Friday, February 15, 2013

Avoiding Serfdom

Daniel Hannan, The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter or Warning to America. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. 200 pages, with index, $24.99. Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis.

          Should Christians study and be involved in politics? Some claim that politics is dirty; Christians should be pure; therefore, Christians should not seek to understand or contribute to the world of elections, legislation, and public policy. However, this is deeply unbiblical. Christ is the Lord of the whole of life and has summed his born-again and Spirit-filled people to “disciple the nations” (Matthew 28:18-20). We live in a fallen world. Christian involvement in that world—at every level—means associating with sinners, sinful ideas, and sinful institutions. But God’s mission as God is to draw people into his covenant, make them eternal citizens of his Kingdom, and empower them to reestablish the knowledge of God to the nations such that fallen mortals admit their state before God, appropriate his promises, and put them into action as they rely on the Spirit of Truth moment-by-moment. This cannot exclude the laws of nations—and neighborhoods.

          Since God is Lord, and not the state, every political order is under the judgment of a higher Sovereign. For example, the Psalms says to God and us:

Can a corrupt throne be allied with you—
    a throne that brings on misery by its decrees? (Psalm 94:20)

The Book of Acts reports God’s impeachment of arrogant Herod.
On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people.22 They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.”23 Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.
But the word of God continued to spread and flourish (Acts 12:21-22).

Christians, as salt and light in society, should be deeply concerned about the moral and political direction of their nation (Matthew 5:13-16). Civil law substantially shapes the character and culture of a nation. Although no tyranny can ultimately stop the advancement of God’s Kingdom, it can displease God and abuse people made in God’s image and likeness. Isaiah knew this: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees” (Isaiah 10:1). Jesus himself was not coved by political pressure, nor did he endorse unjust authority:

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”
He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’  In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! (Luke 13:31-33).

 As Jeremiah said, God’s people should seek the welfare of the city to which they are exiled (Jeremiah 29:7; see also 1 Peter 1). Although we are “exiles” on earth before God restores all things (Revelation 21-22), we are still called to cultivate and develop the creation (Genesis 1:26) in these terms:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

Part of the Christian’s duty as both a citizen of heaven and of earth is to gain the best possible insights into the history, meaning, and possibilities for one’s own nation. That is, being a wise agent of God means not only knowing the Word, but knowing God’s world. This requires some knowledge of extra-biblical history, political philosophy, and economics. Christians ought not use the Bible as a shortcut to avoid these matters. In this endeavor, an Englishman, Daniel Hannan can help us immensely.
While on the floor of the European Parliament in 2009, Hannan eloquently denounced British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s policies. A video of his performance went viral on the Internet, thus acquainting millions of Americans to a principled, articulate, and courageous politically conservative voice from England. Although Hannan does not wax very theological in this short, crisp, clever, and insightful book, his warning to America is deeply rooted in the Judeo Christian tradition. Perhaps the most telling theological comments Hannan makes sums up the genius of this tradition: “it needs to be remembered that Man is fallen” (10). Knowledge of this truth protects civil governments from utopian aspirations and the superstition that human nature can be regenerated by political effort.  

Hannan’s thesis is that America has moved radically toward European political ideals and, therefore, away from its founding heritage of limited civil government. He does not want America to become a nation of serfs. Hence his title, which calls to mind Friedrich Hayek’s classic work, The Road to Serfdom.  Hannan warns that “The United States is Europeanizing its health care system, its tax rates, its day care, its welfare rules, its approach to global warming, its foreign policy, its federal structure, its unemployment rate” (xvi). As such, we are risking the integrity of our unique identity in the world. “Europeanization is incompatible with the vision of the founders and the spirit of the republic. Americans are embracing all the things their ancestors were so keen to get away from: high taxes, unelected bureaucrats, pettifogging rules” (118).

Hannan, though a loyal citizen of the nation that America opposed in the War of Independence, affirms American exceptionalism. This claim has taken many forms—some more merely nationalistic, others more nuanced and historically-informed. Basically stated, American exceptionalism does not deem America a new chosen nation, nor does it except America from transcendent moral standards.  As Jesus said:

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked (Luke 12:28)

Rather, it argues that the principles of America’s founding (articulated in The Federalist Papers, The Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights) are exceptional in world history. America was deliberately founded by well-educated, deep-thinking and far-thinking, intellectuals who held a Judeo-Christian view of human nature as neither angelic nor demonic, but constrained by finitude and sin. Therefore, the power of the state should be limited and the federal government should be separated into three powers, each with its own jurisdiction: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. To many, this arrangement merely a social construction with no intrinsic and abiding value, as claims progressivism. On the contrary, it captures many essentials truths of the human condition and what it means to live under ordered liberty

Like many British writers, Hannan possesses an urbane wit and an astute sense for history. He convincingly argues that America’s founding ideals were largely borrowed England, the very nation America revolted against in 1776. Many Englishmen did not support the war against the colonies, and it was not fought with great determination. Further, England generally embraced America after the war. The United States and England have been strong military allies through many years, especially in World War II. For these reasons, Hannan feels a keen kinship with America, and desires that it stay true to its founding principles. He believes that America at its best is, in many ways and despite is foibles, a light to world. He does not want to see that light flicker and eventually go out. The darkness would extend beyond our shores and throughout God’s world. America’s greatness should matter to everyone, argues Hannan, since “the promise of the U.S. Constitution didn’t simply serve to make Americans free. It also drove your fathers to carry liberty to other continents” (118).

Hannan has in-depth experience with both British politics and that of the European Union, a multi-national bureaucracy that has little respect for the popular will of the citizens of its constitutive states. It favors a socialist welfare state over personal liberty, prosperity, and opportunity; it mandates “global governance” and supra-nationalism over the sovereignty of individual nations (see Genesis 11 for the original source of this error.) In a particularly profound chapter called, “Don’t Copy Europe,” Hannan cautions that we should not copy Europe’s model of a centralized, command (top-down) economy, given its excessive and debilitating regulations, inability to motivate workers and generate new jobs. Nor should we ape Europeanize health care. As an example, Hannan explains the abysmal record of England’s inefficient and bureaucratically sclerotic socialized system.

We should avoid the European model of welfare as well, since it makes no distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, undercuts individual responsibility, and engenders resentment between people. Our sense of society should not be inspired by Europe, because “as the state has expanded, society has dwindled” (100). Or, as talk radio host and author Dennis Prager says, “The larger the state, the smaller the citizen.” Social functions traditionally given to families—such as health, education, day care, and the provision for the elderly—are taken over by the state. “So, it is perhaps no surprise that the family itself, in Europe, in is decline” (101).  Hannan argues that Europe’s recent record on immigration and its abandonment of federalism is equally undeserving of our imitation.

Americans should aspire to something far better than serfdom. Daniel Hannan can help teach us how. I hope that Christians listen, learn, and act accordingly, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and in the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit of Truth.

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