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God and Government: a book review

God and Government

Edited by Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin

Foreword by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

Published by London: SPCK (Theos) 2009


Overall, I really enjoyed this book. As someone who works in the field of social policy, the principles behind politics are of interest to me. I want to know what the role of government is, and how big or small it should be. Are certain areas out-of-bounds for governments, or does everything fall under their purview? What needs should be met by charity or by individual choice, and what should the government provide? Is government an enabler or a cramper of creativity? Is it broadly good, or almost always bad? Should it be avoided with our utmost ability, or brought into harness wherever its strength may do good? These are the sorts of questions that I love to think about, and which this book sought to consider.

The authors, too, wrote clearly and well, and kept me engaged in their text. I never felt that the writing was dry or a trudge to haul myself through. The tone was light, but not frivolous or shallow, and the depth was enough to satisfy without drowning.

The authors, as Christians, shared some common principles and understanding of government. Chief of these is the creation, fall and redemption narrative which means that things that arise out of creation or of human endeavour – like institutions, organisations and forms of government – are never wholly bad and never solely good. There is a tension in the goodness of God’s creation and the work of those made in his image, and the fact of the fall which means sin and brokenness and imperfection pervades everything. But then there is also redemption; the hope that Christians look forward to and are commanded to pray to see on earth; the rule of God to which even pagan leaders are held to account. This was the chief subject of the first chapter by Nigel Wright, making an excellent introduction to the whole topic. And as a fundamental of Christian faith, it was naturally touched upon and made use of in the other chapters.

There was an overarching agreement amongst most contributors that government is good and is good for us, even as it is also limited. The recognition of the goodness of government is clearly biblical: the authorities are described as God’s good servants, existing for our good. And the experience of Israel under the time of the judges – criticised heavily as a time when each person did as he saw fit – shows in itself the harm of anarchy. Government can do bad things, but that does not mean that the answer is no government at all.

I found the arguments for the limits of governments to be less convincing. Not because I disagreed with the principle that there are limits on the roles of governments, but because I did not feel that any strong Biblical arguments in favour of the position were provided. If the role of government is to promote the good of people, then pragmatic arguments can be made about what is good for people; but this is not the same as an argument for a small state on principle. Indeed, pragmatism can be what leads us to call for a larger government: Julian Rivers reports how, in the Victorian era, “even the most ardent supporters of ‘voluntaryism’ had to admit defeat”, leading to the rise of state-organized education. A similar conclusion can be reached from Tim Shaw’s book Evangelicals and Social Action, in which Shaw documents many areas in which Christians working to bring about good had to admit that charity without government action and justice was simply inadequate.

Tom Wright’s chapter in many ways repeated the themes of the first two chapters, recognising the ambiguity of government and the need for it to be held to account, and drawing this into the arc of redemption.

Subsequent authors then developed the idea of the common good. The notion of the common good is, I think, what really underpins the purpose of government, at least according to this book. According to Nicholas Townsend, the common good is “contrary to individualistic views… [in] which you and I enjoy the good life irrespective of whether our neighbour also does. It denies, for example, that well-being consists in each individual maximizing pleasure or freedom… It denies also that society is only an arena for dealing instrumentally with others in order to gain the means to private satisfactions (as consumerism tends to assume).” Contrary to the Thatcherite, neoliberal claim that ‘there is no such thing as society’, the common good “insists that society is more than a series of disconnected, isolated individuals” (David McIlroy).

David McIlroy takes us into a useful summary of Aquinas and natural law, giving us some useful things to consider as regards turning moral principles (such as found in the Bible) into state law. The idea is that to ban everything that is immoral would be ludicrous, as no-one could keep it all. The point of law and punishment is not to prohibit every vice, but “only the more serious kinds of vice, from which most persons can abstain, and especially those vices that inflict harm on others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be preserved.” And as McIlroy observes, “The behaviours which law or policy promote and discourage, impose and forbid, help to shape what society holds up as worthy of moral praise or blame, as morally virtuous or vicious.” McIlroy is than able to amplify the role that church plays in terms of holding government to account: the church “expresses what it understands the content of God’s just requirements for human society to be… may indicate what approaches it believes would be principled accommodations and which would be unprincipled… may, where the need demands it, offer sharp critique of government.”

Nicholas Townsend reminds us of the difference between government and the gospel. “The gospel as such is not about making things happen by the ordinary means of political power, enforceable law.” pg113 “For Christians, then, to take hold of the ordinary instruments of political power in order to try to bring about what the gospel requires would be totally contradictory to it. Such politics would necessarily make a society unchristian. In this sense, the gospel is not about politics. But, as numerous writers have pointed out, Jesus’ own proclamation of the gospel was entirely political… The gospel was political. It was all about a kind of reign or rule, a way of being a people, a city, that was an alternative to the then dominant Israelite, Greek and Roman forms… The gospel is not about politics. The gospel is political.” pg115

The first five chapters all overlapped with one another, sharing what felt like a common view of government as good but fallen; essential but at times evil; needing restraint and good people, but able to produce good outcomes; having a role in punishing the wrongdoer (and therefore also in recognising what is wrong and determining what wrongdoings merit punishment and, if so, what punishment) and also a role in creating the space in which humans flourish, by ensuring that everyone has access to what they need.

And then suddenly in chapter 6, there is a jarring about-turn. Philip Booth suggests that government is an evil that restricts and coercively circumscribes [richer] people’s freedom and creativity. It is a bad thing at heart that needs to be limited to nothing more than the redistribution of wealth and income, at the same time as protecting [richer] people’s property and getting rid of as much tax as possible. Government provision is never as good as what individuals would freely choose for themselves from the marketplace of available options.

There was much that I disagreed with chapter 6, on both empirical and biblical grounds. But I don’t need to give all my concerns here, as chapters 7 and 8 did a good job in themselves. Clifford Longley comes in and not only disagrees with Booth but suggests that if an author “is mainly concerned to develop and apply the concept of, say, subsidiarity [do everything at the lowest organisational level possible, as a good in and of itself], for instance to justify an argument in favour of small government or against the welfare state, then they are not faithful to the tradition… their claim to be faithful to Catholic Social Teaching must be regarded as dubious.” Subsidiarity, Clifford Longley points out, “can by no means claim to be directly deduced from one of the two great commandments” (unlike the principle of solidarity, which can) and “cannot be said to be present as a recommended principle of social organization in either the Old or New Testament.” It was created as a response to Mussolini’s Fascism, to contradict the idea that the state has claims before family or that it is the duty of all citizens to obey the state leader; and it is perhaps a quirk of history that it was subsidiarity, and not syndicalism (industry should be structured around syndicates of workers and managers) that entered Catholic Social Teaching. Unfortunately, “the concept is sometimes applied in a tendentious and exaggerated way”.

Here is where empiricism is so helpful, because it can tell us where a government role has proved beneficial and where it has been harmful. The Scandinavian countries, for example, perform better on almost every measure of the ‘common good’ that is routinely measured, and they are amongst the largest governments. These large governments have created societies in which people flourish, producing 33 (Sweden), 24 (Norway) and 22.6 (Denmark) Nobel laureates per 10 million people compared to 19 (UK) and 11.7 (US). The evidence is clear that large government does not stifle creativity or undermine fairness.

Andrew Bradstock continues the argument against Booth with his discussion of equality: “There are sound biblical and sociological reasons for governments consciously to pursue policies aimed not simply at relieving poverty but at narrowing the differential between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ in society.” “For the biblical writers, the fundamental equality of all people before God means that all must have their basic needs met, and many reserve their sharpest invective for those who act unjustly in this respect… all that operates to diminish or take life is resisted.” More equal countries perform better on a wide range of measures relating to issues such as social cohesion, trust, crime, democracy and health; and inequality is now known to be harmful to economic growth, political stability and individual health.

It is a shame that Booth’s chapter is so out of sync with the others, especially when the others have both Scripture and clear empirical evidence to support their positions. Booth referenced no scripture passage, and the secular support that he used for his argument included a book that even high-star reviewers criticise for relying on anecdote, using correlation to assume causation, and generally cherry-picking and then going beyond the available evidence. One rather more critical review described it as reading like a series of hastily-written Daily Mail articles (I have ordered the book to read and review myself, but with the Royal Mail strikes it has not arrived yet).

I feel that the role of editors is to ensure that a book like this is either a cohesive set of chapters that work together, or is deliberately a selection of views that are widely different from one another. This latter approach can be done with great success, such as when three or four authors present their own case, comment on the others’ cases, and then respond to the others’ comments on their case. God and Government does not claim to set out to present a cohesive view. But nor does it explicitly state that it presents opposing views. The transition, therefore, from chapters 1-5 which are cohesive to the about-turn of ch6 is jarring. It is even more incongruent once one has proceeded on to chapters 7 & 8.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. But I felt that Philip Booth’s chapter was empirically, biblically and tonally out of fit with the rest of the book. To be making such a distinctively different, even contrary, view to the rest of the authors needed a much stronger biblical and empirical foundation. Unfortunately, this was not provided. If you are interested in the theological basis for government, I can recommend this book, but you may find that some chapters are more interesting or useful to you than others.

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