Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Limited Government, I

In the U. S. political scene, so-called conservatives make much of the need for “smaller government.” I argue that the actual size of the federal government is not, per se, the issue or shouldn’t be. The principle that needs reviving is the importance of limited government, that is, governments whose authority is limited (and spelled out) and whose power is limited by other concentrations of power, by what we in the states commonly refer to as a system of “checks and balances.”

Now, I want to contend that Christians have strong reason support limited government. Let me be clear: I am not making the anachronistic claim that anything like modern democratic republics are foreseen in the Scriptures. They clearly are not. But several strands of the biblical witness, it seems to me, do show a healthy suspicion of concentrated and autocratic power.
Early Israelite life had no central government: tribes and villages settled matters by elders who consulted together at the village gates. Wise women seem also to have made their contributions. When more coordinated action was necessary, God raised up a judge–usually a figure who was part-prophet and part military leader.

The system was certainly open to abuse. A pro-monarchy strand of Scripture reflected in the editing of Judges itself recalls the time of the judges primarily as one of lawlessness and views the monarchy as the cure. But 1 Samuel 8 challenges the nature of concentrated power in a monarchy in extremely realistic terms. And there is a strong anti-imperialist theme throughout much of the rest of Scripture, despite the idealizing of David and projecting of a royal Davidic figure as the future Messiah. (Many scholars believe that one reason Jesus was reluctant to use the term “messiah” about himself was the association of the term with royal military conquerer figures.)

So, even though some strands of Christianity have been very pro-royalist, supporting the supposed “divine right of kings to rule” or blindly supportive of whatever autocratic government is in power, other Christian groups and theologians, with strong biblical support, have rightly pushed for limited government with checks and balances on power. A seriousness about the nature of human sinfulness has guided such folk–no one can be trusted with too much unsupervised power.

The best modern political arrangements that have incorporated such checks have been forms of democratic republics. In parliamentary democracies an important check is separating the head of state (e.g., the British monarch and her represenatives–usually a Governer General–in Commonwealth nations, or the President of France, etc.) from the head of government (a prime minister who leads the majority party in parliament). Parliamentary systems also have the check of being able to have early elections if a prime minister fails a vote of no confidence.

The U.S. system lacks those checks, but our Framers deliberately limited each branch of government to powers carefully spelled out in the Constitution, and gave each branch of government checks against the others–checks eroded by the idea of a “unitary executive” posited by the Bush administration which believes it is answerable to no one. An independent judiciary with the power of judicial review of laws for their constitutionality is essential–a judiciary which, as far as possible, is shielded from political pressures (once appointed). Constitutions which include “bills of rights” for citizens are also important checks as are forms of federalism (although smaller nations will need less of this) which work to prevent over-centralization.

Advocates of “small government” are certainly right to worry about the growths of bureacracies and over-regulation. But one has to ask about the purposes of government and recognize that some problems cannot be solved at less than national or even international levels. Those problems will take a large central bureacracy for those problems (e.g., threats to the environment, global human rights, etc.) Too often, those using the rhetoric of “small government” are simply wanting low taxes (not asking the purpose of the tax in question or the fairness of taxation burdens) or deregulation of businesses to the detriment of the common good. Many, for instance, are remarkably unconcerned with bloated military bureacracies or with concentrations of power in an “imperial presidency”–as long as the executive in question is of their party.

We need to insist on the checks and balances of limited government. In the next part of this series, I will talk about the tradeoffs between government power, concentrated business powers, and citizen powers, as well as the principle of subsidiarity.

November 28, 2006 - Posted by | government


  1. Michael,

    It’s probably not a coincidence that this sounds like you are advocating for a system of government that is somewhat analagous to the way traditional Baptist polity operates. Decision making power is concentrated amongst the membership of LOCAL AUTONOMOUS churches and authoritarian pastors or denominational leaders are viewed suspiciously. Yet, the need for INTERDEPENDENCE is recognized and central bureaucratic structures–usually mission boards–are developed to tackle jobs that are too vast and comprehensive for any one single congregation to handle by themselves.

    Put differently, a healthy distribution of power in government seems to parallel the healthy distribution of power in the church.


    Comment by haitianministries | November 28, 2006

  2. Daniel, I didn’t consciously have Baptist polity in mind. I was thinking of the debates of early republican (small r) theorists, but some of those included the tracts of the Leveller movement. And, of course, the most compelling of the Levellers was the General Baptist, Richard Overton, and the other major leader was John Lilburne (Freeborn John), who was an Independent or Congregationalist–and they had very similar polity to Baptists.

    Although I didn’t have church polity in mind, I do distrust unchecked concentrations of power, period. In church polity, I prefer checks and balances that are answerable to the laity and allow the free leadership of the Spirit at the local level to centralized bureacracies or heirarchies. In business, I prefer workplace democracies and worker-owned corporations (and strong unions at the very least) as well as external legal limits on corporate power. In government, the same.

    But again, my emphasis is on limits, not on smallness for its own sake. I am glad to belong not just to a congregation, but an Association, denomination, the National Council of Churches, World Council, etc.–as long as power flows from bottom up and is checked and accountable. I do not rail against the federal government out of principle (though I might argue against particular programs, laws, bureacracies, etc.), nor against the United Nations.
    In fact, if done carefully, I would like to see a reformed UN evolve into a global federalist government–but it would have to be federalist.

    Thanks for the input, Daniel. Visit more often, please.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 28, 2006

  3. It seems to me the key issue here is one of subsidiarity and socialization with the need for the burden of proof to be put on possible concentrations of governance in public and private spheres.

    I agree a lot of small gov’t is rhetoric that obscures the dangers of concentrations in big business.

    I would like to see UN Reform where it gets more sayso over the US’s int’l manipulations and more decentralization of decision-making to the state level, with states’ polities being transformed in more third-party friendly ways. I do not want a European system. I want a system where the election is not a winner-takes-all contest and where third parties are given some support so that those who are successful at appealing to the center are more likely to get the main parties to deal with their issues….

    When you gonna start dealing with some of the stuff at the Anti-Manichaeist I told you about? Hope you get around to it!

    Comment by DLW | November 29, 2006

  4. Actually, DLW, I am getting to the principle of subsidiarity in my next post on this series. I have no idea when I will have time to deal with your posts on your interesting blog. I have publishing deadlines and much else. But thanks for your concern.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 29, 2006

  5. Thanks for this post! I had wanted to write something like this for a while, but you did it much better than I would’ve. ūüėČ

    Looking forward to future posts in the series.

    Comment by Anonymous | December 1, 2006

  6. […] Limited Government I […]

    Pingback by Economics and Christian Ethics: Bibliographic Essays « Levellers | April 15, 2009

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: