On the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate


[Blog and Mablog] If you were to summarize the essential feature of Christian political thought in one phrase, it would be limited government. Only God is absolute, and because this absolute God sent His Son into the world, and after His crucifixion raised Him from the dead, our confession is that this Jesus is Lord. Because Jesus is Lord, this means that Caesar is not Lord. It means that Jesus is the Lord of Caesar, and it follows from this that Caesar’s rule has specified boundaries and limits.

Limited government is necessary to Christian political thought because of two limitations that human beings have. The first is because we are finite creatures, and the second is because we are fallen creatures. We are finite and bounded, and this means that running the cosmos is way above our pay grade. Whenever we attempt it, we are necessarily in over our heads. The second problem is that we are bent, proud, and selfish, which means that we combine our tendency to grasp at things selfishly with our general incompetence.

To take a trivial example, we do not have the capacity to set prices on popsicles, for example, and still have popsicles, and on top of that trouble, we find that our politicians are almost immediately taking kickbacks from an overly-regulated popsicle industry, and then there was a very big scandal. It was all very sad.

Government among men must be limited because rulers are not as competent as they think they are, and they are not as selfless as they say they are.

Government among men must be limited because rulers are not as competent as they think they are, and they are not as selfless as they say they are.

The natural adversary of Christian political thought, therefore, is arbitrary government. Arbitrary governments brook no limits, and so thoughtful Christians want nothing to do with arbitrary government. And, coming to the point, we don’t like arbitrary government from the right any more than we like it from the left. Those who gather up the perks of arbitrary government, whether from the left or the right, share the same motto, which is BHM, or Black Hearts Matter.

The Honesty Button

So you have a hypothetical button in front of you. If you push it, it will guarantee that the electoral process will have been as honest as these things get in a fallen world, but it does not guarantee that your preferred candidate will win. If you decline to push the button, however, then that will ensure that your preferred candidate will win. If you stare at that button, hesitating, you are in sin. If you decide at the end of the day to not push it, you are in deep sin.

Douglas Wilson

Biden supporters should want integrity in the process, even if that means that Trump wins. Trump supporters should want integrity in the process, even if that means that Biden wins. This is just another way of saying that honesty is a good thing.

Scripture says that those who measure themselves with themselves are not wise (2 Cor. 10:12). As I write this, a forensic audit of voting machines in Michigan is underway. Presumably we have third party investigators doing it, and observers from both political parties close enough to see. Some people didn’t think such an audit was necessary and some people did, but can we agree now, since it is underway, that we should be willing to adjust our views to the honest results of an honest audit? If the audited results from the machines are basically the same as what we saw election night, then Trump supporters should accept those results, and withdraw their charges of fraud in Michigan against Dominion. And if the audited results are radically different, then Biden supporters should accept those results, and withdraw the charge of political buffoonery against those who claimed foul on election night.

I am writing this way now because something more might be afoot.

Every Bit as Festive

I am writing about this, not because this whole thing has happened yet, but part of it has, and I see the possibility of the whole carnival taking shape. It is possible that all the rides are being assembled, and not just some of them. And because 2021 is promising to be every bit as festive as 2020 was, I thought I should lay down some principles now so that no one could claim that I was trying “walk anything back” when some of these bad things that I am envisioning start to happen, and I point out that they are doing so. What do I mean?

I mean that Christians need to start preparing — both theologically and practically — for the prospect of arbitrary government coming at us from more than just one direction. I mean by this the prospect of arbitrary government from the right as well as from the left.

Biden and Arbitrary Government

In previous installments, I have written about the totalitarian methods and goals of the left. One of my central principles is to take a swing at commie leftism every clear chance I get, and I have not been reluctant about doing this throughout the course of the 2020 presidential campaign.

The fraud that has been evident in this last election has been grease fire obvious to anybody willing to look straight at it. This fraud is not an inconsistency on the part of the left because their worldview is a totalizing one, and they define democracy as their side winning. They know they are cheating, the way traditionalists define it. But they don’t care. If you can look at that video footage of the suitcases being hauled out from under the table in Georgia and not say, at a bare minimum, that further pointed questions need to be asked, then you, my friend, are engaged in the hope-filled project of sending Simple Simon to the Electoral College instead of to the fair.

Not only so, but for the left it is not just a matter of getting elected by hook or by crook, but also a matter of governing in that same way. If you want a glimpse of the leftist mind in action, then simply look at how the bluest states are handling COVID, masks, and lock downs. They are power tripping in that demented way they have, and it is like somebody gave a tumbler of bourbon to a three-year-old.

If Biden is inaugurated, then you can look for one tedious attempt after another, with each attempt being to impose despotic government-by-fiat on us.

Trump and Arbitrary Government

But it is not as though this sort of thing is impossible from the right. I want to mention a couple items of grave concern here, and to express my alarm. This is a worry, not an accusation, but to be honest, it is a DEFCON 2 worry. In the next section, I will mention how these things could possibly have a more benign take, but not enough of a benign take to erase the need for a worry that arises in the heart of every skittish patriot. Skittish patriots are the same thing as thoughtful patriots, by the way,

So here are two things which, if taken together and shaken, could result in the King of the Bad Ideas.

The first is this: in 2018, Trump signed an executive order that placed the United States in a state of emergency with regard to foreign interference in our elections. This was signed without a great deal of fanfare at the time, but it would have been hard for the Democrats to make anything of it because they were in the middle of claiming that some Russians had destroyed our democracy through buying a handful of Facebook ads. They were on a crazed foreign interference jag, and so they weren’t really in a position to say that such an executive order wasn’t all that necessary. That executive order is active now and, if acted upon in a particular way, it could result in a monumental crisis.

The executive order stipulates that 45 days after the election (which would be Dec. 18), a number of high-level officials (e.g. Attorney-General, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, et al.) will deliver a report to the president that informs him whether or not there was foreign interference in our election. This is perhaps a cliff-hanger, because the Electoral College is scheduled to meet on Dec. 14 — though I don’t believe that date is set in stone. If interference is discovered to have been interfering, then the president can take decisive action, including the seizure of any assets of any players in said interference. An obvious target of this would be a company like Dominion, but it could ratchet up to entities as big as Twitter.

Of course, the problem is that not acting on confirmed interference could result in a monumental crisis also, see the previous section. Such is life.

The second worrisome thing is this. Just this last week, I read about a full-page ad that was taken out in the Washington Times by a political group out of Ohio, calling on the president to declare “limited martial law” in order to hold a new federal election. The thing that was noteworthy about this was that the recently-pardoned Michael Flynn retweeted that call, in essence lobbying for the same thing.

The problems with this kind of bizarro-thought do not just jump off the page at you. They jump off the page, yelling at you, clutching you by both shoulders, and then shaking you like a rag doll.

First, what is this strange creature, this thing called limited martial law? Methinks it dwelleth far away in the land of Oxymaroon.

Second, why did they put a picture of Abraham Lincoln on their ad, the president who suspended habeas corpus, and had newspaper editors arrested simply for disagreeing with him? Trick question. I know why they put his picture on there. It is because if they get away with what they are trying to pull, they will get to write the history books just like the fans of Abe did. They will be heroes also, just like Lincoln still is.

Third, to have the federal government oversee the election of the president, instead of having fifty states do it, would be the utter demolition of our system of government. We would then be living under an arbitrary government from the right instead of Biden-style from the left. For some reason I am reminded of Tolstoy’s comment that the difference between revolutionary repression and reactionary repression is the difference between dogshit and catshit.

Now mind you, I say this believing that the elections in Pennsylvania and Georgia and Michigan were dirtier than dried egg on a plate, left in the sink from three days ago. But also remember there is no situation so bad but that you can’t make it worse.

If Biden is to prevail, we will be living under arbitrary government. If Trump is kept in office by any means resembling anything like the above, then the same thing would be true. Arbitrary government either way. And arbitrary government is anti-Christian in principle, even if it hasn’t gotten around to persecuting the Christians yet.

The Benign Option

Now it could be that this call for (limited!) martial law was coming from some Ohio yahoos, who got whipped up into a meringue, and started yelling because the gaslighting of the left in this election pushed them beyond the point of human endurance. The idea is still terrible.

And perhaps Michael Flynn may be pardoned for not seeing what a disaster this new political system would be, considering his three-year saga of a travesty with the old political system. Maybe Michael Flynn no longer has a warm spot in his heart for the current way of doing business in Washington. Just a thought. I will give him that. It might be kind of like Ahitophel teaming up with Absalom against David, a thing he ought not to have done. But as Bathsheba’s grandfather, he might have had reasons for taking a dim view of David continuing in office. Maybe he had really liked Uriah, and understandably had negative views about the man who murdered him. So we note that he was on the wrong side, but he might have had personal reasons that would have made it very hard to explain the error of his ways to him. So we will give Michael Flynn a pass, and at the same time go gaakkkk!! at the suggestion.

So how could something this jugheaded possibly be benign? Maybe Trump is playing chess in the seventeenth dimension again. There are some indications that his executive order was a trap that he set and baited for those in the grip of Trump Derangement Syndrome. Why do I say that? And maybe the talk about martial law is not serious in any way, but is more of his Art of the Deal style of negotiation — start the negotiations at a point far beyond what you expect to get, or even want to get. Okay, maybe.

In the speech that Trump gave the other day about the election, there were some phrases that sounded, you know, kind of lawyery, and it did seem like he was setting the stage for legal action on the basis of that executive order. About thirty minutes into the speech, he said, “The only conceivable reason why you would block commonsense measures to verify legal eligibility for voting is you are trying to encourage, enable, solicit or carry out fraud.” The only thing missing there is the whereas, and the to wit, and the parties of the first part.

Now if he does take action on the basis of the executive order, and does so in a way that simply kicks the issues involved into the courts, then I have no real problem. That really would be benign. That would not be arbitrary government.

But if he just up and seizes Google’s assets, however much that makes us want to clap our tiny hands with joy as far as Google’s comeuppance is concerned, the simple fact is that this would be arbitrary government. Maybe some of the editors that Lincoln arrested were actually bad men. Maybe, but that doesn’t matter. That’s not how you do it.

The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate

So how can Christians prepare to resist attempts to impose arbitrary government, whether from this direction or that one?

In the Reformed tradition, there is glorious tradition of resistance, resistance that is grounded in Scripture, with all the basic implications of resistance thought through with great care. Modern Christians need to get more thoroughly acquainted with this tradition, and maybe you can get some Christmas shopping out of the way at the same time. Canon Press has been doing a wonderful job releasing new editions of Christian classics. They just did this recently with a four volume edition of Calvin’s Institutes, Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex, and Junias Brutus’s Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos. This last book had the introduction written by Glenn Sunshine, who also wrote a history of Protestant resistance theology entitled Slaying Leviathan. I wrote the introduction to Book IV of Calvin’s Institutes, and also the introduction to Rutherford’s Lex Rex. There is a lot of information there, friend, which you and your people really need.

What the doctrine teaches is this. As Rutherford points out, all the existing civil authorities have their commission from God. Once the officer is installed, by whatever means, they answer to God directly for how they discharge that office. If a president appoints a judge, this does not make that judge the president’s lackey, but was simply the ordinary means by which judges come into their place. But once they come into their place, they are responsible to God for how they behave there. They are appointed by Him to serve there. This means that when a higher magistrate loses his mind, or his grip, or his sense of proportion, and tries to oppress the people, it is up to the lesser magistrates to step in between, to intervene. This is interposition.

If the governors step in to guard the people from something the president does, this is interposition. The principle stays the same if the sheriff steps in to protect the people from ungodly actions by the governor. This has happened a number of times already this last year, as quite a few sheriffs have announced that they are not going to enforce unconstitutional lock down orders.

In Search of a Sane Lesser Magistrate

If we find ourselves under arbitrary government at the national level, whether from the right or from the left, this does not dissolve the bonds between the people and the lesser magistrates. If Biden is inaugurated, and orders the country into a masked lock down, it would be up to the governors to say something like, “You know, we’re not going to do that.” And it would be the responsibility of the people to submit to their governor and allow him to do his duty before God in protecting the people from the inanity.

It is possible to see turmoil erupt at the highest reaches of government and yet not spiral down into anarchy. You might not know who your president is, but you can know who your sheriff is.

So Christians need to be on the lookout for sane lesser magistrates. As things get crazier at the top, we should be looking for sane authority closer to home.

And this means that if the federal government becomes a government that is manifestly arbitrary and capricious, the believer at the local level should move that whole thing into his mental realm of ambiguity. Exercise your responsibility to reserve judgment about who the real president is. We don’t know what is going on up there, and we are not obligated to obey someone just because he says we have to. Biden can’t cheat his way into a position of arbitrary authority over me. But by the same token, Trump can’t do it by means of an executive order. Any arbitrary authority is, by definition, unconstitutional.

And ungodly.

[Publisher’s Note: This article was written by Ps. Douglas Wilson of Moscow, Idaho and first published at Blog and Mablog]


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