Faith Priorities and Extent of Temporal Authority

Jim Wallis writes on faith priorities in this election, urging Christians to devote serious attention to more than just the hot-button issues (sometimes called “non-negotiables”) that I believe much of the Republican Party just pretends to espouse. I agree that prenatal infanticide (including embryonic stem cell research) and same-sex marriage are not the only issues. What about eradicating sex slavery? What about stopping domestic violence? These are, after all, vitally important issues as well.

It does sound good to want the civil authority tackle all these problems, which we recognize are very dangerous problems, but I wonder how these good things fit in with what the extent is of the authority that God has granted to temporal government. Have we asked that question and proposed philosophical answers that would apply the right razors to what government should and should not be in the business of doing?

If not, we need to do that rather than assigning everything to government and voting that way. Everyone should have at least a vague but principled sense of what God wants temporal authorities to do now outside of the church.

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2 responses to “Faith Priorities and Extent of Temporal Authority

  1. You can stop domestic violence by joining the Facebook group that says “STOP DOMESTIC VIOLENCE”. Like totally. And the Facebook group that says “End World Hunger” too.

    But on a serious note, organised cultural and private action isn’t that different morally/philosophically (in terms of the scope of power and justness of actions) from getting the government to do it, except maybe the former could be more precise (if less convenient to organise) in how much corrective action to take and whether corrective action should be taken at all. In fact, I will go so far as to assert that the organised collective coordination of many small private actions is also a form of government.

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  2. Practically, civil society can do a lot of things, and it’s certainly dangerous to expect the temporal government to shoulder all those burdens and concentrate too much power into its own hands. It’s one way for citizens to be active without having one entity do to much of the work: indeed, in terms of selective incentives, civil society can act more strongly, since its constituency is smaller and more homogeneous.

    But the reason that we have government isn’t simply that there are a few night-watchman-state things that are hard to achieve another way. Authority in civil society rests outside itself, in the social laws of reciprocity and contribution, which civic organizations leverage in the form of social benefit for the collective interest; in contrast, temporal government is charged by God with a duty to discharge justice in the domain that He specifies in Scripture.

    Of course, in public political discussion in a mixed group, this must be looked at philosophically in the form of natural law rather than theologically by a system inaccessible to people who don’t accept biblical revelation. Until the church has thought about temporal government theologically, however, it will be impaired in its ability to discuss public policy in the outside world.

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