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The Christian Doctrine of Human Depravity: A Safeguard of Political Liberty

            In the light of the recent revelations about the National Security Agency having access to telephone records of Americans and apparently to their use of the Internet, it is an opportune moment to delve into what the Bible teaches about human depravity and power.  Statements by John Adams, Patrick Henry and Benjamin Franklin relevant to this issue will also illumine the dangers of the exercise of governmental power for the purposes of national security.

            More conservative Christians rightly quote the Scriptures on the responsibility to submit to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17).  Unfortunately, they seem unaware that the Bible more strongly condemns the abuse of power by governmental leaders than any other human sin with the possible exceptions of idolatry and religious hypocrisy. 

            Due, at least in part, to a concern for national security, Israel asked Samuel to appoint a king for them like the other nations had.  The Lord told Samuel to grant their request but to give them a strong warning about how the king would abuse his power.  This list of abuses concludes, “You shall be his slaves” (1 Samuel 8:16).  The first three kings of Israel (Saul, David and Solomon) all abused their power.  When the elders of Israel asked that Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, lighten their load, he responded “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke.  My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (1 Kings 12:14).  From that day forward the kingdom was divided and never reunited.  As a result, the two kingdoms fell prey to foreign powers.

            John Adams in his “Notes for an Oration at Braintree” wrote, “Ambition is one of the more ungovernable Passions of the human Heart. The Love of Power, is insatiable and uncontroulable” (sic). Adams’s sober assertion coincides with biblical teaching on human depravity.  Jeremiah 17:9 states, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”  The Apostle Paul writes, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  Based upon the truth of human depravity, Adams warned, “There is danger from all men.  The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.”  Within the human heart resides a strong desire to seek its own ends without regard to God or others.  The peculiar threat to and from those in government is that they possess great power which they will use to further their own interests and to force others to serve those interests.  History, both secular and sacred, makes it quite clear that men almost invariably yield to the temptations of power.

            Furthermore, when the Israelites requested a king for reasons of security, they ended up in slavery to their kings and eventually lost their independence as a nation.  Benjamin Franklin is reported to have claimed, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”  This statement has been often modified to say that they will soon lose both liberty and safety, a fair assumption in the light of human history and depravity.

            Finally, the poisonous concoction of human depravity and the possession of power in high places results in oppressive military and economic empires.  Solomon’s abuses were certainly of an imperial character, but Scripture reserves its strongest condemnations for Babylon and its successors.  Quoting the words of the Hebrew prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel against historical Babylon, John predicts the fall of Babylon in Revelation 18.  For John, Babylon refers first to the Roman Empire of his day, secondly to any oppressive godless empire and ultimately to the final opposition to God and his people at the end of history.

            Patrick Henry in a speech before the Virginia Ratifying Convention of 1788 contrasted the imperial vision with the desire for liberty.  “If we admit this Consolidated Government it will be because we like a great splendid one. Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire; we must have an army, and a navy, and a number of things: When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: Liberty, Sir, was then the primary object.”  Henry then claimed that a government of a “great consolidated empire of America” is “incompatible with the genius of republicanism.”  In other words, political liberty is the price tag of imperial grandeur.

            I am not claiming that the founders of the American Republic were orthodox Christians, that America is a chosen nation like ancient Israel or even that republicanism is the only just form of government.  I am claiming that the possession of great power by sinful human beings inevitably leads to abuse of that power. 

            Nor do I believe that the administration of President Obama is unique in its centralization of power in the name of security.  What I do believe is that when security becomes a people’s chief concern, their liberties will necessarily be diminished, if not wholly eliminated, and when their liberties are gone, they are no longer secure.

            As a people, we Americans and especially the Christians among us need to ponder anew the reality of human depravity and its political ramifications.  We must allow God to search our hearts to see whether we have been charmed by the allures of imperial power and then to repent.  Finally, we need to pray for leaders who have the desire to serve the people and not use them for their own purposes.

4 thoughts on “The Christian Doctrine of Human Depravity: A Safeguard of Political Liberty

  1. Bill, I usually agree with you, but in this case, I do not see how access to telephone records and Internet use may be an issue. First of all, it is physically impossible for NSA to actually go through all records of all law-abiding (and even not-so-law abiding) citizens, so a vast majority of people has nothing to worry about. In the case there is some indication someone might be planning a terror attack, it is justifiable for NSA to access their records without delay — even if to only be disappointed at nothing. It is like surveillance cameras, most of these hours of video recordings are never used, but when there is an accident, they are very helpful (but some people may complain they cannot pick their nose in the elevator anymore :)). An average person’s telephone records are very, very boring. There is nothing so valuable about them that would worth a human life.

    1. Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments, Julia. I do understand your point, and there is a difficult balance to maintain between a government’s protection both of life and liberty. Fundamentally, what you appeal to is for us to trust our government that its goal is basically to protect us. I think that many in the government probably want to do that. Nevertheless, besides my concern for giving too much power to sinful humans, my problem is that I trust our governing authorities very little. For several years, including presidencies before that of President Obama’s, they have too often lied to the American people and other peoples as well. I also think that at least in part Americans are targets for terrorist attacks because of our government’s foreign policy.

  2. Hi Bill, thanks very much, and I do agree.

    What concerns me as much as your point is how Christians, even Reformed ones, are pulled into Libertarianism. This is a philosophy that is based on the premise that, if left alone, people will act in a way that is to their best interests. To me this is biblically untenable and clearly disproved hour by hour in the actions of people we run across, both Christians and not. Even Christians, for example, participate in or even create Ponzi schemes, and I take it as a legitimate function of the federal government to identify and eliminate these abuses. The petroleum industry wants to govern itself by “industry standards”, but does not follow them, even allowing disasters to happen which are costly in money, the environment and public opinion. People make stupid decisions daily.

    A lighter form of Libertarianism is that, while others might act foolishly, I know that I will act according to my own best long-term interests and should therefore be left alone by the government, EVEN WHILE the government should crack the whip on other people. Again, I cannot imagine how anyone who believes in total depravity, let along sinfulness in any sense, can justify this interpretation of their own behavior.

    1. Thanks, Gary. I believe that many Evangelicals are attracted to Libertarianism because they are so dissatisfied with the drift of contemporary politics and they see it as an, maybe the, option that goes against the stream.
      When we read a Murray Rothbard essay in the political philosophy class at Cair Paravel, one student perceptively noted that he seemed to assume the essential goodness of man.
      You might want to peek at my review of the movie The Fountainhead in which I critique Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy.
      Of course, part of the problem is that so many Christians are woefully ignorant of the Scriptures and Christian theology.

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