  Royalists such as William Barclay and James VI and I noted that the Ius Regni (law or right of the king) would lead the king to take freely of his subjects' property, labor, and even children.  Against this, Samuel Rutherford, in his 1644 work Lex Rex, noted that the Hebrew mishpat hammelek was more accurately read "manner of a king".  He and numerous predecessors also pointedly called attention to the Almighty's remark to Samuel that the Israelites had not reject Samuel's judgeship in calling for a king, but had rejected God himself (I Sam, 8:7).

Certainly the royalists made their point in noting the Bible's high view of David's kingship, and how the author of Judges noted that "in those days, there was no king in Israel, and every man did what was right in his own eyes" (Judg. 21:25).  However, the monarchomach point was underscored further in the reading of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, in their portrayal of a monarchy that not only degenerates, but also, on numerous occasions, leads Israel and Judah into sin. Hence, again, Rutherford held that unlimited power was a burden too great for mortal shoulders, and that such power in one who might sin was "an accursed power".

Believing in the sinfulness of man since the fall of Adam, the Reformed and Puritan writers did not follow the lead of either the Chinese Legalists such as Han Fei Zi and Shang Yang (whom they probably never read) or Thomas Hobbes(whom quite a few of the Reformed monarchomachs predate) in positing the need for an unfettered leviathan ruler to keep such sinful ways in check.  Rather, they called for constitutional limits. These they found not only in Deuteronomy 17, but also in consensus and the  safety of numbers.  Noting that Samuel's anointing did not suffice to institute David's kingship, but also that it required making a covenant with the elders (II Sam. 5), Reformed thinkers found room for consent of the governed, and pioneered the concept of government as a compact.

Looking at these developments through Evangelical eyes, monarchy is the natural man's perennial political temptation--and disappointment.  The divine plan for the redeemed is liberty under law, compact, and checks and balances to prevent the sins of one from destroying the many. This should allow us to critically examine the claims of our politicians, whether they promise "progress" towards goals justified by a very tentative "science", or guidance from one "inspired" earthly charismatic.

Many today say that the idea of social contract is in trouble.  Of course it is.  As our culture progressively loses touch with its biblical roots, it looks more and more to earthly political saviors rather than to a heavenly one.  Americans like to believe in their own exceptionalism, and that the totalitarian horrors of the Old World cannot happen here.  Yet the adulation which political leaders receive may well warn us that if our political forefathers became disenchanted with royalty, we, their heirs, have developed an unhealthy yearning for a new Camelot or a "One" to lead us into a utopian future. Under the wrong conditions, this can easily lead to the totalitarian temptation--the desire for an Egyptian Pharaoh or Babylonian monarch translated into Modernese.

Hence a re-education project is in order.  Away with the modern mythologies that say materialistic philosophy liberates us, when after the 20th century, it is clear that it liberated us from the spirituality of the past only to put us under hamfisted tyrants who spilled more blood over the proper interpretation of Marx in a single century than "religionists" spilled over the proper interpretation of the Bible in fifteen. The enlightenment thinkers who gave us a republic may not have admitted it, but they stood on the shoulders of Puritan giants, who themselves stood on the rock of Holy Writ.

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