As I, like you, struggle with the constant torrent of chatter, lies, and consternation that fills our life these days, the words of Machiavelli (yes, Machiavelli!) rise out of the slumbers of my lifetime of reflection on public life: “To insure a long existence to religious sects or republics, it is necessary frequently to bring them back to their original principles.” Hannah Arendt, whose influence courses through my thought and work, cites this passage from his Discourses, Book 3, somewhere in her On Revolution, as she unpacks the meaning of the American Revolution and the founders’ subsequent creation of a constitution for a Novus Ordo Saeclorum — a new order for the ages.
We are, it seems to me, once again at one of those points where attacks on our Constitutional order and the cultural foundations for our republic drive us back to our first principles in order to find a way ahead. I am not sure what you might see as the Original Principles of our American constitutional order, but for many years I have gone back before the events of our founding to the principles forged in the controversies of the civil war in England in the seventeenth century. In particular, I return to John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1690), which he wrote to refute the claims on behalf of patriarchal monarchy set forth by Robert Filmer in the 1630s and published posthumously in 1680 as Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings.
In Locke’s dispute with Filmer we find both the origins of much of our political thought but also its unfinished business. Filmer argued that rule by one man as the source of law, justice, and government is grounded in the unitary dominion granted to Adam in the creation. So much for elections, checks and balances, and an independent judiciary! He appealed not only to Scripture but to the creation of the natural order itself for his support of absolute monarchy, just as earlier in the century, James I of England had argued for the divine right of kings. Locke attacked both his scriptural claims and his appeals to “nature” and set out the lineaments of a theory of republican government based in the common agreement of the citizens. The republican order we know arose in a struggle against the claims of patriarchy and monarchy.
However, Locke did not dispute that men legitimately ruled in the home over women, children, and domestic slaves. He only argued, against Filmer and the monarchists, that this household model should not be a model for government. In a republic, men ought not to be ruled like children in a household but according to mutual covenants created among equals. The liberation of the enslaved and of women to participate in public life came only after enormous struggle and bloodshed in the next two centuries. Our present calamitous controversy recalls us both to the unfinished work of the Constitutional founders as well as the defense of the work they accomplished, in spite of its imperfection.
The model of patriarchal monarchy, in which even the law flows from the will of the monarch was, for Filmer, intrinsic to the God of Christians and Jews and to the creation flowing from this God. It is this image of a despotic patriarchal monarch that has been rehearsed in most Christian worship in this country to this day. Thus, many Christians in America support President Trump not in spite of his obvious ethical violations, but because he embodies the model of legitimate governance they have worshipped for the past two centuries. At the heart of most of my own work has been an effort to recast this fundamental theological model of power and authority, both in thought and worship, in a way appropriate to the principles of a democratic, federal republic. I am presently working on making available my earlier writings, such as God’s Federal Republic, as a kind of legacy doorjamb to keep the door to this effort open for an emerging generation. Stay tuned.
It has taken over two centuries for the model of government according to constitutional agreement, persuasion, and equality to slowly, very slowly, transform and expand our public life. Today, we are in a new phase of our struggle toward a “more perfect” republic. It is not surprising that resistance to opening up our public life to wider participation reappears in the regalia of patriarchy and despotic claims of monarchical power. The recrudescence of patriarchal appeals to biological identities and male dominion threaten to corrupt and maim our republican form itself. Locke and Filmer could return today and join the fray with only a momentary gasp at the technology around them. Both of them would also be amazed by the way the republican ideals of citizenship, equality, and mutual agreement have reshaped family, economy, and communal life.
Some of our present travail is pure farce. The would-be emperor has no clothes, and Toto will soon pull back the curtain hiding the Wizard of Oz. But much of it is also a tragic paralysis of our republic before the very real threats of rapid climate change, rapacious concentrations of economic power, and corrupted governments.
As we enter this new year, I hope we can have more chances to return to vigorous renewal of the republican principles of our founding as well as to the patient work of extending its democratic promise to ever-wider circles of citizenship based on promise and hope rather than biological necessity and patriarchal power. This is not merely a political task, for it re-engages us in unfinished challenges to our theology, worship, and patterns of sexual life. As always, I’m interested in where you’re dipping your own oars in these waters.