How to Use the Hammer: Understanding the Proper Role of Government

Government will be most successful, Milton Friedman contended, when it acts as an umpire or referee enforcing the formal procedural rules of the game. When it begins to attempt to affect substantive outcomes through active interference, it sets citizens against each other and threatens the social cohesion necessary for the broader society. [1]

The formal rules government should make and enforce can be found in the fundamental purposes of law. None of us is free if we do not have basic justice and order. Martin Luther wrote in On Secular Authority that men and women need a lawful order in the same way they need food, air, and water. [2]  When we read news accounts about people living in zones of extreme oppression and lawlessness such as have existed in Sudan due to ethnic hatreds or in Mexico because of drug cartels, we realize that the innocent men and women living in those places cannot do much more than survive. They cannot build any kind of a life, because whatever they do can be destroyed or stolen at any time. Surely, the most common denominator of justice is preventing and punishing freedom-destroying evil perpetrated by those who do not recognize even the most basic duties of human beings toward each other. If a government cannot accomplish this goal, then we call it a failed state.

Recognizing this reality, Luther construed the Sermon on the Mount to mean that the Christian must suffer any assault or insult to his person but should always act to protect his neighbor. Government has been ordained in order to restrain predatory, evil men and to prevent them from victimizing everyone else. On that logic, a Christian could certainly serve under the government, and even take men’s lives when acting with authority to protect the innocent. [3]

This reasoning leads to the conclusion that those who do wrong make themselves justly vulnerable to restraint, coercion, and correction by the state. If some men by their unrighteous acts have made themselves fit subjects for coercion and restraint, then what does that say about those who do not commit wrongs against others? The logical corollary is that those who do not commit wrongs should be largely free and uncoerced. They have earned that right because they govern themselves. In other words, if one does justice to others by not harming them through force or fraud, then one should be able to live largely free of government coercion and expect protection from wrongful coercion by others.

The Primacy of Justice

Why do I start with the punishment of evil and reason back to the freedom deserved by those who do not do wrong? The reason is that we more readily identify justice through its violation and remedy than we do through positive visions. We know when we have suffered an injustice that requires a remedy. We are far less certain about whether positive conditions of justice have been met. The common basis of justice is understood in its breach.

Order, justice, and freedom are clearly related. Justice results from enforcing a moral order, which protects the freedom of human beings from malignant interference. We are able to live together in peace and freedom with the government standing by to exercise coercion and restraint upon those who would do wrong.

What about equality, which is also associated with justice? The most realistic kind of equality we can achieve is equality before the law. Every citizen should be able to expect the same treatment by the government. Liberty and protection for him who lives rightly. Coercion and punishment for him who does wrong.

Is there justice enough in providing equality before the law, freedom, and protection from those who would do evil? Many who struggle in ungodly disorder ruled by the strong would jump at the chance to make a life under such conditions. They yearn for their officials to enforce the peace. As these oppressed people hope for justice, they are looking for the government to perform its God-given function in restraining these evil men who willfully commit murder and foment mayhem in local communities. Justice will be done when the government puts down this satanic rebellion against both earthly and heavenly kingdoms.

But others would earnestly reject such a conception of justice (and the corresponding role for government) as too limited. Equality before the law is not enough, they might say, because it results in substantial inequalities in the experience of life. They are right to be concerned but wrong to pin their hopes primarily on government. The special nature of government is found in its legal monopoly on the use of coercive force. Such a unique weapon should be used only when it is clearly justified.

Attractions and Problems of Social Justice

Where I have left things so far will be a source of great frustration to many well-intentioned people. Michael Sandel, professor and teacher of the famous “Justice” course at Harvard, would likely be one of them. He divides political thought into two primary camps. One is based on the abstract, choosing self that guards freedom of decision and action fairly zealously against the notion of group-imposed duties. The other proceeds from the situated self that fully accepts the great solidarity it should feel with other selves in a community and should easily accept non-consensual duties that attach for no greater reason than that one is part of a particular group of people at a certain time. Community is like family in this account. [4]  The situated self, in this account, should feel a Bobby Kennedy-esque drive to use government to redistribute wealth for the good of the community.

Christians who push for collectivist ideals of social justice are, I think, motivated by this account of the situated self who sees himself wedded in solidarity with other members of the community and very much ready to put the government in service of this bond. The partisans of the situated self do not view redistributive taxation and the social control of business as potentially dangerous coercion. Rather, they see virtue at work. For Christians, this view can be very attractive and it has proven so for young evangelicals, especially.

If the situation were as Sandel presents it (basically an either/or between a cold, impersonal freedom and a rich, warm-hearted nicely coercive government), then I would probably feel constrained to opt for the latter choice. But I believe that Sandel commits an error by putting the burden of social solidarity on law and government. What if government is very good at providing the more limited type of peace, order, and justice to which I referred earlier, and is much less good at creating the conditions for some kind of idyllic vision of justice between persons that requires continuous government intervention and readjustment of circumstances? What if other strategies could be placed in the service of civic affection and solidarity?

What Is the Role of Government?

One of the great questions of political philosophy has been whether government should concern itself primarily with small government in the form of something like a mutual defense alliance or if it should instead be far more ambitious about achieving some great dream for all people. The question, it turns out, is a false one. Government is armed with the powers of coercion and force because it must be in order to do the job God has given it, to frustrate the designs of those who would do evil. The broader society does not necessarily require those same weapons in order to achieve its goals. Nor is the use of those weapons well-justified in many instances. We should be far more keen to work in the voluntary sector than in the coercive one.

This is not merely a call to a more ingenious strategy of non-profit organization. Our non-governmental options start at a much more basic level. We occupy many special offices in this life. The offices are things such as son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife, father, mother, grandparent, uncle, aunt, cousin, neighbor. How many of our problems could be addressed by simple faithfulness to the tasks presented to us by the nature of these offices? And how many of them could be addressed by the church in better ways than calling for enormous government programs, thus inviting a hammer into places where warm hearts and hands would better serve?

Let the force of law serve where it works best and let the rest of us accept the heavy, but ultimately joyful, burdens that attach to life as a responsible human being. And let the church preach in such a way that we recognize and act upon our responsibilities rather than relying on the magic of some bureaucratic plan to relieve us of them.

[1] Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom: 40th Anniversary Edition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 23-24.

[2] Martin Luther, “On Secular Authority,” in Luther and Calvin on Secular Authority, ed. and trans. Harro Hopl (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 13-14.

[3] Ibid, 15.

[4] Michael J. Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2010), 208-243.

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  • Brian Gehrlein

    Thank you for this article. Thought provoking especially at the end.

  • Neo

    (hopping on my Menno-soapbox here:)

    “and even take men’s lives when acting with authority to protect the innocent”…. so how do you balance that with Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5 to ” love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” Did I miss a part where Jesus added, “…oh, and kill them is you think it’s ok.”
    I don’t see the authorization to take human life in any of Christ’s words, or any of the epistles, for that matter, so be curious to see what sort of theonomistic, hermeneutical back-flipping you can pull off to explain where a Christian is ever justified in taking another human life.

    Rome weilds the sword, not Christians. Those who defend killing others do so at the expense of our testimony to the fallen world, and those who advocate this from Scripture are taking God’s perfect word and twisting and distorting it like a dog with a gumby doll…

    • Steve Cornell


      On the surface, it appears that Christ’s law of love would rule out capital punishment — at least for those who profess to live under the law of love. But the mistake comes when we assume that this teaching is meant to be applied beyond the personal ethics of the followers of Jesus. It’s true that (in the New Testament ) believers are commanded to love their enemies, not execute them (Matthew 5:38-45). So since Jesus clearly taught nonresistance and since Christians are commanded to forgive as Christ forgave, how could one reconcile capital punishment with Jesus?

      Simply stated, Jesus is not teaching about a government response to lawbreakers. If his words were applied to criminal justice, it would rule out all punishment and contradict the God-ordained role of government to punish evildoers (I Peter 2:14). Jesus was teaching about the personal responses of his followers — forbidding revenge. He was not dealing with matters of civil justice. Christians can serve with a clear conscience in law enforcement — even in executing retributive justice — because their actions in these functions are not matters of personal revenge.

      Occasionally I am asked how I reconcile my pro-life position with my support of capital punishment. I answer the question by showing how both positions (pro-life and pro-capital punishment) endorse the sanctity of life by opposing deliberate acts of homicide. Both are endorsed because life is precious as made in the image of God (Genesis 9:6).

      for more detail, see: Is capital punishment mandated by God?

    • Jugulum


      > “and even take men’s lives when acting with authority to protect the innocent”…. so how do you balance that with Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5 to ” love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”

      What does the way we respond our enemies have to do with the way we act to stop someone who is attacking an innocent third party?

      I wouldn’t have thought to call such a person “my enemy”.

      • Jugulum

        P.S. I’m not saying, “Therefore it’s consistent with Christ’s teaching to use lethal force to protect the innocent.” I am saying it seems a significant stretch to appeal to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” to prove that it violates Christ’s teaching.

  • Caleb T

    I tend to think of this issue of role of government as highly debatable, and it shouldn’t be put forth as absolute truth, with no turning to the right or the left. Not only is this post written clearly through the lens of an American understanding of politics, this post is obviously partisan, which is something I wish groups like the Gospel Coalition wouldn’t be. In the end, what the author has put forth is his own opinion about the role of government, not a careful Biblical exegesis about it or even an objective evaluation of both sides.

    “The most realistic kind of equality we can achieve is equality before the law. Every citizen should be able to expect the same treatment by the government. Liberty and protection for him who lives rightly. Coercion and punishment for him who does wrong.”

    I find it incredibly interesting that evangelicals can make statements like this one and still oppose gay marriage with such vitriol. For people that like “small government” that concentrates solely on justice, why do you care about gay marriage?

    “But I believe that Sandel commits an error by putting the burden of social solidarity on law and government.” The issue isn’t as black and white as is stated here. Who is responsible for justice? The government, yes. But is it not also the responsibility of each citizen to act love justice and act on it, especially in matter in which the government cannot/will not get involved? And who is responsible for social justice? Is not the government, the leader of the people elected by the people, responsible for caring for its people when the people fall short?

    Whatever you believe is the role of government here in the US, to assert the role of the government universally and absolutely is, in my opinion, irresponsible.

    • Brandon M


      It’s interesting to me you would bring up gay marriage and tie it to this quote by Dr. Baker:

      “The most realistic kind of equality we can achieve is equality before the law. Every citizen should be able to expect the same kind of treatment by the government. Liberty and protection for him who lives rightly. Coercion and punishment for him who does wrong.”

      The reason it’s interesting is that gay marriage creates an inequality in the law. Right now everyone is treated equally and can marry the same way as everyone else. Each man and woman can marry one person of the opposite sex above a certain age (who is not already married). Often the grounds offered by advocates of the redefinition of marriage is to expand the definition of marriage to “anyone you love.” However, then there is no reason to exclude a host of other people who say they love each other (the so-called slippery slope argument is valid).

      “Same sex marriage” would expand the U.S. government’s (already massive) role in this country. There would be more not less government involvement (adoption laws, teaching in school, etc-see what’s already happened in Massachusetts). For more on this check out the book “The Meaning of Marriage.” One could also make a strong case that the consequences of undermining an already struggling institution like marriage would increase the government’s role in this country to an unhealthy level. See these in-depth articles that lay out many hard facts: more:

      The second part of what Dr. Baker said is this: “Liberty and protection for him who lives rightly. Coercion and punishment for him who does wrong.” My question to you is do you think that in relation to homosexual practice, those who participate in these acts are being coerced or punished because they can’t marry? Also do you really think the government would be smaller if someone tried to unnaturally expand it? And do you think that those who practice homosexuality should have their relationships viewed in a society as living rightly?

      I have a number of friends in the homosexual community and find myself frustrated that Christians can’t boldly stand up for the what God has declared marriage to be for his glory and our good. It is a no brainer that this would not be good for society. I would love to see how or where you disagree with me on this.

      I would strongly encourage you to read these articles and would be interested to hear why you support same sex marriage (if in fact you do):

  • Brett Mach

    I appreciated this article too.

    After grappling with many of these themes myself for several years, I keep finding myself at a place where (as your final section similarly suggests) the hope for justice in society is ultimately found in the local church and what you call the everyday “offices” of its members. This could, perhaps, be simplified into “Jesus as the only hope for justice,” as we both work as his hands and feet in the present age and look forward to the day of his consummated rule when everything will be made right.

    But while I think this is the absolute and necessary starting point for us (repenting and reconciling and doing justice at the truly “grassroots” level as sons, daughters, uncles, mothers, etc.), it must not be where the pursuit of justice always end as a matter of course. If this article’s perspective is both a starting and an ending point, then I think we will tend to value our citizenship in the City of God while denying that we still live and function in the City of Men as well. If we always dismiss our citizenship in worldly communities as ineffective and incapable of augmenting what we are already doing in “private” offices for the cause of justice, then we might as well hole up in the hills.

    As dual citizens, we know our ultimate allegiance is to God, but we must acknowledge that in a participatory government, we are able to sweat and strive and engage our communities by using all of our “public” offices as well: voting, advocacy, assembly, and yes, official public office as well. Of course that sort of engagement is messy and gets crummy quickly, and more often than not, Christians seem to do more harm than good when they attempt to “do politics” or mobilize government for their ends.

    The problem with many of us is that we instantly look to government to remediate evils and positively serve justice as the default starting point. But we tend theologically to swing to one extreme or another. While I agree with this article on important levels, I fear its philosophy will slice more toward Christian isolationism rather than engagement with the world we are a part of and are called to love.

    And on a more technical level, there has got to be more room for a Christian perspective that mediates between Sandel’s choosing self and situated self. We are individuals who are also situated in communities as well as communities made up of individuals, which is a tension I think the Bible itself walks much more effectively than contemporary scholars who often seem bent on making it an either-or text.

    I am not sure of the wisdom in situating the whole discussion around the baseline of Milton Friedman’s (ideological—though it is an ideology for which I admittedly sympathize) quote about government working best as an umpire. Via Luther and possibly others, this free-market-default perspective almost seems to assume that a biblical Christian perspective endorses this camp’s framework without complication: it’s a conceptual framework in which the government is not allowed space to be anything but a hammer. It mentions the Sermon on the Mount, which certainly has been read in similar ways by various Christians over the years, but I think the real “spiritual” fathers of these ideological assumptions are utilitarian philosophers such as Bentham and Mill and other “classical liberals.” Doesn’t mean the assumptions are wrong outright, but I think they’re worth questioning.

  • Chris M

    Nice abstract concepts.

    I would like the author to respond: Given your view of government, is it proper for the government to impose regulations on private businesses that prevent them from discriminating against people on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion? If yes, explain how that jives with you views explained above.

    • Hunter Baker

      I think this one is actually a good question. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is both a great and terrible piece of legislation. It is great because it brought an end to a gross, discriminatory, and harsh system of racial separation. It is terrible because it is incredibly intrusive.

      Think about it. You own a business and the government will tell you who your customers will be whether you agree or not. But this terrible force of government was justified, in my mind, by the fundamental wrong in the southern system. Citizens did not have fundamental equality before the law. In essence, the governments of the south were backing an apartheid type system rather than merely tolerating citizen preferences.

      In any case, the situation of the Civil Rights Act does not really violate my principle of the government as a hammer. A wrong was committed and government acted against that wrong. This is what I call the breach of justice, which is an acceptable situation for the government to address.

      • Chris M

        Hunter – thanks for taking the time to write a thoughtful response. I don’t know the extent to which you have time to engage commentors, but here’s my follow up:

        You acknowledge that the Civil rights act is both just and intrusive, because it forces the hand of businesses to do what they don’t want to. What I wonder is that if you think a business is committing a moral wrong by denying a person patronage on the basis of race.

        If you do not, there’s no more room for dialogue, as you’d be on the wrong side of Biblical ethics. Presuming that you do see that is an immoral act, my question is: Is there a justification for other “big government” intrusions in other moral areas, both on businesses or individuals, such as:

        – Payday loan stores that violate Biblical standards of usury?
        – Banks that redline minority neighborhoods and refuse to lend to people “on the wrong side of the tracks”.
        – Farmers who want to grow pot for personal consumption. (Drug laws)
        – Immoral sex acts (Sodomy laws _
        – Landlords who won’t rent to Christians.

        All of the above are objectively wrong by Biblical standards. If the government is to promote a just society, it, by it’s nature must be highly intrusive because it must punish those who commit injustices.

        I presume you are ok with “the hammer” being used to enforce personal morality. (Pot for example) So, when commerce gets involved, why be so conflicted?

        • Hunter Baker

          Chris, what I am trying to establish is a rebuttable presumption against using the government in a broadly activist fashion. Some commenters have acted as though I set out some universal, but in reality, I am saying that government is really a hammer. Hammers are primarily good at a few basic things. We should be really reluctant to expand the use of that hammer. There’s nothing about my case that says there can NEVER be a justification for doing more.

          • Chris M

            If you can’t take a clear moral evil, run it through your worldview and tell me if government intervention comes out the other end, all you have is worthless platitudes. I never said that you claimed there never was a reason for intervention, what I want to know is what *is* your framework for deciding when to use the hammer. Again, pick a moral evil above and tell me how we should decide when to use the government to coerce people to not commit those injustices on their neighbors.

            • Jugulum

              I get the impression that Hunter is doing something I sometimes do: Making a limited point about an important factor or element of analysis that should be part of how we decide whether the government should do something. He’s not attempting–in this article–to detail his entire framework.

              Your request “explain how that jives with you views explained above” is in the scope of his point, and he answered it. Evaluating all the major moral questions about the circumstances of the Civil Right Act is not, if I understood him correctly. Your question is related & relevant to the broader topic, but it’s not in the scope of his point. It’s the natural next question.

              For you to say that unless he fully addresses the situation you want him to, then he has nothing but “worthless platitudes”, is both mistaken and silly.

            • Hunter Baker

              Chris M, I do not agree that the law is the proper instrument to deal with every violation you have listed. I think law and the force accompanying it is a sort of ultimate sanction. Thomas Paine’s dichotomy of society and government appeals to me. There is much that can done via the instrument of society before we need ever cast our eyes upon the solution of law.

  • Ben W

    Terrible abstract concepts.

    It seems that according to this gentleman, writing in Ron Paul is the only truly Christian choice for the upcoming presidential election. When will the Gospel Coalition permit a fiscal liberal to write for them, making their economic case for a strong government social safety net?

    We had this guy’s ideal situation in the middle of the 19th century: it failed. Disastrously. It was fixed by Christian reformers like Shaftesbury, who supported government education and laws to restrict the excesses of the Industrial revolution. Perhaps a careful reading of Lloyd George’s Limehouse speech would be in order here.

    An industrialized nation without substantial government involvement in a safety net is fundamentally unworkable and unjust.

    • Hunter Baker

      Ben W, I don’t know who you are, but I agree with you on one thing, which is that I would like to see a resource that brings together many different views on social justice. (Actually, I may be wrong to say you agree because you are simply denouncing a view you see as conservative while asking for a left view.) I am trying to organize of group of folks left, right, and center to contribute to such a project.

      • Ben W

        Hunter Baker, I’m frustrated that the only political view on this site is the right-wing one. I’m happy to hear about your project, and look forward to reading about its results.

  • Nathan Leamer

    Thank you for writing this piece. It is thought provoking and very helpful.
    I am glad to read in the comments about your upcoming project and would enjoy being updated on this endeavor.
    Thanks again,

  • JohnM

    “those who do not commit wrongs should be largely free and uncoerced.” Quite right.

    However I do quibble with the wording that follows “They have earned that right because they govern themselves.” No one has to “earn” anything that is a right. Rather I would say “they have done nothing to forfeit the rights they naturally possess”. If we have rights at all then we have them inherently and having them is the starting point, not a point toward which one has to work. Rights are not absolute, and they are ours to lose by bad behavior, but you can’t lose what you didn’t start out with.

    You are quite generous (I suppose one should try to be) toward “Christians who push for collectivist ideals of social justice” supposing them to be “..motivated by this account of the situated self who sees himself wedded in solidarity with other members of the community and very much ready to put the government in service of this bond”. Or else they’re just informed by secular progressivism more than by Scripture. Given the combination of naivete and hubris involved I’m not so sure I would opt for “a rich, warm-hearted nicely coercive government” at least not one that will not admit that there are any boundaries to being, even nicely, coercive.

    • Simon

      John M, perhaps you can tell us why individualism and libertarianism (espoused clearly in the above article) are any less secular than “progressivism”.

      The problem with this article is that it assumes that any authority should be limited, at best, or even illegimate (hence the terminology of “coercion”). This is simply an extention of the Protestant rejection of the Church as an authority. It’s not surprising that libertarian ideas are most popular in the US (and with the Reformed in particular) given that their forefathers were Puritans and other sects of the radical Reformation (ana-Baptists and so on). I notice in the comments that the “local church” is considered as some kind of authority. But why should we submit to the local church authorities and not the universal church, or even a regional conference of the church etc. The reasons why libertarians object to government, apply to any authority. And they are in practise – particularly in relation to the church. The fact is that libertarian philosophy is premised on individual choice as the highest virtue. This is fundamentally flawed from a Christian perspective. Conversely, whilst “progressivism” may also be secular and some of its ideas misplaced, at least it tries to reflect, in some imperfect way, the fact that human beings are made for one another and are responsible for one another. I can hear Friedman, Rand, Mises and co say “am I my brother’s keeper”.

      • JohnM

        Simon,have your argument with the Objectivists or the Austrian School if you like, I’m not a libertarian. In fact it strikes me that one thing libertarians and socialists (honest ones anyway) have in common is an overly optimistic view of human nature. As I said, rights are not absolute. But neither is authority, unless we’re talking about God. As a Christian I have to believe in limited government if for no other reasons because absolute authority rightfully belongs to, and is de facto possessed by, God alone. Everyone else ought to recognize some boundary to their authority. You don’t have to be a radical individualist to recognize that.

        • Simon

          I don’t want to talk about absolutes either, but if someone or some organisation can do good (whatever this good is), then they should do this. There is no “limit” or “boundary” to this. It is only the ideologues who absolutise things. Those who say that government should do/never do certain things in every conceivable circumstance fall into this category. Your belief in “limited government” (whatever that means) has got nothing to do with Christianity. God has ordained the authorities, including the Church. It’s no coincidence that evangelicals also believe in a limited Church. No where does Christ or the apostles indicate that these authorities should be “limited”. Does this mean that Christians should never critique civil (and ecclesial) authorities? No it doesn’t. But the idea of limiting their authority, presumably to leave space for self governance is wrongheaded – it presupposes that humans are individuals. We are not. God himself is not an individual if you believe in the Trinitarian dogma. Human beings reflect his image – man and woman, the Church i.e his body. There is no part of us that is simply our own as “individuals”. The Reformation created a Sola (“me”) society and so people “govern themselves”. Well I don’t think this works out in our experience, nor is it taught by Christ, the apostles and the Fathers.

  • Simon

    I note that the article uses the term “coercion” in relation to government activities. “Coercion” is seen by both libertarians (who are actually economic liberals) and “liberals” or progressives (who are only liberal on social issues) as always a bad, or, at least, an illegitimate thing. As one commentator above has pointed out, Christian libertarians are inconsistent when it comes to social issues. Secular libertarians have no problems when it comes to liberalism in the social sphere. Chicago economics professor Gary Becker has no problems with “illegal immigration” and legalising illicit drugs. He also is a economic conservative. The philosphy is that the individual should do whatever they want, as long as they don’t harm others (harming others is usually narrowly defined – conservative economists typically don’t think that “externalities” are very important because they would undermine their whole worldview, so they assume from the start that externalities don’t matter much despite evidence and philosphical problems with this – but that is another discussion!). Most evangelical Christians who subscribe to libertarian ideas haven’t bothered to understand the assumptions they are implicitly making about what a human being is. The individual in economic models and in libertarian thought (because Austrians typically don’t use models) certainly bears no relation to human beings made in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ.

    So I am quite happy to say that “liberals” are inconsistent and misguided. But I do think that Christians who subscribe to libertarian philosophy are equalling inconsistent and misguided. The Gospel is not an ideology. And we should be very suspicious of people who try to unite the Gospel with any ideology.

  • Steve Cornell

    I tried to put off chiming in on this subject but the more I thought about it, the more inclined I became to say what ended up being too many words (sorry for the length).

    The discussion about the role of government is best viewed first as a shared human concern in the context of common grace. Before entering conversations about particular political theories, we need to be sure this point is made with clarity and compassion. (It’s equally worth asking why — on a purely naturalistic scheme—we’re troubled over categories of good and evil and why we’re so inclined to improve things?)

    But don’t let anyone pretend that there are not shared problems to address that affect us all. Wherever people form societies, they must decide what kind of social order they want. Pretending that you don’t need to deicide about such matters is naive because (without law and order), unrestrained evil people tend to oppress others. As you aptly noted how Martin Luther conveyed, “men and women need a lawful order in the same way they need food, air, and water.”

    Discussion or debate over political theories could possibly be approached with less divisiveness and partisanship if we identified several social crises and asked what “we” should do about them. By starting with shared concerns regarding actual problems affecting real people, we stand a better chance of beneficial discussion on the range of possible solutions.

    Genuinely ask those who disagree with your recommendations about how to resolve particular issues facing a society: “What would you suggest we do?” If I am making a case for example, against unjust taxation or unjust punishments for certain crimes, and someone suggests I am trying to overlook the needy or impose my values on others, I can offer a sincere invitation: “What would you suggest we do?” and “Why?”

    I do agree that, “None of us is free if we do not have basic justice and order.” Of course, what that should look like and how to agree on it, is another matter.
    I also agree that we should not be putting “the burden of social solidarity on law and government.”

    But our problem comes in that damaged and severely diminished roles of other virtue forming influences in society has been replaced with an increased culture of law. I think this is what you’re getting at by suggesting that we invest more in the “many special offices in this life.” This is where the Church and family play important roles.

    Take as an example how the virtue of honor once played a more prominent role in the conduct of individual lives and communities in our nation. When people showed higher levels of honor for life and property, law also played less of a role than it does today.

    In the early days of our Country, the duty to honor others functioned as a healthy motive for restraining inappropriate and disrespectful behaviors. Honor, as a valued social virtue, was taught in the context of family life, mentored through parental example and reinforced through community expectation.

    Honoring others means among other things that I treat them with a protective form of respect. It flourishes in humble hearts that place a high value on their fellow citizens. To harm another or to ruin his property is to dishonor him. Such actions imply a devaluing of others. Honor shares the company of virtues like gratitude, courtesy and respect. The disappearance of these virtues is evident everywhere in the cultural life of 21st century America.

    This is where things begin to break down and liberty is put at risk. Absent the virtue-forming influences of family and wider cultural expectations, social authority in the form of law and punishment must enforce honor and respect. A culture lacking a shared value of honor, leads to expansive social authority over individual conduct.

    A culture of law, however, is not a good substitute for one of honor. Law is more of a consequential force than a positive culture shaping reality. Obviously, human flourishing cannot exist apart from some degree of law and law enforcement, but expansive law rarely provides the best context for such flourishing.

    Finally, allow me to suggest expanding the understanding of the role of government to fulfill the second half of I Peter 2:14 “governors… are sent by him (God) to punish those who do wrong — and to commend those who do right.”

    Perhaps “the most common denominator of justice is preventing and punishing freedom-destroying evil perpetrated by those who do not recognize even the most basic duties of human beings toward each other…. And it’s true that,
    “Government has been ordained in order to restrain predatory, evil men and to prevent them from victimizing everyone else.” Yet we need government leaders to capture a positive vision for using their positions of authority and influence to help restore virtues like honor, respect and neighbor love. They can do this by commending those who do right.

    Steve Cornell

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