Who should be in charge of a nation?

Posted on September 9, 2011 at 11:23 am,

This is the latest in a series of posts critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible. Today, we’re looking at chapter five, which deals with the question of who has ultimate power in a nation. It focuses in on the issue of the power of the Supreme Court in the US – which is something that he considers to be the number one political issue in his nation. Before going on to the substance, I’d like to briefly note that this chapter is illustrated with some simple but effective diagrams, which make Grudem’s points much easier to follow.

Who has ultimate power over a nation?

Grudem starts by outlining several different possibilities for where ultimate power in a nation lies. One is anarchy, where nobody has authority. Another is a system of either dictatorship or (absolute) monarchy, where an individual has ultimate power (and hence the temptation to abuse it). Grudem suggests that such a system will produce corrupt and oppressive government. A third is ultimate power being vested in some group or institution (ultimate power in the UK is probably vested in Parliament – although even then there are significant limitations on the exercise of that power). Grudem’s favourite option, however, is for it to lie in a written constitution. He praises the US Constitution for ensuring the separation of powers, accountability for the lawmakers, establishing the rule of law, protecting the nation from fundamental changes to its nature, and protecting the nation from what he calls a “hasty majority”.

What’s the role of the judiciary?

He then moves in to look at what the Bible says about the judicial aspect of government. He points out that judges are to judge according to a law external to themselves, rather than to make the law, citing Ezekiel 44:24, Acts 23:3, and Ezra 7:25-26. He then says that judges should not be partial or take bribes, taking the time to cite nine different Bible passages against such perversions to the course of justice. None of this seems particularly controversial, but it forms the basis of a major objection that Grudem has to the way the US system currently functions.

So what’s his problem?

Grudem’s problem is one that, in my view, is an inevitable consequence of giving ultimate power to a document. No constitution, no matter how well written, will be without ambiguity. Therefore, somebody has to have the ability to rule which interpretation is correct. And because the judiciary is the branch of government which makes the call when lesser laws are ambiguous, it’s obviously the US Supreme Court that decides whether something is constitutional or not. And, in such a case, the body that gets to interpret the constitution becomes the de facto ultimate authority.

Grudem then goes into a long list of cases where he believes that the Supreme Court has, instead of interpreting the constitution, essentially amended it to fit their own ideas of what is right for the nation. In most of these cases it seems pretty clear from his arguments that a new principle has been read into the constitution. However, at one point Grudem starts arguing that the term “cruel and unusual punishment” means “punishment that was considered cruel and unusual at the time of writing” rather than “punishment that a reasonable person would consider cruel and unusual”. This suggests that his preferred ultimate authority is actually the intentions of the people who drafted the constitution, rather than the text of the constitution itself. And this would suggest that he is also guilty of reading things into the constitution.

It’s also worth noting thatall of the examples Grudem cites are ones where the court ruled against Grudem’s preferred outcome. Given that I’ve heard accusations from those on the other side of US Politics argue that there have been examples of the Supreme Court legislating from the bench in the other direction (one example being a ruling that freedom of speech applies to the spending of money), it would have felt like a much stronger argument if he had included just one example where such legislation went the other way.

Grudem then outlines some Biblical principles which make such a situation unacceptable from a Christian point of view. These are firstly the principle that everybody should be subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1), which he interprets to mean the constitution. Secondly, the wisdom of having separation of powers. Thirdly, that people should be accountable for their actions – and he notes that there is no way to hold the Supreme Court to account. Fourthly, he says that the practical results of judicial activism are anti-Christian.

He also looks at how to respond to activist judges, who he portrays as inimical to democracy. He interprets the issue as a key partisan divide. In his estimation, Democrats are universally inclined to appoint activist judges, whilst most Republicans are inclined to appoint originalist ones. He suggests that every vote for every candidate at state and national levels of American government will strengthen that party’s preferred role for the judiciary (whether it’s liberal and activist, or conservative and originalist). This is the first of several times where I can’t help wondering why Grudem doesn’t advocate Christians working within the Democrat party to change it to something closer to (his perception of) a Biblical take on politics.

Is any of this relevant outside the USA?

For those of us living outside of Grudem’s political context, this issue seems largely irrelevant. Here in the UK there are, at most, echoes of the US situation in the way the House of Lords is unelected (although it is subordinate to the elected Commons) and that the European Court of Human Rights can overrule UK laws (but that’s a power that Parliament can take away whenever it wishes). The closest anybody comes to articulating an equivalent concern is the anti-EU rhetoric that comes from the likes of UKIP (which, for the benefit of non-UK readers, is a fringe party that exists for the sole purpose of trying to take the UK out of the European Union – ironically, it only does well in elections to the European Parliament), although even there, European law has to be passed by Parliament in order to take effect.

But there are similar issues worth considering. We should ask questions about who has what power in our political system. We should be asking whether decision makers are sufficiently accountable for their actions. We should be looking to see where in our system there is potential for the abuse of power, and working out how to reduce the potential for these abuses to take place.

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