Published September 15, 2022
In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson famously remarked, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Today, few on the Left seem inclined to agree with Jefferson’s blasé dismissal of the political relevance of religion. While my belief in God may not break my neighbor’s leg, it certainly has the capacity to violate his sense of selfhood, especially if this selfhood is wrapped up in an ideal of sexual self-expression. Few injuries today seem more politically relevant.
Some conservatives, reacting against the Left’s assault on traditional religion, have tried to take refuge in Jeffersonian liberalism: “just leave us alone to practice our faith and we won’t hurt you.” But this is gravely short-sighted, for Jefferson’s dictum is pure myth, and it is progressives who understand better than we the true nature of politics.
The “pickpocket” theory of religious neutrality rests on two massive errors. The first is that the only important form of harm is material—an injury to one’s body or pocketbook. The second is that government is only concerned with the prevention of harm, not the promotion of good. Of course, no one actually lives this way, and not even Jefferson did. Jefferson supported a legal system which regularly punished non-material forms of harm (e.g., defamation), and advocated policies which actively promoted social good (e.g., public education). But just because no one actually lives this way, many think this way, try to live this way, and try to force government into this restricted, unnatural, and ultimately inhuman channel. And this has consequences.
Reality has a way of biting back, and the longer it is repressed, the more savagely it bites. So we see today. After two centuries of pretending that government can, and should, turn a blind eye to everything short of highway robbery, we find ourselves inundated with utopian calls for government to prosecute every micro-aggression, tear down every systemic inequity, and promote any conceivable form of better and brighter future. If it has previously been a defining feature of liberalism to confine politics to the “harm principle” (and a narrowly materialist version of it at that), then it is clear that we are now entering an era of post-liberal politics.
Far from lamenting this, however, I wish to embrace the new era as the opportunity for a return to normalcy. That’s not to say that the insanities of identity politics represent anything like normalcy; but they are what happens when normalcy and reality are repressed and denied for too long. The way forward lies not in continuing to chant dried-up liberal nostrums in a lonely, First Amendment-protected corner, but in re-articulating a historic Protestant understanding of the role of government: that it exists both to restrain wickedness and to promote virtue and flourishing.
Thus far, much of the energy on the postliberal Right has come from Roman Catholics, who like to thumb their noses at Protestants and blame the Reformation for the rise of such metastatic liberalism. In fact, this is partisan historiography at its most mendacious. At the heart of Reformation political theology was the text of Romans 13. Although often read today as a justification for libertarian minimalism, in fact it neatly sums up the dual negative and positive functions of government: “Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (13:3-4, NKJV).
The civil magistrate exists to bring terror to bad conduct, but joy to good conduct; he punishes the evil, but praises the good. He is the servant of God to promote the good of the saints and bear the sword against evildoers. 1 Peter 2 offers an almost identical formulation: governors are sent “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:14, ESV). But what does it mean to “praise those who do good”? Well, for starters, exactly what it sounds like. In Rome, as indeed in pretty much every polity in history, men and women who did great things for the commonwealth were honored with public displays of gratitude: triumphs, statues, titles, monetary rewards, and more. The logic of this is undeniable. As the great early Reformed political theorist Johannes Althusius wrote: “[the magistrate] shall distribute rewards to the upright who properly deserve them in order that the love and desire for virtue may be stimulated, nourished, and retained among others….[R]eward is the food, nourishment, and incentive of virtue” (Politica,177).
More generally, this reflected a conviction that the magistrate had the dual task of negatively restraining threats to the well-being of his people, and of positively promoting that well-being by good laws. As Althusius wrote, “The responsibility of the magistrate…concerns the management of the necessary means for conserving justice, peace, tranquillity, and discipline in the commonwealth…[and] the management of the means necessary for procuring advantages for the social life.” Accordingly, he should “legislate what is fair, useful, and necessary to the commonwealth” (175-76).
And what was useful and necessary to the commonwealth? Well, spiritual goods, for one. Martin Bucer, one of the earliest Reformers, and a zealous proponent of civic as well as church renewal, wrote to King Edward VI of England, “the kings of this world also ought to establish and promote the means of making their citizens devout and righteous” (De Regno Christi,180). But Bucer was equally concerned with the magistrate’s promotion of temporal goods: rulers should “use external power and domain…in such a way that not a single one of their subjects is in need, but rather that enough will be available to each in order to live well and happily” (183). Indeed, for Bucer, these two are really inseparable. In a delightful section on agricultural and industrial policy (yes, you heard me right), Bucer admonishes the king to promote economic policies that will support as many free laborers as possible. Why? Because good jobs will lead to population growth. And why is this important? Because “Christian princes must make it a major project that there should be as many good men as possible everywhere who live for the glory of God” (338).
Lest we think this was somehow just the product of a political utopianism in the halcyon early days of Reformation, soon replaced with a sober minimalist liberalism interested only in securing rights, let’s listen to James Wilson, one of the great architects of the U.S. Constitution and one of Washington’s first appointments to the Supreme Court. After explaining in a stirring oration on July 4, 1788, how government ought to promote “agriculture, manufactures, and commerce,” he says, “Agriculture, manufactures, and commerce will ensure to us plenty, convenience, and elegance. But is there not something still wanting to finish the man? Are internal virtues and accomplishments less estimable, or less attracting than external arts and ornaments? Is the operation of government less powerful upon the former than upon the latter? By no means.” Indeed, he goes on to say that “the most important of all the blessings of good government” is that “she directs us to that heaven-descended science [that is, Christianity], by which life and immortality have been brought to light.”
One of Wilson’s disciples, Justice Joseph Story, one of the greatest jurists ever to sit on an American bench, still concurred with this vision in his 1833 Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. Although originally a Jeffersonian Republican, Story had quickly come to see the emptiness of this political philosophy, and missed no opportunity in the Commentaries to emphasize the expansiveness of the Constitution’s “general welfare” clause. The US government existed not merely to protect its citizens against pickpockets and leg-breakers, but to positively promote the welfare of the commonwealth—and yes, again, this included religion: “there will probably be found few persons in this or any other Christian country who would deliberately contend that it was unreasonable or unjust to foster and encourage the Christian religion generally as a matter of sound policy as well as of revealed truth” (604). Indeed, Story voices his doubts whether “any free government can be permanent where the public worship of God and the support of religion constitute no part of the policy or duty of the state” (605).
To be sure, there is an authentic Protestant insight at the heart of the liberal project. It is that you cannot ultimately make men good by the force of law. True righteousness requires regeneration that lies beyond human power, and without this, you’re always going to be dealing with intractable material. Accordingly, politics must have very modest aspirations and resist utopian delusions. There is a great difference between saying that politics should promote and support virtue, and expecting it to usher in universal harmony, as revolutionaries from 1789 to 1917 to 2020 have falsely imagined. Edmund Burke was thus an authentic Protestant in his commitment bothto virtue as an aim of good government and in his profound skepticism about millenarian projects for political transformation of the race.
However, a key line is crossed when one moves from anti-perfectionist cautions to libertarian dogma. That line is human nature. The fact is that human beings do not merely shun evil and flee harm, but they also pursue goods. And they do so not merely as individuals but as communities, because they experience their selfhood through communities. Ergo, any attempt to confine the role of government to an exclusively negative task is like spitting into the wind: politics will alwaysgravitate toward the task of promoting virtue and flourishing.
When we pretend otherwise, however, three dangerous things will happen.
First, society will still pursue positive projects, and often quite grandiose ones (e.g., the New Deal or Great Society), but it will have to frame these as forms of harm-mitigation. We cannot simply say, “it would be better if this person were not poor,” but find ourselves saying, “this person is poor because they are being oppressed.” And this, of course, means casting about for a scapegoat. So it is today that our post-liberal politics cannot resist posing as liberal harm-principle politics, with the list of those responsible for the harm growing ever longer.
Second, society will still pursue positive projects, but it will hide them under the guise of a faux neutrality. Thus, our government sponsors human flourishing through initiatives like the National Endowment for the Arts—and indeed all of public education—but it must deny that any objective standard of good lies as the telos of such endeavors, falling back instead on the fatuous language of “expanding opportunity” and “promoting self-expression.”
Third, as already noted, to the extent that you do succeed in bottling up the human impulse to strive together collectively towards the good, you will tend to intensify and radicalize it. Thus we have wokeism.
That said, in many ways, the current moment is refreshing and clarifying. Progressives are no longer pretending to neutrality, but insist on actively using government to promote their vision of human flourishing—even if it is an increasingly anti-human one. Conservatives, in response, are awakening from their dogmatic slumber and remembering that they, too, have visions of the good life, visions that cannot be protected and promoted without the use of state power. Suddenly, out of nowhere, conservatives have begun enthusiastically talking about industrial policy and family policy, about government as a guardian of culture. Once again, we seem ready to use government to “praise those who do good.”
There’s much more to be said about what a postliberal conservatism might look like concretely, but for now, let me close by emphasizing how modest this proposal really is.
When I speak of using government to promote virtue and religion, most people’s minds will go immediately to law: should the Dobbs decision have been more outspoken about its moral premises? Should states enact educational policies that celebrate, rather than denigrate, America and its Christian heritage? Yes and yes. But I think we forget how much can be accomplished by the symbolic dimension of politics, which is usually upstream from actual legal change. Political leaders, like all leaders, lead by example: we form our sense of what evils should be shunned, and what goods pursued, by the things they shun and admire, in word and deed.
All of the great American presidents have understood this. Teddy Roosevelt cared passionately about the renewal of the American family, so what did he do? He modeled a happy and robust family life in the White House, and used his “bully pulpit” to speak over and over about the duties of fathers and mothers, the importance of sacrifice to raise up the next generation. George Washington knew the nation depended on the Christian religion, and so he used his presidential office to declare, “it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.” Today, progressive leaders still understand the symbolic power of office—staffing the executive branch with prominent representatives of every conceivable racial or sexual identity group, and using the presidential bully pulpit to celebrate abortion and deviancy and mock virtue and self-restraint. Far more than we realize, the American people look, listen, and follow.
So let’s once again give them some leaders ready to use the full power of their office not only to “punish those who do evil” but also to“praise those who do good”—and model that goodness themselves.
Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.