The Rights-Protecting State

In The Mighty and the Almighty, Wolterstorff offers an “argument from above,” from the revealed will of God, for the state’s authority to curb injustice, while in Understanding Liberal Democracy, he offers an “argument from below” for the same, rooted in natural human rights. I’ll summarize his political theology first, followed by his political philosophy.

Wolterstorff’s “argument from above” for a “rights-limited state” is, in its essentials, an interpretation of Romans 13:1-7, the locus classicus for Christian political theology. The main tradition, represented by Calvin in W.’s account, has located this passage’s interpretive center in 13:1-2. Calvin takes v. 1, in which Paul says that “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God,” as the heart of the passage, and reads it as meaning two things: “whoever may be the head of government over a certain populace, God has brought it about that he or she is the head; and to be the head of government over a certain populace is to be in a position of authority over it” (87).

Wolterstorff identifies a number of fairly pernicious consequences of Calvin’s reading, chief among them that, since it identifies the state’s authority as inhering in a particular position (paired with a particular jurisdiction), it is forced to admit the state’s virtually unlimited authority over the bodies of its subjects (excepting commands the violate the First Table of the Decalogue). A government might not be permitted to issue a particular command (say, for its citizens to help staff the death camps), but on Calvin’s reading, it does not thereby exceed its authority. Since, on Calvin’s construal, God has placed every government in authority, that government’s directives count as the directives of God himself. And we are never justified, Calvin reasons, in disobeying God.

Wolterstorff takes a different approach to Romans 13, suggesting,

the center of interpretation should not be verse 1 but verses 4 and 5. Government is a servant of God. As a servant of God, it has a God-assigned task to perform. Its God-assigned task is to exercise governance over the public for the purpose of executing wrath or anger on wrongdoers, thereby indicating its support of doing good. If God assigns it that task, then God both authorizes and enjoins it to perform that task…The concept of authority Paul is employing is not the concept of being in an institutional position of authority but the concept of having the authority to do something (88).

On this view, simply holding political power is not a sign of divine favor; rather, Paul is urging that “whoever finds himself in such a position, however that came about, has a commission from God, an assignment, to serve God by exercising governance oer the public for the purpose of executing anger on wrongdoers” (95).

This “executing anger” is plainly for the purpose of “curbing wrongdoing,” or “curbing injustice,” or even “protecting the rights of the public,” such that government is necessarily a “right-protecting institution” (90). Included in this rights-protecting task is the responsibility of ensuring that “the downtrodden” are treated fairly, and not “deprived of fair access to medical care or to adequate means of sustenance” (91). W. outlines a “fourfold system” of government, consisting of a criminal code, judiciary, police, and military, which he suggests addresses the political ground covered by “executing anger on the wrongdoer” in R 13:4-5 (90).

And if a government abrogates that commission by itself becoming an agent of wrongdoing, it exceeds its authority, and its directives have no morally binding force whatsoever. As Wolterstorff puts it, “God does not permit the government to issue directives or employ forms of coercion that constitute wrongdoing on the part of the government” (92). The state is “rights-limited” as well as “rights-protecting” (93). Looking back to v. 2, then, Wolterstorff glosses the obedience due the state: “governing authorities are appointed by God to exercise governance over the public for the purpose of executing anger on wrongdoers, in that way to serve God…And so it is that when they do what they are assigned to do, we must not resist them but obey and submit” (94).

So much for Wolterstorff’s argument from above. His argument from below comes at the question very differently, but arrives at the same conclusion: the state’s political authority emanates from its task as a rights-protecting and rights-limited body. The first and longest part of his essay is an argument against “goods-based” theories of political authority, which he summarizes this way:

The political authority of the state and the obligation of its citizens to obey cannot be accounted for by appealing to some common good, whatever that good be; obligations and their correlative rights cannot be derived from goods that carry no obligations or rights. From the fact that it would be a good thing for me to perform some action it does not follow that I am obligated to perform that action (ULD, 269).

He proposes a line of thought that begins with the state’s duties toward citizens, and with citizens rights against the state. Citizens have a natural right to the protection by the state from their being wronged by the state, other citizens, or institutions. And if citizens have that claim right to the state’s protection, then the state has both a duty and a permission right to furnish it. Finally, since state’s have that permission right, citizens have a duty to comply with the directives and judgments by which the state furnishes that protection, since “we are obligated not to hinder a person’s doing what he is obligated to do” (274).

(Q: How do we know that citizens have a right to protection by the state? W. hasn’t argued for this, has he?)

W. suggests that focusing squarely on the state’s role as rights-protector provides Christians with abundant reasons to support liberal democracy. “The pre-modern Christian tradition” thought of politics principally in terms of cultivating  “a life of true piety and virtue,” a standpoint from which liberal democracy appears mediocre at best. But if we shift our focus from “the good of well-being…to the evil of violating a person, then Christians have a powerful reason for regarding the liberal polity as an inherently excellent type of polity” (ULD, 321), because, in its enshrinement and protection of civil liberties, “the liberal polity gives high priority to preventing and avoiding the violation of persons” (ULD, 321).

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