Trump and Syria: Some Brief Observations

I’ve been trying to keep pace with the ever-burgeoning mass of opinion surrounding Donald Trump’s decision to bomb a Syrian airfield in response to the Assad regime’s reported use of chemical weapons. Partly to help me organise my own thoughts, I thought I’d set down some rough observations regarding the decision, its (possible) implications, and its significance.

To begin, there is the question of aims. As far as I can see, there remains a great deal of confusion as to what this airstrike was meant to achieve — if by “achieve”, one is referring to intended results. Put another way, it’s difficult to determine the effectiveness of the strike, since there is no clear metric against which to judge success. Ostensibly, it was meant to degrade the Syrian government’s ability to launch further chemical attacks against its own people. But how? Sure, the bombing of one airfield might delay subsequent operations the regime may wish to conduct – but only for a time. It might deter Assad from using chemical weapons (again, for a time), but does little to arrest the wider carnage civilians are suffering. Unless the United States is willing to engage in a sustained campaign against the Syrian government, it isn’t possible, practically speaking, to permanently destroy that country’s ability to engage in chemical warfare.

Some commentators – even those who have praised the President’s decision – seem to be tacitly aware of this uncomfortable reality. In Melbourne’s Herald Sun, for example, Georgina Downer (daughter of former Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer), wrote approvingly that:

Trump ordered a military strike against a Syrian government air base that was decisive and strategic. It took out Assad’s ability to launch further chemical weapons attacks, at least from that site. Further strikes on Syrian air bases will be necessary.

Downer, like others, seems to recognize that one US strike in isolation fails to achieve anything all that significant. This explains the addition of the words, “…at least from that site”. She knows that the destruction of one airfield will not substantively change events on the ground (which, but the way, totally undermines her contention that it was “strategic”). Hence, Downer’s rather insouciant assertion that “further strikes” will be required, lest the current attack amount to little more than a mere symbolic display of strength.

But herein lies the dilemma. Pushing for a more substantial response threatens to draw the US into very murky waters, both politically and morally. It would be an intervention of dubious legality (having been built upon what appears to be an unlawful strike – more about that anon). Moreover, it creates a precedent for Trump and the country that might see them wade into a quagmire – one from which extrication is likely to be exceedingly difficult. Long-range strikes on airbases today; ground operations tomorrow. Indeed, we have seen how previous interventions have turned out: just look at Iraq and Afghanistan, fragile non-states that the US saw fit to try and re-make. One doesn’t even need to cite those particular examples; the more “modest” effort to influence the unfolding situation in Libya from 2011 has also proved disastrous. These should serve as warnings against escalating involvement in a foreign conflict that even the subtlest of minds has trouble understanding. Such action would likely leave the US exhausted by more long years trying to win an interminable conflict where allies and enemies are in a constant state of flux.

This might appear to be a leap on my part, and there would surely be several steps in between; a steadily advancing mission is often (though not always) an incremental process. But recent history has shown that apparently minor military action does have a habit of morphing into something much more grandiose. Indeed, it seems clear to me that Trump is in danger of painting himself into a corner, thereby inviting the spectre of mission creep. I mean, in order to be consistent and comprehensive in his sudden determination to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons, a much-expanded operation is logically required. Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the UN, has publicly countenanced this very option – even going so far as to float the notion of regime change. In any case, it’s apparent that some kind of operational enlargement is simply the natural entailment of Trump’s position, and seems unavoidable if the administration is serious in wanting to rid Syria of whatever poisonous ordnance it may still possess. Otherwise, we’re back to meaningless, ineffectual symbolism.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not in favour of foreign intervention in the Syrian civil war. I’m not suggesting that the US go the whole hog and engage in direct action against Syria. In fact,  I wasn’t even in favour of this latest foray. I’m simply pointing out the policy predicament in which the American government finds itself. Even if I did support a strike (at least in the abstract), the fact remains that the Trump administration has failed to provide a coherent or persuasive explanation for the attack, not to mention the wider aims it purports to secure. If it was an isolated operation, what good does it achieve? On the other hand, if it’s the prelude to something more expansive, how can one possibly guarantee that deeper involvement won’t simply make things worse (and sacrifice an obscene amount of blood and treasure in the process)? Some in Trump’s camp, like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have tried to claim that this does not represent a change in policy, viz. Syria. But how can open intervention – an airstrike against a sovereign nation, no less – not constitute a change in policy? At the same time, we have Ambassador Haley’s already-noted remarks, which re-open the door to grand nation-building projects. These countervailing views – from within the same team – are certainly worrying, for they point to both a lack of planning and fundamental incongruities at the heart of the American government’s basic stance towards Syria.

* * *

The contradictions above are of a piece with the apparent ambiguity resident in the President’s own views on Syria. Not so long ago, during the presidential campaign, he publicly chided those who argued for greater American involvement in the conflict. When Obama failed to enforce his infamous 2013 “Red Line” in the wake of Syria’s earlier use of chemical weapons, Trump seemed to support such a decision. So, what’s changed? On any of the main explanations that have been proffered, one can only be disturbed.

Trump’s own remarks strongly implied that he was so moved by images of gassed children that he felt compelled to act. Compassion and sorrow as responses to human suffering are fine and noble sentiments, to be sure. But should such pictures – and the emotional state they evoke in a person – form the basis of so important a decision as the one Trump has recently made? Policy must be built upon a calm and rational assessment of the facts at hand. It must weigh up various consequences with sobriety and (as far as possible) a certain objectivity. Moreover, foreign policy cannot do without a hard-headed evaluation of a country’s national interest: what it is; where it lies; and how a particular action might impact it, for good or for ill. Forming such potentially far-reaching decisions as the result of deep emotional stirrings – legitimate as they may be in themselves – is the very antithesis of the above approach. In the last few years, we’ve seen how single images can stir government officials to embark on disastrous policies: think of that heart-rending photo, picturing the body of a young boy washed up on a Turkish beach. That image helped encourage European governments to relax their borders further, allowing the number of asylum seekers on the continent to swell at an alarming rate. The results of such policies have been mixed, to say the least.

Some have glowingly cited this as a classic “Trumpian” move: unpredictable and abrupt, bold and decisive. They’ve praised him for so quickly re-assessing his views on Syria in light of what’s happened, and adjusting his course accordingly. I prefer a less sanguine perspective. His volte-face is not, in my opinion, the sign of a strong and decisive leader. Nor does it reflect a man whose grasp of the situation before him is sure and strong – someone who is clear-eyed about the complexities of the conflict, and is able to subtly reason through the implications of certain acts. His affectations notwithstanding, Trump’s rather mercurial ability to shift position so radically in a matter of hours suggests that he is not, in the final analysis, anchored to a coherent, consistent view of the world. The President’s decision signals, I think, his basic ideological emptiness.

Now, I realize that “ideology” is a dirty word in some circles, but I am simply using it to denote a coherent body of substantive, enduring (though not static) philosophical principles, by which a person interprets the world and makes decisions. This is precisely what Trump doesn’t possess. He is the ultimate transactional politician, focused more pragmatics than philosophy. It’s what has led to such policy incoherence recently – not just in the field of foreign policy, but elsewhere (Trump’s approach to economics, for instance, appears to be a melange of free-market principles and nativist protectionism).

Anyone observing events in the United States might have noticed that Trump seems to formulate policy based on what might be called an indefinable nous: some exemplary, preternatural capacity to immediately discern the nub of an event, and to do what is required. Trump’s new-found determination to strike Syria appears to be borne out of such an instinct, which eludes definition: an almost impulsive act, guided not by cool rationality, or considered axioms of thought, but by pent up outrage leavened with a belief in his own exceptional abilities.

Jonah Goldberg, writing in The National Review, compared the President to the ideal “charismatic” leader in Max Weber’s three-pronged typology of authority:

Donald Trump is a charismatic political figure. I mean it [i.e., charismatic] in the sociological and political-science sense. Max Weber delineated three kinds of authority – legal, traditional and charismatic. Charismatic authority “rests on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns of order revealed and ordained by him”.

I think this is exactly right. Trump presents himself as someone who does not need to engage in the long, arduous process of thinking through policy implications or balancing competing interests; nor does he need the safe harbour of an ideological programme to guide his thinking; he simply “knows” what needs to be done, and takes the necessary steps: clean, swift, decisive, and strong. Fixed principles are, for him, redundant, for he has in his possession an unmediated, instinctual grasp of the issues that confront him. But if this is so, how is it possible to predict what Trump might actually do in a given situation? If he cares nothing for consistency of thought – instead favouring the apparent randomness of instinct over the sobriety of prudential reflection – why should people trust his articulated views at any given moment? They appear to be chameleonic, shifting with the vagaries of Trump’s mood.

Note well: this isn’t merely hypothetical; the President’s well-publicised aversion to non-interventionism threatens to crumble as a consequence of his recent actions – actions which were based on his emotional response to a series of horrendous images. Of course, if the attack remains a “pinprick strike”, then this might be avoided. But again, Trump’s proven means of decision-making suggests that anything is possible – even actions which are diametrically opposed to earlier views – whilst the administration in general continues to sit between the two-horned dilemma of ineffective symbolism and potentially chaotic intervention.


Some commentators have contended that even if Trump’s decision to strike Syria was of dubious legality, it was done for noble purposes: to punish a barbaric regime for using banned weapons; for upholding an international, rules-based order; or for defending the weak and innocent. Nicholas Kristof, writing in The New York Times, has made precisely this argument (Georgina Downer, whom I mentioned earlier, doesn’t even bother to admit that it might have been legally ambiguous). But a strike that lacks legal sanction does not preserve international order; as the historian Daniel Larison has ably shown in The American Conservative, it completely undermines it. Trump sought neither congressional approval, nor Security Council permission. It was instead a unilateral act, founded on some very fuzzy aims.

This is really the negation of international order, suggesting that some rules can be ignored, so long as the offending party has the capacity to do it. In the case of the US, it is partly borne out of a long tradition of American exceptionalism: whereas other, more “ordinary” nations are bound by multilateral conventions and a rules-based system, the United States (so the argument goes) is not. One can’t even contend that the Assad regime’s savage attack on Syrian citizens represented a clear and present danger to the national security of the US; that at least could provide the grounds for justifying such a move. It is ironic that Donald Trump should embark on this course of action: the conceit that the US has been uniquely commissioned to act when and where it deems necessary buttresses the same projects of regime change and nation-building that he so consistently repudiated as a candidate. In any case, the recent strike simply perpetuates this belief – all the while making it easier for other states, who do not subscribe to the doctrine of American uniqueness, to act militarily without legal or international approval to secure goals they deem legitimate. As Larison has also pointed out, it is usually smaller states – those that are relatively weak and vulnerable – that are thrown to the wall first when such practices are tacitly accepted.

But maybe it’s all to the good, so long as US motives were right, and the strike results in an ultimate improvement in the course of the Syrian war. However, there is some reason to think that the operation could well have a deleterious effect on what is already a deeply fractious situation, especially if it presages an escalated campaign. This brings me back to what I was saying earlier. If the Trump administration does decide it needs to involve itself further in the conflict, it might succeed only in sowing greater chaos. No one is denying that Assad and his cronies are despicable, and strict justice would require they be dealt with mercilessly. This, of course, goes without saying. They have prosecuted the war with appalling savagery, indiscriminately levelling whole city blocks, and targeting innocent Syrian civilians with impunity. Time and again, the regime has wilfully failed to distinguish between rebel forces and non-combatants, whose only “crime” was to get caught in the crossfire.

Unfortunately, though, the morally decrepit character of the Syrian government is not the only consideration here (would that it was!). In so complex a situation, there are several others one must contend with. To take just one example: the delicate (though changing) balance between government forces and jihadist groups. It should be remembered that the Syrian war is not a Manichean conflict between the armies of darkness and the forces of light. Those fighting against Assad do not represent the summit of human virtue. In many instances, such groups are themselves possessed of a surfeit of wickedness (ISIS being only the most well-known amongst them). Members of the secular opposition may be left, but they appear to be greatly diminished; the most potent rebel forces are expressly jihadist, advertising their cruel antipathy towards anything even remotely resembling freedom or tolerance. Any action that has the potential to bolster their position – even inadvertently or indirectly – should be considered only with the greatest of reluctance.

As such, weakening the Assad regime’s military standing may be what justice demands – but it also threatens to degrade the only force in Syria capable of checking the growing dominance of violent Islamic supremacism. Sure, one strike may not tip the balance decisively (though given Trump’s famed unpredictability, not to mention the fillip the strike has given to American interventionists, this cannot be guaranteed). But is it wise to attack the primary bulwark against jihadism in Syria? Is it prudent to then openly discuss its removal in another act of regime change? Would the United States be prepared to try and manage the consequences of such an act – consequences that would doubtless see the creation of a power vacuum, to be filled with equally unsavoury actors? It should be noted that for all its nauseating barbarity, the Syrian government isn’t committed to exporting bloodshed and oppression elsewhere. The same cannot be said of groups like ISIS, whose international success depends partly on its ability to maintain territory in Syria (and Iraq). Not only is it guilty of gross abuses of human rights in the Greater Middle East; it also seeks to create beachheads for its own brand of Islamic jihadism in other countries around the world. Targeting Assad, then, provides space for a brutal ideology with global designs. Noble intentions notwithstanding, it is not what I would call a “strategic” decision.

Free Speech: In Search of True Defenders

Note: the bulk of this article below was written before the outcome of the recent parliamentary inquiry into proposed changes to Section 18C. I have left the article largely intact, with just a few nods to events of the past month.

Free speech advocates have every reason to feel aggrieved with the current government. Why, just a few weeks ago – after a parliamentary inquiry into proposed changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act – Coalition politicians somehow managed to combine pusillanimity with pugnacity. Scott Morrison brusquely claimed to “know” that “this issue doesn’t create one extra job”, failing to “see any intersection between the issue and those [i.e., economic] priorities” (Michael Koizol, “Scott Morrison Warns Against Internal Fight Over Free Speech Laws: ‘It Doesn’t Create One Job’”, The Sydney Morning Herald, March 1st, 2017). Other ministers made the same attempt at compensating for their lack of ideological fortitude by publicly scorning the expansion of free speech.

This is not a new claim, by any means. Morrison’s argument reminds me of some rather tremulous comments the Prime Minister uttered last August in response to the same issue:

“With all due respect to the very worthy arguments surrounding it, it is not going to create an extra job or…build an extra road” (Paul Karp, “Labor Accuses Coalition of Changing Stance on Racial Discrimination Law,” The Guardian, August 19th, 2016).

Around the same time, one of Turnbull’s ministers, Mitch Fifield, said much the same thing on ABC’s Q and A program (even repeating the phrase “worthy arguments” to ensure everybody knew he was on message):

“While I appreciate many of the worthy arguments that some of my colleagues put forward in relation to 18C, it’s not something that we have an intention to change” (Q and A, August 22nd, 2016).

Fifield went on to offer a rather insipid rationale for inaction, which sounded uncannily like his leader’s. And last December, John Alexander (the Liberal member for the federal Sydney seat of Bennelong) urged the government to concentrate on “productive things rather than political things [i.e., debates over amending 18C]” (Rosie Lewis, “Malcolm Turnbull Faces Section 18C Test Amid Ethnic Opposition,” The Australian, December 29th, 2016). It seems that this kind of febrility is endemic within the Liberal Party.

To be sure, Turnbull has softened his opposition to changing 18C, and his government is now proposing certain amendments to the offending act. He’s offered a welcome rationale for the public modification of his assessment, saying “there is a view” that “the bar has been set too low” with regards to the law in question, thereby constituting an unwarranted “restriction [upon] free speech”. This is quite reasonable: as recent controversies have indicated, views that appear to fall outside the definition of racially offensive speech have nonetheless proven vulnerable to legal censure. To what extent Turnbull’s change of heart has been the result of a genuine shift in perspective – as opposed to a restive backbench – is uncertain. But even some of his more recent reflections on the subject are relatively muted: witness the way he talked about freedom of speech in the abstract (“there is a view…”), as if he himself were too afraid to own the opinion to which he was referring. A full-throated shout of defence it was not.

The lack of conviction is still a worry, particularly from someone who supposedly holds to the tenets of classical liberalism. That other segments of the Liberal Party – you know, that party of small government and personal liberty – should also be shy on this issue is equally troubling. Even if the Coalition is successful in securing changes to 18C, the fact remains that a number of senior ministers have staked a lot on the argument that amending the law is a mere distraction from the task of financial and economic management. Moreover, they seem to suggest that trying to change the parameters of 18C – even if successful – would do nothing to improve the budget’s parlous state, ease the country’s financial woes, or expand employment opportunities for people. These two concerns are, it seems, mutually exclusive.

However, the basic assumptions resident in the above comments raise crucial and abiding questions about the kind of culture we want to see prevail in this country; the fundamental values that undergird Australia’s liberal democracy; and even the relationship (if indeed there is one) between basic politico-philosophical values and economic prosperity. Their Quisling character aside, the arguments proffered by Turnbull, et. al., revealed a surprising degree of ignorance regarding the relationship between free speech and a healthy body politic. I’ll say more as I proceed.

A Hollow Vision

In making their argument against pursing changes to 18C, Coalition ministers repeatedly offered what could be called the “technocratic defence”. Theirs were the words of dry administrative experts – of elite technocrats, committed only to solving the impersonal problems of a modern industrial economy. They seemingly lacked sufficient interest in more substantive, indeed existential,[1] issues such as freedom of thought and expression; instead, they preferred to hide behind a supposedly exhaustive obligation to the nation’s technical-economic challenges. In other words, their justification represents the evacuation of philosophical and cultural substance from the project of governance, reducing it to a hollowed-out form of managerialism. Worryingly, their views implicitly devalue the constitutive importance of the basic liberties this country possesses, and upon which our politics – and indeed our society – are built.

As one of those basic liberties, freedom of speech has made an essential contribution to the enviable character of contemporary Australia. Similarly, it is integral to the tolerant and intellectually rich societies that have developed over the centuries in the West. Freedom of speech has been astonishingly successful in enabling Western states to resolve a complex array of problems across virtually every field of inquiry. Without liberality of speech, one loses many of the other important freedoms we cherish: freedom of religion as a crucial subset of free speech; freedom to assemble peacefully for the purposes of, say, political expression; or the freedom to vote for the party of one’s choice (and to later criticise it), as a further instance of the citizen’s articulation of his or her views. Moreover, freedom of speech cannot be separated from freedom of thought: curtail the one, and you inevitably restrict a person’s right to pursue the other. Liberal democracies, which have come to represent the fruits of Western culture in political form, cannot properly survive without these elements. They are intrinsically, indissolubly, connected. Almost by definition, Western culture prizes freedom of speech as the public manifestation of rational, free-thinking individuals. Restrict it, and one ends up desiccating the culture to which it gives life.

Advocating for the liberal expression of one’s views – in this case, by urging amendment of an illiberal law – is therefore no mere symbolic act. Conversely, to leave it alone as too controversial is far from inconsequential, such is the deep relationship between this feature of the West’s cultural legacy and the kind of convivial, open society modern Australians enjoy. By contrast, the vision of the putative technocrat, with his narrow dedication to achieving a balance between economic inputs and outputs, is largely empty. It appears satisfied with a rather barren political culture – bereft of the vibrancy that stems from a vision of what makes for a mature, responsible, truly flourishing citizenry. As John Roskam, head of the free-market think-tank Institute for Public Affairs, recently quipped, if things like road-building are the final measure of good governance, there really is nothing to separate Australia from North Korea.

To be sure, I am not arguing for an activist administration; states should never be the final guarantors of free speech and ideational exchange (as if all depended on their paternalistic largesse). Nevertheless, there is much they can do to limit themselves so that individual liberty is preserved, even expanded – including divestment of any powers they might have to improperly police individual expression. Anything less is an abnegation of responsibility on the part of liberal democratic politicians and lawmakers. It is therefore surprising in the extreme that elected officials – particularly those in the liberal mould – should have thought that road-building and budget repair, as important as those activities are, rank higher than one of the supporting pillars of Western culture.

But the hollowness of vision to which I am referring runs deeper than that. In many ways, political questions can ultimately be reduced to questions regarding the nature of the human person, and the proper ordering of human relationships. That is, one of the fundamental issues lying behind political debates is what it means to be truly human – and, hence, what kind of community or social order is likely to be most conducive to human flourishing. Listening to Turnbull, Fifield, Alexander and Morrison trying to play economics off against philosophical concerns, one would get the impression that for them, a human being can be reduced to a determinable economic unit, who will respond appropriately to positive material stimuli. It’s a view that casts individuals as pure consumptive actors, without reference to the kinds of core principles or qualities that animate a person. This is, of course, incredibly shallow. Humans are not simply objects that can be deterministically manipulated by mere material considerations. They are conscious beings, possessed of rationality and free will, capable of exercising these powers as they receive and analyse the world around them. Humans are, as it were, agents, acting and engaging and negotiating with reality on the basis of a fundamental orientation – sometimes misaligned, but nonetheless present – towards the attainment of truth.

Freedom of speech respects these insights into the human condition. It rests on the presumption that humans are rational beings, capable of using logic and evidence to explore and determine their views on a particular issue. It places faith in the capacity of human beings to combine intellectual concepts in a coherent and ordered way, such that they may arrive at (rough) approximations of various aspects of reality. To that end, advocates for freedom of speech – correctly, in my view – argue that the best way for grasping the truth, or of deciding on a matter of public importance, is to allow all views to be heard; that way, the individual can, with relative liberty, reason through different lines of argument. This isn’t perfect by any means, since nothing that humans devise ever is. But comparatively speaking, liberality in speech provides a surer means of developing adequate knowledge about the world, and securing correspondence between one’s beliefs and that which is true. To paraphrase the late Michael Novak, free speech gives “play…to [the] unlimited drive to ask questions, and to [the] unrestricted desire to know” as humans seek out truth.

Such accounts also implicitly assume the human person is more than the sum of her biological or socio-cultural parts. They tend to conceive of the individual as a positive entity (rather than the mere intersection of broader forces), possessing a self-regarding, self-critical ability to interpret the world around her, and to make decisions accordingly. It respects the fact that whilst a person is obviously shaped by various external factors, she is no mere passive receptacle or programmed automaton. Favourable treatments of free speech assume that the person still bears the freedom of will to select some truth-claims over others, and to decide for herself (based, one hopes, on rational thought) where the truth might lie. Of course, presuppositions, unacknowledged self-interest, or the effects of social conditioning will invariably insinuate themselves into the structures of an individual’s thinking. However, free speech advocacy takes seriously humans’ capacity for reasoned choice. On this view, an unrestricted exchange of views promotes intellectual virtue, and provides the most expansive context within which human rationality may flourish.

Unwarranted restrictions on speech, on the other hand, undermine crucial aspects of human uniqueness. Beliefs that have been coerced (or manipulated via the proscription of unpalatable views) are neither rational nor free: they aren’t rational, because coercion as a means of guaranteeing “correct” belief breaks the logical link between adherence to a certain truth-claim and its rational or evidential merits; and they aren’t free, for the self-evident reason that force or arbitrary restriction is the very antithesis of political – even volitional – liberty. Indeed, to accept veridical claims on the basis of active compulsion or government censorship represents the very negation of rational discourse between responsible, thinking beings. To suggest that the concerns of the modern, technocratic state are more important than amending an affront to freedom of speech doesn’t just mute a key aspect of the West’s cultural heritage; it also invites a diminished view of the individual, and inhibits a crucial mechanism for the intellectual thriving of human beings.

A False Choice

If what I have written were the only reasons for criticising Turnbull and his ministers, then I’d say it was enough. But in addition to implicitly deprecating the substantive value of free speech, their comments represent a false choice between economic concerns and philosophical principles. The idea that they are separate and separable fails as a general argument, precisely because of the intrinsic connection between the free exchange of ideas and the generation of wealth and economic prosperity. Whilst Coalition ministers sought to play the “productive” off against the (so-called) “political”, they were seemingly unaware that the former is, in many ways, reliant on the latter. That is, communication that is largely unrestricted forms a necessary pre-condition for the sort of mesmerising prosperity Western countries have historically enjoyed. More prosaically, the ability to freely debate important issues offers a society the best chance of developing credible – and, for our purposes here, economical – solutions to complex problems. The economist and economic historian, Deidre McCloskey, has argued the Great Enrichment experienced by the Western world since the middle of the nineteenth century can be explained in large part by the success of certain ideas. As McCloskey suggests:

“What mattered [in relation to the enrichment of the West] were two levels of ideas: the ideas for betterment themselves (the electric motor, the airplane, the stock market), dreamed up in the heads of the new entrepreneurs drawn from the ranks of ordinary people; and the ideas in society at large about such people and their betterments – in a word, liberalism” (Deidre McClosky, “The Great Enrichment,” NRO.com, November 7th, 2015).

According to McCloskey, the West’s unprecedented levels of economic development (unprecedented in historical, and even current global, terms) cannot be understood unless one takes note of their intellectual basis. At one level, that meant the ideas of betterment themselves: technical innovation that led, either directly or indirectly, to expanding prosperity. It hardly needs saying that advances such as these are offered a boon when ideas can be freely exchanged, without restriction. And indeed, at another level, McCloskey seems to be saying exactly that: the “massive ideological shift towards market-tested betterment”, generating not merely technical innovation, but a fundamental change in the way (Western) societies were composed, as well as the manner in which individuals – now seen as beings possessed of freedom and equality – related to each other. McCloskey is clear: “our riches [came] from piling idea on idea…”

This should hardly come as a shock. After all, there exists a connection – one that can be intuitively grasped – between freedom of speech and economic prosperity. It may not always be direct, but it is there. Considered as an economic doctrine, freedom of speech promotes the open transmission of ideas conducive to social and material betterment – ideas that, when co-mingling, have the potential to generate profound advances in technological sophistication and material wealth. The zoologist and science writer, Matt Ridley, has cheekily called this process “ideas having sex”. By that, he means that the complex marriage of diverse concepts – sometimes from very different fields of enquiry – generates new knowledge, driving significant economic progress. Freedom of intellectual exchange stimulates creativity, leads to an intellectually fertile citizenry, and ultimately spurs on all manner of innovations. As the academic Brett Christensen has written, “free flowing ideas and debates contribute to creativity…education, and cultural evolution”. The thinking that some of our elected officials have recently showcased relies on a spurious division between two phenomena that are intimately intertwined.

There is, of course, one obvious rejoinder to what I have just said – namely, what any of this has to do with proposed amendments to a law which putatively concerns racially offensive speech. Indeed, whilst some may well concede the above points as theoretically valid, they might still argue that issues relating to free speech and racial vilification (on the one hand), and economic progress (on the other) are simply unconnected. To put the point in the form of a question: just how would amending or abolishing 18C of the RDA help politicians improve productivity or tackle the country’s budgetary woes?

But if the rejoinder is obvious, so too is a surrejoinder: it is simply impossible to predict what ideas may flow, interact or “copulate” as a result of the removal of restrictions to speech and the exchange of ideas. This may not happen immediately or directly. But if the history of economic and technical progress is anything to go by, the germination of some ideas by others (including those that may, at first blush, appear entirely unrelated) can occur in the most surprising of ways.

Please bear in mind, I am not making the rather outlandish argument that giving space to racially insulting speech might somehow lead to economic enrichment, or usefully contribute to policy discussion. What I am saying is that winding back 18C might provide clear air for views that have been illegitimately captured by the law – views that might, if given an honest hearing, open up discussions around important issues that touch on both society and economics (however obliquely). Indeed, as UQ professor of law James Allan has remarked, the remit of 18C has expanded to the point where it is now invoked to try and silence serious views regarding culture and public policy, on the spurious grounds that they are racist. This is in large part because of problems with the law itself. Amend it, and politicians and policy-makers wrestling with complex, multifaceted problems might find themselves aided by propositions that now fall under the shadow of legal sanction.

I think this response can be sharpened up a bit by focusing on one particular manifestation of the wider controversy. Recall the original context in which Turnbull made his comments. They were partly sparked by a complaint (using 18C) against the late cartoonist, Bill Leak, and a cartoon he’d drawn in The Australian of an Aboriginal man who didn’t know the name of his wayward son. Leak sought to go behind the events of the day, which were related to a contemporaneous report on Four Corners, alleging despicable treatment of young indigenous men at a youth detention facility in the Northern Territory. Leak wanted to ask why these young men were locked up in such facilities in the first place. His point, pungently made, was that the real scandal lay in the neglectful environments in which the boys had grown up, where parents had commonly failed in their duty to model responsibility, moderation and self-control. Certain individuals began legal proceedings in response to the cartoon (since abandoned), which led to several fraught weeks for Leak and his employer.

What has all this to do with economic issues? At first glance, very little. But think about it for a moment. The ongoing ill-health of many indigenous communities – particularly those in remote areas – is very costly. It is costly in human terms, of course, as lives are sometimes irrevocably damaged. But it is also costly economically. All those young indigenous men who languish in prisons and detention facilities around the country obviously aren’t contributing to the economy: they’re consuming public resources and they’re not in the workforce. Their previous crimes have cost individuals and the state both resources and money. Looking at the issue through a purely economic lens, it’s clear that those young men are adding to the overall financial burden of both the states and the Commonwealth.

Leak’s visual commentary sought to provide one explanation for why dysfunction prevails in certain Aboriginal communities – dysfunction that, whilst devastating on a purely human level, also has an important economic dimension. It is an urgent issue that warrants open debate. If the reasons for the existence of such deleterious environments – environments that seem to produce an inordinate number of young men with a propensity for delinquency and criminality – can be found, so much the better. However, if certain views are deemed illegitimate, and attempts are made to silence them via the threat of litigation, then an important public conversation is curtailed. Such restrictions ideas and opinions simply chills free debate, deprives people of possible solutions, and risks perpetuating tragic and costly problems.

Public policy cannot long survive without the existence of facts. I’m not referring to dominant narratives, nor comforting ideologies, but to stark, uncomfortable, messy facts. That is the only way a country’s socio-economic problems can be properly tackled. If policy is founded upon a bed of truth, then politicians can better target their efforts. But it becomes exceedingly difficult to achieve such a goal when communication and inquiry is diminished – haunted – by the spectre of state-sponsored censorship. Ultimately, this is not a question of whether, say, Bill Leak’s views are correct (although for what it’s worth, I think his cartoon was spot on). The point is that the susceptibility of certain views to legal censure, before they have even been discussed or debated, represents an irrational, arbitrary approach to public discourse and the resolution of such desperate issues.

Indeed, if it can be shown why some Aboriginal communities are seedbeds for the kinds of young offending we have seen, then policy (to the extent that government policy should be wielded in this area) can be effectively applied. That, of course, can have economic and budgetary flow-on effects, as communities are stabilized, children are properly educated, young men are kept out of jail, people are placed in employment, costs are reined in, and the financial burden shouldered by the state is reduced. In point of fact, then, changes to certain race-based laws have the potential to (indirectly) contribute to the very goals our fearless leaders claim to be concerned about. As such, the argument that economic issues and possible amendments to 18C are incompatible or unrelated is false, and anyone making it is either being obtuse or disingenuous.


Again, the government’s recently-proposed changes to 18C is a welcome development. But one gets the feeling that its heart is still not in this fight. And it is just one of several debates around principles and philosophy from which the Coalition has tried to run, or on which it has remained frustratingly silent. By dragging this particular debate out over several months (and more), the government has needlessly wasted time and political capital. More importantly, by grounding so much of its resistance in spurious arguments, it has undermined its own political and philosophical outlook. Despite the current shift, the vehemence and consistency with which the above views have been articulated by members of the Coalition makes it difficult to believe that they have simply withered away. This is either a sign of political cravenness or a basic loss of liberal values. Is it any wonder, then, that voters have begun to look elsewhere?

[1] ‘Existential’ in the sense of the deeper character and quality of existence, not its mere presence.

Free Speech and its Discontents: Part One


Freedom of speech is to liberal democracies what air is to a person: if either one is cut off, the body begins to asphyxiate. The largely unfettered right to speak freely is a necessary and fundamental feature of modern Western political culture, without which it could not exist. Indeed, it’s not too much to say that the West’s relative prosperity, technological sophistication and civic stability owe much to the long-standing traditions of open enquiry and the liberal exchange of ideas.

Despite the importance of free speech, however, recent times have witnessed various attempts to circumscribe it. Under the guise, say, of creating a more harmonious society, encouraging “responsible” discourse, or redressing past wrongs, a select few seek to outlaw or extirpate dissenting ideas — dissenting, that is, from the dominant cultural narratives they themselves have propagated. Sadly, it’s often the self-styled paragons of tolerance and compassion who support such restrictions most ardently: progressive elites, who see themselves as members of a kind of moral vanguard, moulding the amorphous mass of society in their own image.

Few Western countries have been immune. Sometimes, activists have harnessed the legislative powers of the state to silence that which they deem offensive or scandalous. Others have sought to create cultural environments on university campuses (so-called “safe spaces”) in an effort to shield students from countervailing ideas and opinions. In a sad twist of irony, they often employ hostile, even violent, methods to achieve their goal of censoring or expelling unpalatable views. Vignettes aside, the ebbing of free speech has been reflected statistically: not so long ago, for example, the Pew Research Forum found that 40% of millennials (those born after 1982, and reaching young adulthood some time in the mid-2000s) thought that insulting speech should be liable to legal sanction.

Australia, too, has been an ideological battleground for conflict over the open trafficking of ideas. Case-in-point: the ongoing debate over Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the pernicious effects it has had on a person’s ability to speak freely. Recent cases involving university students and a political cartoonist have exposed the absurd implications of that law. Similarly, 2015 saw the Catholic archbishop of Tasmania hauled before that state’s anti-discrimination tribunal, simply for disseminating literature which upheld the church’s view of marriage to parochial schools in the archdiocese  (a view which happens to conform to current Australian law). These instances are quite telling, but they are only the tip of a great iceberg — one whose ideological mass remains largely invisible, submerged beneath the welter of everyday events. They are, in fact, products of a long intellectual and cultural gestation,  representing the latest outworking of trends that now significantly shape the character of Western societies. Having been nurtured in progressive and left-wing circles, their effects are being felt beyond the confines of the academy. More to the point, they have succeeded (at least to some extent) in eroding the robust commitments liberal democracies have traditionally had to freedom of speech and opinion.

It’s important, then, to try and understand just how we reached this point, and to uncover the sources of the current ideological ambivalence — even hostility — towards freedom of speech. The above examples will serve as reference points, since their respective features so clearly distill the main currents of thought I have in mind. I suggest we ought to consider at least four main intellectual strands, all of which have gradually, yet inexorably, insinuated themselves into key areas of modern society: scepticism regarding the so-called Western project (of which freedom of speech is a key feature); the popularization of post-modernity; multiculturalism and the rise of identity politics; and a philosophical penchant, endemic within progressive politics, for trying to remake society from above.

None of these trends has operated in isolation. More often than not, they have worked in tandem, mutually reinforcing the distinctive contributions each has had to make in the burgeoning restrictions upon free speech in Western polities. It is easy to see, for instance, how a demoralized perspective regarding the West (given a fillip by Marxian-critical and post-colonial accounts of Western culture) might dovetail with the ideological assumptions that have given rise to certain strains of multiculturalism and identity politics.

On the other hand, I think post-modern thought has had an enervating effect upon freedom of speech through popular dissemination of several of its features. To be sure, it may not have independently led to the restriction of the boundaries of free speech (for one thing, post-modernism resists all meta-narratives and claims to truth, regarding them as ill-fated attempts at intellectual authoritarianism). However, the implications of its basic assumptions have succeeded, I think, in undermining the cogency of the principle, providing the ground for other perspectives — far less conducive to the maintenance of free speech — to substantively challenge this singular Western achievement.

Another little caveat before we move on. It’s sometimes tempting to think that if one has uncovered the origins of an idea, development or phenomenon with which one take issue, the object of criticism has thereby been falsified. Not so. That is what philosophers call a genetic fallacy: the belief that by pointing to the genesis of an opinion, a conclusion regarding its veracity can be drawn. But exposure of origins and exposure of fallacy are not necessarily the same thing. Where the logical and philosophical roots of a particular trend are weak or febrile, I might endeavour to point this out, hoping then that doubt may be cast on the justifications used by current advocates of censorship. I shall, however, reserve more substantive criticisms of those who support such restrictions, or who see little wrong with current laws in this field, for later posts. At any rate, it is crucial that we understand the deeper forces at work within contemporary culture, and how they have helped subvert a key precondition for many of the other freedoms people in the West enjoy.

Doubting the Value of Western Culture: The Voices of Scepticism

In this opening post, I’ve adopted a fairly broad-brush approach towards the issue by surveying the diffuse manifestations of scepticism towards the Western “project” — that is, doubts over the preservation, promotion and consolidation of the fundamental freedoms characteristic of the West. It is an increasingly fashionable mode of engagement with the Western tradition, and for many people, constitutes a basic orientation towards their intellectual heritage. This is true, not only for those dwelling in the rarefied environs of academia, but for ordinary folk, who have bought into a populist version of wariness about one’s own culture. They do not simply express doubts over the spread of the West’s values beyond its traditional geographic boundaries (something that ought to be approached with due caution, of course). Rather, sceptical attitudes regarding the superiority or desirability of key  Western values within the West are on the rise.

Though now a common attitude, the source of such widespread disenchantment lies in certain sections of the Western intellectual and cultural elite. It has long adopted a doubtful, even hostile, attitude towards the values that undergird the Western enterprise — including as they do a commitment to free enquiry, pluralism and the unfettered exchange of ideas. One might call it a kind of internalised cultural antipathy. It’s not a new idea, either. Orwell was alive to this reality, and observed it regularly among the left-wing intelligentsia of his day. His essay, “Notes on Nationalism”, provides a window into his thinking. Reflecting on varieties of pacifism during the Second World War, Orwell argued that the younger breed of intellectual directed his or her opposition in a decidedly partial way, which invariably meant criticism of Western countries for their use of defensive force. According to Orwell (as I read him), the intellectual form of pacifism he identified functioned as a veneer for what was, in reality, anti-Western sentiment.

That sentiment is, even today, linked to a wider — indeed, jaundiced — view of the West as little more than a cesspool of entrenched privilege, structural oppression, economic rapacity, environmental vandalism, and pervasive neo-colonial attitudes. The academic and social theorist, John Carroll, puts it well:

“[The Left’s] carping negativity continues to thrive. [They use] neo-Marxist categories of exploitation and oppression to find ‘victims’ of their own country’s mendacity, as a device to whip it – so Australia becomes racist, cruel to refugees, misogynist, homophobic and increasingly riven by inequality.” 

What so distinguishes these critiques is a suspicion, often pervasive and deep-seated, towards Western values. In some cases, it reaches a point of comprehensive repudiation. Some critiques aren’t as bold as Carroll’s rendition, to be sure. Gentler approaches may simply evince a certain ambivalence, or lack of confidence, in the Western project. But underlying many of them is the tacit assumption that, far from being something worth preserving and advocating for, Western culture is morally questionable (at best) or entirely bankrupt (at worst). Having wended its way through the academy, this view has now trickled down to the masses — such that even those who happily swim in the West’s cultural waters may implicitly view it as responsible for little else besides the creation of misery suffered by the benighted recipients of its “civilizing” mission. It’s not that this view is entirely bereft of truth (goodness knows Western actions, past and present, have been responsible for suffering). The problem lies in the fact that it is mischievously, perniciously, one-dimensional.

The foregoing narrative comes in many forms. Critical theory, in both its Marxist and post-colonial guises, has provided much of the intellectual scaffolding for those ready to rehearse their monochromatic story. Post-modernism, about which I will say more, also informs critics’ views. Often,  these intellectual strands can be found co-mingling, making their presence felt across a diverse array of issues. Opposition to the activities of Western conglomerates is one such manifestation. Multinationals are often condemned for the apparent economic ruin they wreak on non-Western peoples (with sweatshops serving as the primary bête noire). Closer to home, Australian government policy towards Indigenous affairs is cast in a similar light, with certain strains of criticism seeking to draw a genetic link between them and historical instances of avowedly racist, colonial practice. Or what of the progressive’s ongoing love affair with dictatorial leaders, especially where they are seen to be heroically defying the alleged predations of the West? This was made clear recently upon the death of long-time Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. The tributes that flowed from some sections of the ideological Left (British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn comes to mind) revealed a curious incongruity: admiration for an authoritarian ruler who ruthlessly suppressed free expression, juxtaposed with wariness — even deep and unrelenting criticism — of their own intellectual and cultural milieux.

So, what does all this have to do with free speech? At first blush, any relationship might seem rather distant. However, when a basic scepticism or suspicion becomes the overriding context for one’s thinking about the West and everything that distinguishes it, it is easy to understand why freedom of speech — one of the key markers of the Western tradition — may be treated with a certain degree of reserve.  Why expend energy upholding something (other than in a heavily qualified manner) that is intimately bound up with what is perceived to be a tainted — even morally spent — cultural system? More than that, if free and open enquiry is viewed as part of a system of moral and political hypocrisy, the progressive critic may well feel justified in trying to actively limit it in some way. Censorship, then, becomes a mark of ideological virtue. Even when the posture of doubt is characterized merely by an oscillating uncertainty towards the propriety of Western culture, that could well be enough to stifle a full-throated shout of support for free speech. And if ideas or issues happen to overlap with the experiences of minority groups (be they ethnic, sexual, or whatever), then misplaced guilt over the West’s chequered history or a fear of cultural chauvinism can easily weaken one’s commitment to it.

In contemporary Australia, themes of racial and neo-colonial dominance seem to inform suspicion of the Western tradition, and drive some of the stronger critics of unfettered speech. Nowhere is this more apparent than in current debates over the balance between liberality in the exchange of ideas, and racial or cultural harmony. It is in the midst of those debates that fundamental ideological and philosophical fault-lines have been exposed. Where conflicts over freedom of speech have touched on matters of ethnic identity, defenders have often been crudely drawn in essentialist terms, portrayed as standard-bearers for the reactive forces of cultural and racial (i.e., White) privilege.

As noted, the debate over S.18c of the RDA provides one particular window into this phenomenon. Take the academic and columnist, Waleed Aly, for example. He recently asserted that those who want to see S.18c repealed (or, at the very least, significantly amended) aren’t really concerned about the legislation. Nor are they defending a principle they believe to be right and good. According to Aly, for those (White) individuals:

“It’s [about] the message that amending it [S.18c] will send to the minorities who take heart from the thought they’re protected. And it’s the message it will send to those of the majority keen to reassert the cultural dominance they feel they have lost.”

For those wary about principles that are part of the Western tradition — connected, perhaps, to a belief in the West’s intrinsic hypocrisy, or to the shameful misdeeds of the past — a purist’s conception of freedom of speech is likely to be construed as a coded attempt to re-assert Western and/or White hegemony. A malaise about the intellectual fundaments of the Western outlook has seen critics like Aly tacitly employ a “hermeneutics of suspicion” in responding to advocates of repeal or amendment of S.18c. They cast such advocacy as a disingenuous attempt to aggressively silence minority rights, in a réprise of colonial suppression. In other words, a particular defence of free speech is interpreted, not as a principled stand, but as little more than a proxy for an atavistic agenda with quite different goals in mind. Aly is just one instance of this attitude (and a fairly genteel and erudite one at that). He is certainly not alone.

If the key values of the West are viewed as the instruments of oppression, and if the overarching project of which they are a part is seen as lacking legitimacy, is it any wonder that those cultural markers would be met with a basic scepticism? That distrust, whatever its source, translates well into support for restrictions on free speech. Even a demoralised attitude towards Western values — one that does not bear the hallmarks of explicit hostility, but is nonetheless equivocal — can successfully erode one’s ability to defend the principle. Whatever their differences, however, they lie along a spectrum of views. Ultimately, those views gain credence from an ideological perspective that is, at best, ambivalent to a crucial token of the West’s cultural and intellectual heritage.

Challenging the Secularist Narrative

In former times, secularism denoted the state’s neutrality in the face of competing worldviews and comprehensive claims about reality. Ideas could be freely trafficked in a pluralistic environment, whilst no one religion or creedal system could claim official establishment. Although people adhered to a minimum set of shared values – the better to preserve social and political harmony – all were permitted to enter the public square according to their own lights and their own convictions.

More recently, however, a new conception of secularism has arisen. Unlike its intellectual forebear, the contemporary model is neither neutral nor passive in regards to contrasting worldviews. Quite the contrary. In fact, it is largely built upon a fundamental antipathy towards what it sees as the unwarranted encroachments of mere “belief”. Much of this ire has been directed, of course, at religion. Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Neil de Grasse exemplify this view, whilst Australia is also home to its own tribe of new secularists. Via various means, proponents of this view devote themselves to a vision of the public square expunged of the apparently baleful effects of anything allegedly lacking scientific objectivity.

The new secular project rests on two, complementary claims: that certain value-systems – particularly those codified in religious traditions – are hobbled by a corrosive irrationality; and that secularists enjoy the benefit of an objective, unmediated view of reality. For the new secularists, there exists an irreconcilable division between these two realms; between a grounded, life-giving realism, and an enervating superstition. However, despite their increasingly widespread popularity, these assertions are, I think, quite unfounded.

Let’s examine the first claim – namely, that religion is irrational. Dawkins encapsulates this view well when he condemns (religious) faith as “blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence”. For him and those of his ilk, religion is bereft of rational justification and evidentiary grounding. This isn’t merely the claim that this religious adherent is irrational or that doctrinal formulation is without foundation; it is, rather, the much stronger assertion that religion as such is rationally deficient – the product of delusion, wishful thinking or a stultified intellect. Unfortunately, it illegitimately flattens out the diversity of religious belief and religious experience, in both nature and origin. An impossibly broad claim, it ignores the rich intellectual traditions of some of the world’s major religions, and the sophisticated arguments that have been developed to substantiate such beliefs.

For instance, I myself am rather partial to Thomas Aquinas’ arguments for that most fundamental of religious questions, God’s existence. In his First Way, a type of cosmological argument, Thomas argues that the everyday objects our experience, and their causal interactions with each other, furnish a base from which a person might reason, via metaphysical principles, to a sustaining cause of the structures of reality. He saw that finite things are possessed of latent properties that can only be “actualised” (that is, brought from the realm of the potential to the realm of the actual) by external forces; change within an object is the result of those forces acting upon it, whatever they may be. To take a simple example, a red rubber ball left in the sun will eventually turn a lighter shade of pink; place it near a hot flame, and it will, over time, change into a puddle of viscous goo.

According to Aquinas, these apparently trivial changes are part of larger, and more complex, chains of causation. Each member within that chain has only secondary causal power, simultaneously depending on earlier members for whatever potency it exercises. Delving down into ever deeper layers of reality, the First Way takes one to its basic structures. Simultaneously, it also argues against an infinite regress – that is, an infinite ribbon of casual activity, stretching downwards ad infinitum. According to Thomas, it would be metaphysically “groundless”, having nothing upon which to become extant. And if so, then it must terminate in a fundamental cause, sustaining all else and actualising all secondary causes. Sitting at the foundational strata of reality means that it could not, in principle, be a part of it – as if it were merely some finite feature of our world. Rather, it would have to be the very ground of all being, the metaphysical basis upon which the world exists in the first place. And for Aquinas, it would have to correspond to what people traditionally know as God.

Of course, new secularists might retort that most religious folk don’t think this way, but rather construct their beliefs in a more unreflective manner. However, this fails to realize that many arguments for, say, God’s existence – no matter how intellectually demanding – actually build upon the quotidian experiences and intuitive impulses of ordinary people. Aquinas’ own explorations depend on empirical observation in order get off the ground. Other arguments of this kind are partly based on a person’s ordinary (yet reasonable) reflections concerning causal principles, a sense of the transcendent, a belief in the world’s rational intelligibility, and even its apparent contingency. As the theologian Keith Ward notes, belief in the kind of God Aquinas sought to substantiate plausibly fulfils many of these longings – “for God”, he writes, “is ultimate reason…[and] the only belief which gives reason a fundamental place in reality”. Such arguments may distil, challenge or stretch certain aspects of a layperson’s unfocused understanding of theism. Nonetheless, they are not fundamentally at odds, and imply that the basic drives people possess towards the divine may be quite consistent with rational theistic accounts.

New secularists might still contend that such arguments simply fail to supply evidence for God’s existence – and therefore, lack any rational warrant for religious belief. For them, a reasonable belief is largely synonymous with what is empirically demonstrable. But as the philosopher Edward Feser has perceptively argued, this criticism founders for the very reason that it adopts an a priori (i.e., non-empirical) assumption about what counts as “rational”, “evidence”, or “warranted belief”. The scientific enterprise is merely one avenue towards knowledge and truth; other methods of rational inquiry exist, including mathematics and philosophy, which do not rely fundamentally on empirical observation. Moreover, the very assumptions scientific study takes for granted – the existence of the external world, its rational intelligibility, the reality of causation, or the general reliability of one’s senses – suggest that such a project cannot even get off the ground without implicitly appealing beyond itself.

What, then, of the new secularists’ other assertion: that they alone, as people free from the encumbrances of bias (both religious and otherwise), enjoy an unadulterated understanding of reality? How should one respond, say, when a Neil de Grasse Tyson argues we need a new “country” – Rationalia – whose constitution stipulates that public policy should be stripped of all value-statements, and formed on the basis of pure (scientific) facticity?

One might point out that such an epistemological position is intrinsically impossible, for no one makes enquiries about the world in a vacuum. As Lesslie Newbigin has pointed out, human beings are inescapably bound by their finite vantage-points, and are invariably conditioned by prior plausibility structures that legitimise, reinforce or screen out certain patterns of thinking. Similarly, the sociologist and political theorist, Barrington Moore, Jr., wrote that,

…Human beings…do not react to an “objective” situation…There is always an intervening variable, a filter…between people and an “objective” [event], made up of all sorts of wants, expectations, and other ideas…”.

I’ve already noted that even those who prize empirical observation above all else must still begin with a received picture of the world. Moreover, secularists who tout the predominance of “facts,” and who ground their view of the world in an exclusive kind of empiricism, have unwittingly committed themselves to their own set of plausibility structures – in this case, presupposing that reality can only be captured by the methods and processes of modern science. The new secularist, just as much as the religious devotee, is inherently incapable of adopting a completely value-free position.

Additionally, facts by themselves can’t do all that much; they need to be strung together coherently, according to an overarching narrative or interpretive framework, if they are to mean anything beyond their own referents. The debate over abortion is a good example of this dilemma. Modern science might be able to determine in great detail when a foetus begins to develop vital organs, when it is able to feel pain, and so forth. But how can it tell us whether or not abortion is, under any circumstances, morally right? How can it determine when, if ever, a baby with developmental disabilities should be terminated? Even framing the questions in such terms is a category mistake: thanks to Hume’s observation that one cannot derive an ought from an is, it’s clear that simplistically trying to read prescriptive truths off descriptive data cannot be done.

Some, like Dawkins, think that one of the crucial questions regarding the morality of abortion is that of foetal suffering. Though important, such consequentialism is simply not the logical product of scientific enquiry. He proceeds to argue that the moment of birth forms a “natural Rubicon” between permissible and impermissible acts of killing. But again, how does the scientific enterprise lead to such a distinction? What essential difference is there between a child who has been in its mother’s womb for eight months, and a child just born? Dawkins’ line-drawing is arbitrary, having little to do with a pure, empirical appraisal of the situation. One might equally argue that conception marks the basic ontological transition from non-being to being, and is therefore the “natural Rubicon” one ought to use; indeed, everything subsequent to that epochal moment simply represents its unfolding. The point, however, is that these issues – the nature of personhood and the value one should ascribe to it – are fundamentally philosophical and metaphysical. Scientific enquiry alone cannot provide complete answers. Consequently, the secularist’s much-vaunted neutrality dissipates, and she once again finds herself in the same boat as the religious adherent – compelled, that is, to rely on a basic array of presuppositions to guide her ethical analyses and prescriptions.


As much as the new generation of secularists would have us believe their claims regarding religion, truth and reality, it is clear that those arguments are deeply unsound. It is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that attempts to squeeze religious and other value-laden convictions out of the public sphere do not proceed from innocent scientific or rational enquiry. Rather, those methods have been pressed into service to help prosecute an agenda possessing quite different origins. If this essay has succeeded in anything, then it has at least shown that the self-styled opponents of myth and superstition have been shrewdly peddling a few myths of their own.

(Christian) Religion and Secularism: A Response to Brian Morris

Note: this article first appeared in the online newsletter Engage.mail, published by the Evangelical Alliance’s ethics think-tank, Ethos.

I am usually fairly sanguine about the place of Christianity within modern society. Claims that an aggressive secularism is systematically attempting to extirpate religion in general, and Christian faith in particular, from the public square can often seem exaggerated. Every so often, however, I find my insouciance disturbed by some honest pundit or commentator, who with unusual clarity reveals the intentions of a certain strand of secular thought. Aside from providing (some) warrant for those anxious about anti-Christian hostility, such candour does have the advantage of giving one a fairly clear target at which to aim.

The opinions of Brian Morris, which appeared in both print and online media outlets last year (see, for example “It’s Time: Make Politicians Wear Religion on their Sleeve,” New Matilda, 17th August, 2015), constitute one such example. Morris, a former journalist, has turned his hand to advocating for his particular conception of secularism. As part of this project, he called on MPs to openly declare their religious commitments, in much the same way that elected officials reveal any pecuniary interests that may conflict with their parliamentary duties. Morris contextualised his view by saying that ‘politicized religion’ has surreptitiously retarded progress on a number of fronts, including efforts to legalise same-sex marriage and voluntary euthanasia. For him, parliamentary debate around SSM ‘subverts any notion of a secular Australia’.

Targeting Christianity especially, Morris argued that in a multicultural and multi-religious country such as Australia, it made sense for Christian MPs to be more transparent about their views. He suggested that one way of ensuring greater openness was to have politicians’ beliefs – and their influence on whatever views they may happen to hold – placed on public record. Others, like Fiona Patten (head of the Australian Sex Party) appear to have gone even further, suggesting for example that some kind of register of religious affiliation might be appropriate.

But let’s stick with Morris for a moment. One might be tempted to agree with him, at least to some extent. Say an MP is both a staunch member of the Catholic Church and has parliamentary oversight for various social welfare organisations (many of which have roots in, and are connected with, institutional Catholicism). It’s fair and reasonable to think that such an individual would be completely transparent in revealing his or her religious links. If that’s what is meant by politicians’ religious commitments being registered or placed on public record, then one will hear no argument from me.

The trouble is that Morris means more than this. Indeed, the suggestion that the airing of religiously-grounded views in parliament (say, in relation to the SSM debate) is itself evidence of the subversion of secularism indicates as much. So, too, does his interpretation of the Australian Constitution, which he argues was intended to ‘keep religion out of politics’. At base, it seems that Brian Morris wants to excise religion and opinions rooted in religious devotion from the public square. This is not merely advocacy for the institutional separation of church and state – something with which we can all agree – but for the rather radical idea, common among a more aggressive species of secularist, that religion’s presence in public-political life should be completely uprooted.

There are, however, several glaring problems with that kind of position. To begin, one must ask how it would even be possible, logistically-speaking, to achieve such an aim. How does Morris and others of his ilk propose to interrogate politicians on their religious commitments or to ensure those beliefs are publicly registered? Lying behind this is the very basic question of how one actually defines religion, which – notoriously – eludes all efforts at delimitation. What counts as a ‘religious’ commitment in the first place? Mere church membership? General theistic belief? A relatively doctrinal construction of religious convictions? What about the certainty that the cosmos is unified by a ‘higher’ meaning? In an age of spiritual pluralism, where all kinds of beliefs may fall under the umbrella of ‘religion’ (including those of politicians), arguing for some kind of public record comprising such beliefs is to engage in a project that defies precision by its very nature.

Similarly, how would Morris propose MPs corral their religious convictions in order to approach contentious issues in a manner that pleases him? He dismisses, for instance, Eric Abetz’s complaint that only the ‘intellectually bankrupt’ could expect a religious individual to ‘leave their religion at the doors of parliament’. But what’s to object to here? In my view, it reflects the common-sense view that religion – like any kind worldview (even atheistic ones) – is often embedded in the deepest strata of a person’s thinking and behaviour. Asking, say, a Christian to view policy issues without framing them through the lens of his or her worldview is akin to asking someone who wears glasses to remove them in order to ‘properly’ appreciate the lines and contours of a landscape painting.

This appears to be joined to Morris’ (unworkable) suggestion that religion in Australia should be ‘re-positioned’ as a wholly privatized phenomenon. However, short of barring religious individuals from entering public life, it would seem impossible to guarantee that religiously-inspired beliefs – which constitute a ‘framework of reality’ that enables many people to make sense of their world – seep into public discourse and parliamentary debate. Indeed, as social entities, religious individuals are themselves evidence that religion cannot be a purely private matter; their very presence suggests that the public and private dimensions of life can never be truly walled off from each other. Moreover, it seems that Morris has ‘solved’ the question of how one is to define religion only by conveniently opting for a narrow conception – driven, one thinks, by Enlightenment dualisms. Unfortunately, he has ignored the phenomenological diversity of religious expression, substituting for it a reductive characterisation that simply assumes (wrongly, I might say) its inherently privatized nature. Morris adopts a very ‘thin’ understanding of spirituality, which, apart from anything else, fails to reckon with both its ubiquity and its formative role in driving many individuals to work for the common good by way of public and political service.

In promoting his views, Morris evinces a fundamental misunderstanding of religion. But he also fails to understand the nature of Australian secularism, and does so in two main ways. First, Morris’ view that the Australian Constitution was meant to banish religion from political discourse is quite misleading. It was not intended to purify the political process of the apparently baleful effects of religious thought. Rather, the Constitution’s provisions regarding religion prohibit the passage of laws that establish an official creed, hamper religious freedom or disqualify anyone from public office on the basis of their religious (or non-religious) convictions. Here is the relevant statement, from S.116:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

The text says nothing about individual politicians forming and articulating their opinions on a range of issues according to a religiously-grounded worldview, and to say that it does suggests adherence to a peculiarly aggressive form of secular absolutism. If anything, the Constitution ensures a kind of ideational pluralism, where a host of ideas, creeds, norms and principles – both religious and non-religious – can compete with each other on an equal footing. The infrastructure of the state may be free from formal religious control, certainly; but this in no way means what Morris thinks it means – namely, the public invisibility of religious or spiritual worldviews, or the people who embody them.

Second, in advocating a shift of religion’s place in contemporary Australian life, Morris seems to ignore the very deep roots it has sunk into the country’s political, legal and social landscape. As such, he has de-historicized the country’s institutions, divesting them of their religious-ethical content. I regard it as uncontroversial that Australia’s political culture, its laws and many of its normative principles (whether codified or not) owe a great debt to what might broadly be called its Judeo-Christian heritage. Of course, we are the beneficiaries of a number of intellectual streams, including that constellation of ideas known as the Enlightenment. But it is more than a little churlish to suggest that religion – in this case, Christianity – has no place in the very institutions it helps underpin. No one is suggesting, say, that Christian individuals should be given carte blanche simply because of the spiritual tradition they carry. But again, it would seem intrinsically impossible, given the origins of many of our political and ethical values, to completely leach the public square of religious influence. Calling for politicians to reveal their religious commitments (as they might their financial interests) frames the debate in terms of a basic conflict between one’s spirituality and a fully-orbed devotion to democratic processes. But if what I have said about the foundations of Australia’s political culture is correct, then there is no necessary conflict; quite the opposite, in fact.

* * *

Those like Brian Morris seem to be espousing a revolutionary kind of secularism, which seeks to effect a tectonic change in the conduct of Western politics, and religion’s place in modern society. Unfortunately, Morris badly misconceives both religiosity and secularism, even as he casts himself as the latter’s defender. Calling for elected officials to publicly declare their so-called religious interests – part of a wider attempt to ‘re-position’ religion as a purely private matter – is logistically impractical and intolerably intrusive. It fails to reckon with the ubiquitous reality of a dimension of life that can never be wholly privatized, whilst hollowing out a favoured concept in the interests of zealously prosecuting a particular agenda. Of course, this is not an implicit call for spiritual revanchism; I don’t think we should seek a return to the pre-secular past. That said, Christians ought to be confident as they step out into the public sphere, knowing that the cultural framework is not only not inimical to their values, but owes a great deal to them. The efforts of radical secularists notwithstanding, one’s attempt to influence public discourse or enter the political arena as (say) an avowed Christian is a legitimate enterprise.

Christian Theology and Democratic Politics: Part Two

My investigation of the links between Christian theology and democratic politics continues. It follows my exploration into the Bible’s emphasis upon the rule of law, and the contribution this emphasis has made to modern legal concepts in democratic states.

The law’s normative status over a community of people is one strand which links democratic political cultures and the Judeo-Christian ethic which has shaped them. But in exploring this link, I have also anticipated another crucial connection – namely, the idea that leaders are the servants of those they lead. The conclusions adduced in the first essay of this series suggest that within a biblical frame of reference, even pre-eminence in human rulership was relativised. Indeed, even if ancient Israel was no democracy (a point that was true of all its neighbours), we should not be distracted from this fundamental point.

The rule of law and the notion of leaders as servants are linked in a consequential way. The law’s supremacy is intended, in part, to constrain the power of any one individual or group. In this context, any such governor is still subservient to legal strictures maintaining an independent normativity. Even if he has amassed a great deal of power, he is nonetheless charged with the responsibility of upholding the law and maintaining the order and integrity of the community he rules. That represents a kind of minimalist version of the concept of the leader-as-servant. A fully-fledged account of democratic government would hold that leaders’ authority is grounded in the consent of a particular people. Of course, how that is parsed is often a matter of debate, but for modern liberal democracies, the usual mechanism is universal suffrage and regular elections.

This represents a unique arrangement in the history of human cultural and political evolution. For most of that period, the relationship between the governed and governors was one of utter asymmetry, with the former living in subjection to the latter. What democratic states seem to do is dramatically upend the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed. On this view, governors do not “lord” it over citizens; nor is their authority grounded in themselves. It is not intrinsic, but extrinsic. As an ideal, they are there to labour on behalf of the citizenry – for its betterment and security, and at its behest – and it is upon this that the legitimacy of governors rests. Democratic leaders are, in theory, restrained and relativized. On the one hand, they are restrained, because they are bound by the legal framework within which they operate. They cannot act with untrammelled power, because they are servants of both the people who have given their consent to be so governed, and because they themselves are susceptible to legal sanctions if they overstep the boundaries of their authority. On the other hand, leaders in a democracy are relativized, because they are not the ultimate ground of that authority. Again, the citizenry and the rule of law (which provides for consensual government) together ensure that this is the case.

As noted, those who steer the ship of state, at least in a democratic setting, are charged with the responsibility of providing for the betterment of others – not as an adjunct to their role as governors, but as the very essence of what they do. Indeed, the reason elected officials exist is so that (in the absence of radically participatory politics) the interests and wishes of the people may be carried out on their behalf. It is what one might idealistically designate other-regarding, as opposed to self-regarding, power. Democratic leaders are by definition servants of those they lead; they are agents and instruments of the public will. This partly explains the notion of accountable government: if those who lead are meant to do so for the benefit of the citizens of a particular political community, it is but a short step to argue that they ought to be answerable to the ones in whose name they claim to govern. Again, none of this springs forth spontaneously; equally, it cannot be sustained by the intrinsic virtue or good will of its practitioners. A whole web of checks and balances ensures that orientation towards service of the citizenry, and the fundamental conception of democratic governance, are upheld. By contrast, in many traditional dictatorships, leaders exercise power, and are free to do so, largely for their own benefit (regardless of the nature of that benefit). To be sure, they may pay lip service to the idea that the needs and interests of the citizens need to be attended to – if only to make the accumulation and preservation of power that much easier. According to democratic principles (if not democratic reality), ministers and elected officials exist chiefly for the sake of those who have chosen them; they are meant to serve.

Of course, these are ideal types; actual leaders invariably fail to neatly conform to them. Moreover, the reality frequently fails to match such lofty ideals: modern, Western politicians sometimes appear to be just as susceptible to venality and corruption as authoritarian ones; and democratic politicians can be very adept at using “pork-barrel politics” to cling to power, in a manner that is reminiscent of the crudest kind of populist strongman. Still, this should not distract us from the larger point, or the fundamental principles we use to judge such failings in the first place.

Servant Leadership in the Old Testament

One may discern the seed of such an idea in (amongst other places) the OT. If the (divine) law was “king”, then any human ruler, no matter how powerful, was obliged to defer to something greater than himself. He was, in some sense, a servant. He was not called to live for his own aggrandizement; rather, he was selected for the sake of the community, providing a focal point of obedience and devotion to Torah. At the same time, the king was appointed to his position by God. An OT theology of kingship presents Yahweh as the ultimate sovereign, from whose authority any Israelite ruler derived his own. Of course, one might assert that this simply upholds a theory of the divine right of kings. But, aside from the fact that arguing for royal absolutism on the basis of divine providence appears to be a medieval development, the counter-argument does not reckon with the way both Testaments portray rulership generally. In tandem with its insistence regarding the supremacy of law, the OT contains a germinal understanding of the leader-as-servant. We have seen how royal disobedience led to the activation of divine curses, narrated particularly in Kings and Chronicles – clear demonstration of the king’s relative, and indeed relativised, status. This is complemented by the fact that he was not viewed as the final ground of his own position of pre-eminence. The book of 1 Samuel presents this clearly: Saul, who had been chosen as king, becomes a “stench” to Yahweh due to his recalcitrant disobedience, whilst David’s parallel rise – and ultimate acclamation – as Yahweh’s true representative is depicted as the unfolding, not of human machinations, but of the sovereign designs of Israel’s god. On one level, the narrative presents David as the unique recipient of divine favour. However, on another level, it represents a subtle reminder that the king himself stood on authority that was in the hands of another. He was a leader, yes; but he was, in the final analysis, an instrument, used by Yahweh with the intention of mediating his just and wise order – inscripturated in Torah – to the community.

The New Testament and the Flowering of an Idea

Having been germinated in the soil of the OT, the idea of servant leadership blossoms in the NT. The basic resources for a democratic understanding of governance – one which reverses the relationship between those in power, and those over whom power is exercised – are to be found there. We may begin with one of the clearest “political” texts in the NT, Romans 13:1-7. It is a notorious passage. Commentators over the centuries have often interpreted Paul’s statements here in purely reverential terms: having traversed other topics in Romans 1-12, they aver, he now deals explicitly with questions of the believer’s relationship to governing authorities, and does so by counselling quietism and acquiescence. Countless interpreters, not to mention politicians, have dragooned this passage into service, as they have sought to substantiate the untrammelled, unquestioned power of the state. In more recent times (and in an example of religion frustrating the advance of emancipation and egalitarianism), the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa deployed Romans 13:1ff to argue for acquiescence towards the political structures sustaining that country’s apartheid system.

All this, however, fundamentally misunderstands Paul’s point. True, a prima facie reading supports a so-called “conservative” interpretation, such that the apostle is heard to be saying that it would simply be better for a basically oppressive system of government to remain in place, than for Christians to be seen as subversive. Indeed, he seems to simply enjoin submission, with nary a word (apparently) on whether or not the authorities to which one ought to submit are legitimate. However, probing its contents more deeply yields a very different conclusion. To this end, a few points may be considered. Whilst it encourages some degree of deference to the governing authorities, Romans 13:1ff is quite deliberate in the language its uses to describe them. This is particularly clear if we gather up vv.1-2, 4-6, which speak of the nature (as opposed to the activity) of governing authorities. In those passages, Paul quite clearly states that (1) those who govern have been instituted by God, and (2) they are God’s “servants”. What this means is that although the apostle encourages the Roman believers to eschew rebellion and subversion, he nonetheless betrays a relativized view of government and human political institutions, consistent with a Jewish view of God as the world’s sole sovereign. Caesar, according to imperial ideology, owed allegiance to no one, save perhaps for the pantheon of Greco-Roman gods (who could probably expect nothing more than superficial reverence). The emperor stood at the apex of a totalising system, which acknowledged no other authority, no other rival who might qualify or check his untrammelled power. Paul, on the other hand, argues that every governing authority, from Caesar on down, has been instituted by God (v.1b-c). The power and legitimacy they bore was rooted in an external authority. For all their pomp, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, et. al., were but instruments, whose positions, according to Paul, depended entirely on the largesse of the world’s true King. If not for him, we might hear the apostle saying, they would be nothing. The apostle exhorts submission to governors, certainly; but lying behind this counsel is the basic assumption that they in turn were subject to God. Underlying – indeed, overshadowing – their authority was an authority transcendent and unmatched (metaphysically speaking). Far from re-enforcing a totalitarian system, Paul significantly qualifies it.

That qualification is reflected in the apostle’s conviction that governors are “servants” of God (vv. 5-6), charged with the responsibility of bringing order to the political community. Not only have they been bequeathed authority (such that it is derived and relativized); neither the emperor, nor his legion of proconsuls, magistrates and provincial governors, were to wield power for its own sake. For Paul, they were merely agential figures, whose positions were only legitimate to the extent they discharged their duties as guarantors of justice and order (v.4b). The apostle is quite emphatic on this point, though it would be easy to miss, given popular (and facile) readings of the overall tenor of the passage. Twice he labels the governing authorities “servants”; once, he calls them “agents” – language that most certainly undermines pretensions towards universal sovereignty, particularly as that comes to expression in the figure of the emperor. On this view, power is circumscribed, for those holding it do so as instruments of the final sovereign. In Paul’s mind, governors occupy a demoted (though nonetheless important) position, such that their raisons d’etre rest on service to a purpose higher than the accumulation of power for its own sake.

Of course, it would be folly to suggest that in the wider Greco-Roman world, governors lacked any sense of what it meant to provide for those they governed, or that they had no obligations towards citizens and subjects (though this obviously excludes the massive population of slaves within the Roman Empire). What I think is distinctive about the NT portrait of leadership and power is the way it drastically re-draws the vocation – the benefits of which are so completely externalised that true authority is defined as, and manifested in, service to others. This is particularly so as it is embodied in the NT’s portrayal of the ministry and life of Jesus himself. Even in the absence of direct historical links, it is still possible to discern certain parallels between, and echoes of, a Christological ethos and later principles associated with democratic governance. Some of the key texts in this regard are Mark 10:40-45; John 13:1-5; and Philippians 2:5-11.

Mark 10:40-45: Of the three passages I have selected, Mark 10:40-45 draws perhaps the clearest distinction between worldly, secular expressions of power, and the kind of power Jesus counselled and exemplified. In that passage, James and John approach Jesus, and ask him to give them high places of honour on either side “in [his] glory” (v.37). Clearly, they want to be exalted alongside Jesus, to attain positions of primacy and acclamation. But the other disciples are little better, becoming indignant with the brothers’ request – not because they believe it to be wrong, but because they are angry their own opportunity for honour has apparently been robbed (v.41). Verses 42-45, however, form the crux of Jesus’ statement on power and authority. He explicitly contrasts the way in which earthly rulers wield their power, “lording” it as they do over their subjects, and the model he presents (cf. v.45). Indeed, he is categorical and his disavowal of secular convention, calling upon the disciples to eschew the haughtiness of secular rulers in favour of a servant’s approach to leadership. More than that, he states that if any of them aspire to such positions, they must adopt the posture of a slave (v.44).

Slavery in the Roman Empire was a mixed bag; some slaves were able to do quite well for themselves, accumulating property and even acquiring slaves of their own. Others, however, were treated shamefully, stripped of everything, and utterly dehumanised by the reigning economic system. For Jesus, the significance of this kind of language lies in its basic connotations: whether a slave enjoyed a relatively comfortable existence, or suffered under the crushing weight of constant oppression, his life was ultimately not his own; it was limited, corralled – inextricably bound to the expectations and whims of his owner. The slave was not his own person; he was, in many respects, an appendage of the paterfamilias. And yet, remarkably, it was this very image Jesus chose to use when describing the nature of true leadership. For him, the authentic expression of power could be summed up as a kind of servitude, as those who followed his example were enjoined to give up all rights as they sought to lead. He commanded them to yield everything in service to others, thereby upending conventional notions of power, and subverting long-established hierarchies between the governed and those who govern them. Jesus used himself as the exemplar of this attitude, offering up his own crucifixion as its climactic embodiment. Mark 10:45 has long been seen as a classic expression of the significance of the atonement. It is certainly that, of course, but as Anglican New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has said, this passage houses a political theology inside its atonement theology – namely, a critique of the shape and nature of contemporaneous articulations of authority via Jesus’ own explication of the meaning of his death. In place of worldly analogues, Jesus substituted a picture of leadership that was deeply, radically, centred upon the welfare of others (“…give his life as a ransom…”). On this view, the leader’s life was, in effect, “enslaved” – bound to the duty he had to the community he oversaw. The accumulation of power was not for the purposes of self-aggrandizement, but for self-emptying.

John 13:1-5: The Marcan Jesus’ presentation of himself as the epitome of servant leadership leads naturally into John 13:1-5. That episode is justly famous for featuring his rather surprising act of foot-washing in the upper room, only hours before his arrest, trial and execution. In John’s hands, Jesus’ determination to wash the feet of his disciples proleptically symbolizes the cross. Now, for the Fourth Evangelist, Jesus’ crucifixion is, amongst other things, an act of service, issuing in great benefit for others. We may deduce this from the deliberate link he makes between Jesus’ foot-washing and his later death. Christ’s references to cleansing plainly function on more than one level, where the concrete reality of feet being washed with water points to the greater reality of cleansing from sin by virtue of Jesus’ self-oblation. But of course, the responsibility for foot-washing lay with servants, who waited on the guests of a feast. Such a menial task would not have been conducted by the guests themselves, for it was utterly beneath them. However, what Jesus commanded didactically in Mark 10, he here offers up in visual, parabolic form. Moreover, he pairs his example with an exhortation to the disciples to do likewise (13:14-15), thus setting out the importance of his own life as an ethical paradigm for those who would claim to follow him.

What is important for our purposes, however, are the specific links between the passage and the notion of servant leadership. These have already been clearly intimated by the very fact of Jesus’ adoption of a servant’s posture. But the prelude to the act is a revealing comment from the author himself, which provides both a theologically rich portrait of Jesus’ identity, and a startling reinforcement of the radically unconventional expression of power and authority attributed to him. Verse 3 has the evangelist tell us that Jesus “knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God, and was returning to God”. This is crucial; the very next verse continues by saying, “so he [Jesus] got up…” in order to wash the disciples’ feet. The seemingly insignificant word “so” signals the consequential relationship between Jesus’ knowledge of his complete sovereignty (delegated, to be sure), and the subsequent act of humble service which he performed. For the Fourth Evangelist, the foot-washing was not an obstacle to Jesus’ comprehensive authority; it was a clear, if paradoxical, expression of that theological truth. Similarly, Jesus did not stoop to the level of a servant despite being the incarnation of the Father’s very wisdom (cf. John 1:1-2); rather, he did so precisely because of it. The message seems clear: true power is not expressed through tyrannical coercion, but through the complete abnegation of self and status. Via his surprising act, the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel taught the disciples that leadership in the redeemed community could not wielded in the same manner as earthly expressions, for it meant the complete reversal of expectations and convention.

Philippians 2:5-11: Philippians 2:5-11 seems to point in much the same direction as the foot-washing episode in John 13. As such, the passage also has important implications for a NT understanding of authority and power. In this chapter, Paul exhorts the church at Philippi to adopt the same mind and attitude as that of Christ Jesus (v.5). He then launches into a wonderful soliloquy about the various stages of Christ’s humiliation (completed with his exaltation): first, in taking on human flesh; and second, by walking the road to Calvary, and suffering a shameful execution in the manner of a criminal (vv.6-8). Verses 6-7 are particularly important, for they offer the reader a window into Paul’s paradoxical view of the identity and revelation of the world’s true sovereign. To be sure, there has been much debate as to how this pair of verses should be construed: did Jesus “make himself nothing” despite enjoying “equality with God”; or did he, rather, condescend because he participated in the divine identity? In other words, was Christ’s (two-stage) sacrifice a move away from the proper expression of divinity, or the culmination thereof?    

In his stimulating work, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, Michael J. Gorman argues that both interpretations are valid, and for that reason, proposes a synthetic treatment of the passage. He contends that they are really two sides of the same coin, and that Paul is working with both a “counterintuitive” stream and a “cruciform” stream as he rehearses the revelation God in the downward trajectory of Christ’s life. The apostle implicitly points to the paradoxical character of Christ’s incarnation, jarring as it did with conventional understandings of power and divine identity. For a king, emperor or god to stoop to the level of servanthood in this way – not to mention submitting to the dishonour of so humiliating an execution – was almost completely unthinkable. It was a category mistake of the highest order. The novelty of Paul’s depiction of godhood was to say that, contrary to expectation, the kind of self-abnegation seen in Christ’s humiliation was in fact a key moment in the disclosure of the identity of the divine. In sharp contradistinction to the prevailing norms of Greco-Roman culture, what the tenor and conclusion Jesus’ earthly life showed was not a tragic negation of power, but its true expression. We see here the present passage’s conceptual and theological connections with Mark 10 and John 13: the paradoxical – even polemical – depiction of what genuine authority actually looks like. Jesus’ descent into slavery was, according to Paul, the strange, yet climactic, unveiling of God’s character.

Moreover, as Gorman and others have plausibly argued, Philippians 2:6-11 contains a number of cultural echoes that strongly suggest a critique of imperial power, and all the pomp and arrogance associated with it. By implicitly pitting Caesar against Jesus, Paul is arguing that the “form of God” – which Augustus and others arrogated for themselves through military prowess and claims of universal lordship – was actually made visible in the voluntary servanthood of the man from Galilee. In that act, Paul seems to be saying, God in Christ turned imperial notions of power and leadership on their heads. The ethical import of the passage is properly contextualized by the opening verses of chapter 2, where Paul exhorts the Philippians to look out for the “interests of others”, and to tend to each other from positions of humility and deference. Philippians 2:6-11 caps the apostle’s exhortation by providing the church with the paradigm of humble, self-effacing service, of power wielded on behalf of, and for the benefit of, others.

Together, these three passages offer the reader a relatively clear picture of one key aspect of Christology. More to the point, they help crystallize the NT’s conception of leadership. In fundamental ways – seen implicitly in Philippians 2:6-11 and rather explicitly in Mark 10:40-45 – the resultant picture of Jesus constitutes a categorical rejection of the prevailing expressions and examples of power. It not only functions as a critique of empire and imperial arrogance, but also undermines all self-regarding and self-aggrandizing claims to power. The passages I have surveyed here all promote the idea – radical at the time – of servant leadership, where the hierarchy between governed and governor, leader and led, is dramatically blunted. That the subject of these passages is also seen as the very embodiment of God – the world’s true creator and sovereign – only adds to the significance of their complementary portraits of power. What they capture is the notion that leadership functions primarily as a form of service to the community over which one governs. On this view, positions of power do not exist for the ones who possess them; rather, a NT theology (and Christology) of leadership requires the bearers of such status to toil, labour – indeed, expend themselves – for the betterment of those they lead.

How does all this translate into the way power and leadership is conceived in modern democratic states? The relationship, like that between a biblical commitment to the law’s transcendence and evolving principles concerning the rule of law, is certainly not a direct one. And I don’t want to overplay my hand: Jesus was, according to the NT, the agent of God’s coming kingdom. He himself is depicted as God’s vice-regent, who rules the cosmos. This, of course, is not very “democratic”, if by that we mean a Lincolnian government “of the people” or “by the people”.

On the other hand, what I have examined is consistent with government “for the people”, the third leg in Lincoln’s democratic triumvirate. The idea of power and authority which came to expression in the figure of Jesus resonates at a deeper level with principles governing the exercise of political power in modern Western democracies. Moreover, given the deep cultural and philosophical shafts Judeo-Christian ethics have sunk into the bedrock of those communities, we should expect various features within those countries to bear traces – however faint – of that legacy. I think the example and ethos of Jesus is one such legacy. His embodiment of servant leadership upended the conventional and assumed power structures that prevailed in the Greco-Roman world. Similarly, Jesus articulated a new definition of power, one characterised by self-abnegation and self-expenditure in an effort to meet the needs of others. It’s difficult to overstate the massive, indeed tectonic, shift in the relationship between the governed and their governors that was generated by the singular influence of Jesus. Later developments concerning accountable government (which I have already touched on) are genetically related to the idea – exemplified so crisply in Jesus’ example – that power and authority are corralled by service, and ought to be measured against that standard.

None of this occurred in isolation, of course; other intellectual streams were powerfully important in the evolution of democratic leadership. Moreover, the mere example of Jesus could not become an influential source for the later flourishing of democratic culture apart from its preservation, transmission and adaptation in later Christian communities. It was here that the ethic of Jesus was “practised”, and where its social and communal utility could be tested. The early church, as seen in Acts, is seen as a radically egalitarian society (e.g., Acts 2:42-46; 4:32, 34-37), and the legitimate heir to the message and teachings of Christ. Later Christian history provides examples of participatory and communal living, presaging (by some centuries, to be sure) subsequent values associated with, and undergirding, democratic politics.

For instance, theologian and anti-apartheid activist John de Grucy has noted that fourth-century monasticism provides strong evidence for the presence of a proto-democratic culture in some streams of early Christianity. Monastic figures such as Basil of Caesarea (and later, Benedict of Nursia) formed equalitarian communities that sought to counter the highly-stratified worlds in which they existed. Class distinctions between aristocracy and the poor were erased (or at least dramatically muted), whilst members of the clergy from wealthier families, deliberately invoking the figure of Jesus, would take vows of poverty – the better to serve and identify with those they led. Political philosopher, Larry Siedentop, says this development heralded a remarkable transformation in the was authority was conceived. Under the aegis of people like Basil, monastic leaders were obliged to act humbly, meekly. Siedentop argues that this version of authority — existing as it did in a culture awash with hubristic notions of power — was “unprecedented”. The early centuries of the church witness to a formative matrix, which provided key cultural and structural resources for the development of democratic politics, and which can be traced back to the example and teachings of its founder. That matrix was to prove decisive for both later Christian communities and the societies in which they existed. As but one example, we may note the way sections of the Radical Reformation self-consciously sought to emulate the social egalitarianism that Jesus espoused and practised.

All this lies in the future, and I shall return to some of these points in later essays. For now, it is important to consider the historically and culturally mediated connections between crucial biblical themes related to leadership and government, especially as they are crystallized in the NT’s portrait of Christ, and the conceptualisation of leadership in contemporary democratic states.

Christian Theology and Democratic Politics: Part One

This piece is the first of a series of essays looking at the links between Christian theology and democratic thought. Not only does it contain the first substantive part, but also the introduction to the entire series.


“What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” This question, famously asked by the early church theologian Tertullian, was meant to interrogate the alleged relationship between Hellenistic philosophical methods (“Athens”) and a Christian-revelatory understanding of knowledge (“Jerusalem”). The implication of Tertullian’s rhetorical riposte to those who sought some kind of concord was that no such relationship existed; Christian theology and Greek philosophy were strangers on the road to truth.

The question came to mind as I pondered the relationship between Christianity and democratic politics. It’s particularly apt, since Athens is conventionally seen as the cradle of Western democratic thought – the place where the notion of participatory politics (variously defined) was first nurtured. Has Christianity – “Jerusalem”, in other words – contributed anything to that project? Is it possible to discern traces of Christian thought in the long, winding enterprise we call democracy? Or is the relationship characterised by antagonism and (mutual) misunderstanding? For my money, I think it is possible to uncover ways in which Christian theology has succeeded in shaping democratic political thought. To draw a straight line between the two is, of course, impossible; a number of influences, whether religious, philosophical, historical, economic, cultural or nakedly political, have contributed variously to the evolution of democracy, especially its liberal iterations in modern, Western experience. Although it’s unrealistic to think that those factors can be neatly distinguished, my concerns nonetheless lie with Christianity’s intellectual contribution to the democratic project. Here, I want to substantiate the proposition that Christianity has played an important – one might even say formative – role in the later development of democracy.

As such, if it’s difficult to argue that Christianity did not give rise to democracy in simple, one-dimensional fashion, then I think it’s equally implausible to say that it had nothing, or little, to do with this most cherished of Western inventions. For starters, given that democracy evolved in precisely those nation-states that were, for many centuries, soaked in Christian teaching (however corrupted it may have become), it would seem reasonable to posit some kind of connection. More than that, Christian theology has provided some of the deeper philosophical and ideological resources for later democratic thinking: not the democracy of ancient Athens (which preceded New Testament Christianity by some centuries), but of later stages of thought composing the substructure of Western politics. To be sure, uncovering those resources might require some work, so much of it being latent. Rather than forming part of the democratic superstructure (like voting and fixed terms for elected individuals), Christian theology helped form the bedrock of thinking that eventually produced ideas, individuals and institutions explicitly committed to many of those features we normally associate with modern democracy. Instead of being responsible for any one element of democratic politics, it is truer to say that Christianity fostered a culture conducive to this kind of political arrangement in the first place. It was, in other words, the seedbed in which democracy, watered and nurtured by further streams of thought, came to flourish.

The complicated, circuitous (though nonetheless strong) relationship between Christianity and democracy is one caveat that I wish to include. There are, however, others. Whilst I will point out the multifarious connections between Christian theology and democratic thought – such that the roots of democracy could even be said to have been nourished by religious doctrine – I am also aware that the church has had something of a chequered history when it comes to the evolution of Western political systems. Far from being a champion of liberty and equality, it has seemingly been a purveyor of tyranny, oppression and rigid hierarchy. Rather than furthering the cause of democracy, it has often seemed to have a retarding effect on its advance. I am certainly aware of the criticism, and wish to take it seriously (often made by rabid atheists, who seek to divest Western culture of anything resembling positive Judeo-Christian content). I also want to take seriously the beneficial influences of other intellectual and cultural traditions upon the evolution of democracy. I do not intend to claim that Christian thought and theology is uniquely responsible for the modern Western system of democratic government that many of us enjoy today. Such an assertion is not only supremely arrogant; it is also patently false. That said, only wilful blindness – a consequence, perhaps, of the searing glare of ideology – could lead one to deny the bequests Christianity has made to Western political thought.

As yet another qualification, I must also acknowledge the ambiguous relationship between ideas and history generally. This phenomenon presents itself in the form of two main contentions, both of which are germane. First, one might argue that I am implicitly trading in abstractions of both Christianity and democracy, without attending to their diverse historical incarnations. Some might even argue that such “Platonic forms” do not exist at all; only the relative, and relatively messy, examples of what we have come to call Christianity and democracy have any purchase on reality, forever eluding universal definition. Second, I could be accused of failing to appreciate the complex historical circumstances surrounding the development of democracy. One might suggest that what follows ignores the myriad forces related to democracy’s evolution, as well as the vicissitudes of concrete historical experience, which blunts the otherwise marked influence of pure ideas. To be sure, I am cognizant of falling into the trap of some sort of idealism, without according due respect to history. And although my reflections will concentrate largely on the ideational structure of the connection between Christianity and democratic thought (whilst occasionally referring to the way it has manifested itself historically), I am sensitive to the ever-present influence of the often piecemeal, inchoate nature of so much of history. I certainly do not want to neglect the historical-cultural matrix, especially as it pertains to the development of Christian dogma and its relationship with democracy.

At the same time, however, I am no historicist, and I think that ideas – complexes of coherent intellectual concepts, formed with intentionality and deliberation – can, and indeed do, participate in the trajectory of the historical process. Similarly, it is possible, even advisable, to try and define Christianity and democracy (even at the risk of illegitimate abstraction). Unless we’re prepared to give up the pursuit and propagation of truth through language, then we must accept that words have limited fields of meaning. For present purposes, then, when I speak of Christianity, I am thinking of a religious and theological tradition that accords primacy to the Bible as a divinely-ordained witness to God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ, and which holds to the major creeds of the early church. Furthermore – and despite its own diverse traditions – I think democracy (at least in its modern, Western, liberal guises) could be minimally defined as an institutional, political and philosophical concept that variously combines the following features: the rule of law; accountable government as an expression of the people’s will; legal and political equality; and the separation of political power, such that no one branch of government has unmitigated pre-eminence. Words, like suitcases, can carry a great deal, and these ones – “Christianity” and “democracy” – carry at least the kinds of contents I’ve just described.

Some Focal Images

So much for clearing the decks. How might the influence of Christianity upon democratic politics be detected today – if not in explicit statements of ideals, but in the marrow of Western political culture? I propose to examine this question through several focal images, each of which crystallizes the deep connections between Christian theology and dogma, on the one hand, and crucial features of later democracy on the other. Those images can be described as follows: the transcendence of law; servant leadership; human dignity in excelsis; a new way of social ordering; and the plurality of the triune God. Though distinct, they are, as we’ll see, deeply interrelated. In this first Part, I shall concentrate on the rule of law.

Part One: The Transcendence of Law 

Christianity has often appeared to have an ambivalent relationship to the concept of law, especially as it manifests itself in the various legal codes of the OT. In certain parts of popular evangelicalism, valuing the law means flirting with legalism; it was just such an attitude that saw the Jews reject Jesus (so it is argued), spurning the grace of God in an effort to merit their own salvation. Other streams of Christianity recognize, as the first Christians did, the ongoing relevance of the law. Thus, for example, the Gospel tradition preserved Jesus’ own declaration that he came, not to abolish the law, but to “fulfil it” (Matthew 5:17). The complexities involved in interpreting this statement are legion; but at the very least, it suggests the enduring importance of law, even in the new dispensation inaugurated through the ministry of Christ. Further, a letter like James indicates that the primacy of the law, however its appropriation may have changed as a result of the advent of Christ, was something to which the early church adhered. This is clearly seen in 2:1-13, where James’ condemnation of partiality in the church is grounded in an extended application of the OT law of neighbour love (Leviticus 19:18; cf. Jas 2:8ff). This and other admonitions reflect James’ broader dependence on Torah, particularly in the realm of social concern (cf. 1:25, 27; 2:8-12). How the notion of “ongoing relevance” is parsed remains a thorny issue, to be sure; but the theological and legal traditions the early church inherited when it appropriated the Hebrew Scriptures has ensured the enduring transmission of those texts – as well as the basic moral and political precepts they embody – throughout much of Western history. The influence of a Jewish – and subsequently Christian – understanding of law upon democratic thought extends, not merely to individual strictures or ordinances, but to the entire conceptual architecture of biblical legal thinking, and its importance to the ordering of a political community.

The transcendence of law is a necessary (though by no means sufficient) condition for the flourishing of a democratic political culture. It is certainly crucial to the establishment of a democratic framework that safeguards individual rights and substantiates equality of all citizens within a particular polity. Law’s supremacy ensures that people’s activities are judged and regulated, not according to the arbitrary whims of a capricious ruler or state system, but within the context of a transcendent and impersonal legal framework to which all are subject. It affords people predictability in their dealings with each other and with the state, where disputes and disagreements may be resolved with relative transparency. Meanwhile, it constrains behaviour (including governmental behaviour), which might otherwise undermine the basic aspirations of a polity that seeks to guarantee political equality and the integrity of its citizenry. Thus, the codification of an abstract body of law is absolutely essential to the ordered functioning of a community, holding together its diverse parts in relative harmony. As Hayek said, “Only the existence of common rules makes the peaceful existence of individuals possible”. Modern theories of constitutionalism owe something to this principle: a king or government that operates according to a prior legal structure (i.e., a constitution) is one whose behaviour is regulated. The rule of law tames governmental and state institutions, and the community itself is ultimately “constituted”, not by any one individual, or even by a cabal of individuals, but by an originating framework which stands supreme (even where it has been formulated by such a cabal).

Without the sovereignty of law, one of two states may prevail: either anarchy or tyranny, both of which are inimical to democracy. First, there is anarchy. The absence of a supreme legal code, siting above the diverse (and sometimes discordant) desires and goals of which a putative community is composed, can lead to the breakdown of civil order. Such a framework helps restrain and harmonise potentially conflictual interests that individuals seek to pursue. Remove it, and those interests are left to mutate, even metastasize, in a chaotic and wanton fashion. In such an environment, where law’s restraining power is non-existent, the powerful are able to dominate and exploit the weak, thereby destroying any aspirations towards political equality or individual liberty. All this may be news to devotees of anarchism, who naively believe that humanity’s fundamental goodness is such that the broad architecture of law is unnecessary, or even oppressive. But even a cursory glance at those states that have experienced the dissolution of law and order provides some evidence that apart from law, individual and communal existence rapidly descends into a Hobbesian state of nature. Here, the frail are preyed upon by the strong, and an enervating suspicion of one’s fellows (beyond, perhaps, family or kin) abounds.

Second, tyranny. A despotic ruler is well poised to use his power to establish himself as the embodiment, the very repository, of all legal wisdom. Law no longer possesses a transcendent reality apart from any one individual; on this view, it, too, it is subject to the impulses of a single ruling power (whether this is an individual or a clique of individuals). Again, empirical and historical evidence – not to mention a basic conceptual understanding of different political forms – suggests that despotic rule is antithetical to a democratic culture that affords each individual a degree of security, personal liberty, or the privilege of political participation. In those polities that are dominated by a single, tyrannical leader, the law is reduced to a plaything – the existence of which cannot be separated from those who claim to manifest it in themselves. Whereas anarchy represents the radical pluralization of law, such that everyone is a law unto themselves, tyranny substitutes that for a comprehensive legal monism, where all power to establish the boundaries of lawful (and unlawful) behaviour is focused in the person or body that rules. He, or they, sit atop whatever legal strictures have been enacted, untrammelled by any kind of institutional constraints. In either case, the suppression or contravention of individual rights, and the denial of democratic co-operation, is likely to swiftly occur.

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Of course, the normative character of law cannot, by itself, quarantine democratic politics from Charybdis of anarchy and the Scylla of tyranny. Its mere presence is not enough to guarantee either adherence or harmony; here, an anarchic state of affairs is a constant threat. And, as noted, law itself is susceptible to use as a weapon by tyrants and dictators, and can become an unwitting agent in the attempt to legitimise the suppression of a person or people. Nevertheless, the rule of law – that is, the law as king – is of fundamental importance, providing a necessary pre-condition for successful navigation between these twin dangers. And it is this idea of law’s supremacy, to which every member of the community is accountable, that finds expression in the establishment and development of biblical law. There, the law maintained a pristine transcendence over every individual, and, as the Pentateuch has it, helped to constitute the very community of God. Both its identity and its status as a coherent entity were (in principle) safeguarded and substantiated by the law’s normative character. Here, we see the ancient stirrings that subsequently found expression in later constitutionalism. It was the law that bound the community together – an integrated body of people, drawn together through mutual deference to common rule. One only needs to glance at, say, Deuteronomy 4:1-14, to recognize the function of the law’s paramountcy over, beneath and within the redeemed community.

Importantly, even the king of Israel himself, who was otherwise well-positioned to test the law’s sovereignty, was subject to it. Deuteronomy 17:14-20, which functions as a kind of charter for kingship, is crucial to understanding this point. There, the people of Israel are told that if they desire to have a king rule over them upon entering the land, that man is to be selected by Yahweh (vv.14-15). After prohibiting any future regnant from accumulating too much wealth – lest he rise too far above his compatriots (vv.16-17) – Moses (assuming for the moment Mosaic authorship) commands complete royal devotion to the law he is propounding (vv.18-20). A prospective king is to assiduously study the law, so that he may come to know and obey it. However, what is most important is the assumption lying behind these strictures – namely, that the king does not create the law; he, along with every other Israelite, is to submit to it. The OT scholar Gordon Wenham suggests that this way of conceiving of the role and nature of law within a political community was unique to ancient Israel. In contrast to the nations and kingdoms of Mesopotamia, where the king was the author of law (and, to that extent, the author of ethical reality), an Israelite king was himself a subject – subject to the overarching covenantal legal code instituted by Yahweh, whose character formed the basis for its own, enduring transcendence. In theory at least, biblical law was meant to regulate and restrain behaviour – even the behaviour of those residing in the upper echelons of power – precisely because they themselves depended for their authority on that which was both more fundamental and utterly supreme. Indeed, we witness the unfolding of the principle of law’s supremacy over the Israelite community – not to mention the king himself – in later OT history. Even a cursory glance at the books of Kings and Chronicles reveals that the various kings were evaluated, not by military prowess or territorial expansion, but by fidelity to a legal code that was greater than themselves. The king lived under the law, to the same extent as the sojourner or servant. The repeated cycles of royal sin and divine judgment testify to the outworking of the idea that not even one so powerful as the ruler of Israel was above it.

In a slightly different – though no less relevant – vein, we see the umbilical link between the absence of law, and the consequent trampling of the rights and dignity of the vulnerable, in the book of Judges. There, in chapters 17-20, we find the repeated refrain, “In those days Israel had no king [everyone did as he saw fit]” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25; I will examine this a little more below). At the time, Israel was operating in a liminal phase of its existence: constituted as a people, identified by its possession of the law, it was not yet a nation in a formal, institutionalised sense. One of the major themes of Judges concerns Israel’s attempts to struggle against both external enemies and internal discord. By the time we reach the end of the book – that is, chapters 17-20 – we are confronted with a poisonous mix of broad-based anarchy and the intimate, personalised tyranny, flowing from a general lawlessness. The twin dangers that inevitably result from the absence of law are on display in this section of Judges, to which the thematic refrain, quoted above, emphatically points. The author laments the fact that the nation had frayed, and the sovereignty of law had been abandoned – such that every man was a law unto himself.

The dark consequences of this chaos are plain, above all, in chapter 19. That passage – which frames the subsequent events by lamenting that Israel had no king (v.1) – sees a travelling Levite giving his concubine over to a group of rapacious men (19:22-26, esp. v.25). In response to her rape (and consequent death), he callously takes her body, dismembers her, and sends the pieces to the various tribes of Israel (vv.29-30). The meaning here is two-fold. First, the concubine’s broken body symbolized the fractured people of Israel, divided and without the unifying presence of the covenantal law. The author appears to be making a point, amongst other things, about the devilishly anarchic implications of the people’s abandonment of the law. However, the author makes a second, and subtler, point, critiquing both the prevailing situation and the Levite’s ruthless actions as a reflection of that situation. Indeed, there is no hint that whoever wrote Judges approved of what the Levite did. Quite the opposite, in fact. He implicitly condemns the priestly man’s actions as just one more example of what happens when anarchy, instead of God and his law, reigns (cf. v.1). Earlier, I spoke about the twin dangers of chaos and tyranny in the absence of a coherent body of law to restrain behaviour and harmonise the diverse members of a community. Here, they both find sad expression in the violent negation of one woman’s dignity and life.

But it should be noted that the author of Judges was not simply longing for a king who would put his despotic stamp upon the nation – thereby swapping the extreme pluralization and privatization of law for totalitarian legal monism. His sad refrain was not merely for the imposition of regal order, by whatever means, but for a righteous royal who would mediate God’s just and wise order to the community by devoting himself to obedience to the divine law. Even for the book of Judges, the law is pre-eminent, and a king is only desirable to the extent that he, too, submits to it. The writer stands against lawlessness and disorder, on the one hand, and the mere presence of a “lawless” ruler, on the other. Underlying his view is a firm belief in the normativity of law – an expression, he might say, of the transcendent God’s character – as something to which all are bound, and upon which the reality of an ordered society is possible.

Law’s sovereignty is incomplete, however, without the accompanying commitment to equal application to all citizens. Actually, it would seem that they go hand-in-hand, for the natural concomitant to an abstract body of legally binding rules is the narrowness of interpretation and application: only those features of a person’s behaviour that are relevant to the rule in question are to be taken into account. Thus, if someone is accused of murder (for example), it is simply irrelevant whether they have white skin or black, or whether they worship Jesus Christ or Vishnu. All that matters is whether they are guilty of breaking the identified rule. For all intents and purposes, legal subjects are abstracted subjects, and it is this abstraction – part of the same foundation upon which modern democracies are constructed – that also helps to protect individuals from arbitrary exercises of power, making predictable the consequences of one’s behaviour (whether for good or for ill).

How much this commitment owes to biblical thought is a question I can’t definitively answer. I merely observe that this, too, is an idea that finds some expression, however it is inflected, in OT legal codes. That is why, for instance, judges are commanded to determine cases with impartiality (Deut 16:18-20). Numbers 15:15-16, 30-31 also provides the raw ingredients for a fully-fledged conception of legal abstraction. There, we find Yahweh laying down instructions for offerings at the Temple. He declares that both native-born Israelites and foreigners are bound by the same rules, and in the same way. Notwithstanding other laws that reflect an imbalance between ethnic Israelites and non-Hebrew foreigners (for instance, some of the laws around slavery; foreigners appear to be a different category of people from aliens, in any case), it would seem here that ethnic and national differences are irrelevant to the duties prescribed for individuals living within the community of Israel. Equality before the law – and with that, equal application of the law – can be seen in verse 15: both types of people, Israelite and non-Israelite, will be the “same before the Lord”. It was precisely because of the law’s overarching role in regulating, prescribing and proscribing behaviour that there was no variance between an Israelite and a member of another tribe living within the confines of the covenant community. Anything less – say, if laws relating to Sabbath-keeping could be applied differently, depending on whether or not the individual was a Hebrew – would have meant the raw primacy of ethnic identity as the foundation of the community (as opposed to the law). Whilst OT law is not framed in so abstract or conceptual a manner, one may discern a relationship between Torah-inspired accounts of law, and later Western legal principles regarding equal application of rules and the fundamental parity of legal subjects.

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OT law operated in a political environment sharply different from what prevails in Western societies today. Ancient Israel was no proto-democracy; it was a theocracy, with the king acting as God’s appointed representative, upholding and exemplifying his law. Further, we must recognize other streams of legal thought, particularly those of Ancient Rome, which have subsequently influenced Western democratic thinking. Nonetheless, we ought to consider the power of the general importance of the biblical concept of law-as-sovereign as it has been transmitted through the various stages of Western political evolution. As but one example, we may cite the framers of the Magna Carta, that great landmark in the development of the Western political system. In an interview with Mercatornet.com, freelance researcher, Thomas Andrew, commented that the charter codified the concept of the rule of law, such that even the king himself was subject to it. But he also suggested that this emphasis had strong theological roots. Medieval thinkers drew on the reflections of St. Augustine, whose writings on law and justice found their way into a conception of human authority – even royal authority – that was subordinated to law. This principle was eventually enshrined in the Magna Carta, reflecting the influence of both Christian theologizing and ecclesiastical influence. But of course, the views of Augustine and others were shaped by, and soaked in, the concerns and emphases of Scripture. The esteemed place that law occupies in the OT was woven into the very structures of Western legal and political thinking as a result.

Even if it has shed its explicitly religious trappings (e.g., its identity as the expression of God’s character and will for his people), the concept of the law’s supremacy, when transposed into a secular key, provides the basis for an ordered community, in which no one individual – and no one body – may act with unrestrained power. To be sure, one may question the ultimate basis upon which a secular society constructs a transcendent legal framework in the absence of an ethical standard that is itself grounded in God. However, the notion of law’s normative status certainly bears the hallmarks of an OT (and subsequently Christian) understanding of the concept. Despite having moved away from an explicitly Christian view of the world, secular Western societies have nonetheless retained and developed the idea that law exercises sovereign influence over all people, and that an ordered political community requires adherence to a legal code beyond the reach of even the most powerful institution or individual (with the caveat that it may be changed only in accordance with a pre-existing body of law, and only in accordance with a strict set of rules that limit legislative caprice). Indeed, the normativity of law has engrained itself into the political culture and the collective consciousness of the West, providing a necessary plank in a foundation which undergirds institutional restraint and respect for individual dignity.