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A Discourse on the True Idea of the State as a Religious Institution

A Review of: A Discourse on the True Idea of the State as a Religious Institution, together with the Family and the Church, ordained of God. By Taylor Lewis, Esq., Professor of Greek in the University in the City of New-York. Andover, Mass: Allen, Morrill, and Wardwell. 1843. 8vo. pp. 56.

Taken from Brownson's Quarterly Review, January 1844.

The great question of the State may be asked from two distinct points of views; 1. As to the mode of its constitution; whether it shall be so constiuted as to intrust its administration to the one, to the few, or to the many; 2. Be its constitution what it may, --what is the origin and foundation of the right of the State to command and enforce obedience? --To the question under this last point of view, five answers may be returned; 1. The right of the State vests in the soil, as in the early constitution of Rome, or in property in general; 2. It vests in a certain family; 3. In a certain number of families; 4. In the people; 5. It is founded in the will of God. The first three answers may be dismissed as exploded. The question now turns between the will of God, and the will of the people. Is the right of the State to command founded in the will of the people, or in the will of God?

To founding the right in the will of the people, there are two objections; firstly, the people are not a people, till organized into a state; and, therefore, to found the State on the will of the people supposes the people to have a will before they exist; and, secondly, as the people are to be the subjects of government, if we assume them to be the sovereign, we fall into the absurdity of contending for a sovereign without subjects. The right of the people, as the body politic, to govern is conceded; the question is, as to what constitutes them the body politic. When a body politic, they are, no doubt, in a political sense, the sovereign; but the real question goes back of this, and asks, What is that which makes them a body politic? If it be said, that this is their own act, the question returns, Whence their right to organize themselves into a body politic? The Democrat answers, it is a right inherent in them by virtue of their human nature. This assumes the foundation of all legitimate authority to be in a human nature. But human nature is equally in all men. The right of this, in any one man, to govern, is equal to its right in any other man. Consequently, the right of each and every man to govern is established. But, if the right of each and every man to govern is established, the duty of each and every man to obey is denied. But government, which nobody is bound in duty to obey, can have no right to command. A government that commands, without any right to command, is tyranny. Either, then, no government or tyranny? So this answer will not serve our purpose, if we are to have government at all, and legitimate government.

There remains, then, as the only possible foundation of the right of the State to command and enforce obedience, the will of God,--the only legitimate source of power. This is the answer adopted by Professor Lewis. He maintains, that the State is ordained of God, and governs rightly only by virtue of the Divine will, of which it is the embodiment. But he affirms this of every actually existing government; and, therefore, necessarily affirms, that all the tyrannies and oppressions, which are, or ever have been, experienced from civil governments, are only so many manifestations of the Divine will! All rulers, no matter how wicked, how corrupt, how exacting, how crushing to the people, rule by Divine appointment, are executing the will of God, and resistance to them is rebellion against God!

Professor Lewis is driven to this horrible conclusion, by his preferring heathen notions to the principles of Christianity. If he was as familiar with the literature of the Church as he is with the literature of pagan Greece and Rome, and had as much faith in the Fathers of the Church as he has in Aristotle and Cicero, he would easily escape this conclusion, even while contending, as he very properly does, for the foundation of government in the will of God. He makes the State in itself, by its own inherent virtue, a religious institution; of course, then, he can admit no authority which can have the right to resist it. Redress of grievances, or reform of abuses, can never be legitimate, but through the action of civil government itself.

We ourselves are far from admitting the right of the individual, on his own individual responsibility, to resist the government; but we contend most earnestly for the right of resistance to tryanny and oppression everywhere, or anywhere; and we will not so blaspheme our Maker as to say, that tyranny and oppression are ever by his appointment, or by instruments of his adoption. The error of Professor Lewis comes from his assuming the Chruch and the State to be co-ordinate institutions. The Church, the State, the Family, according to him, are threee coordinate Divine institutions. Is this the Christian idea? The Family is a religious institution, we admit; but only by virtue of the sacrament of marriage. It is religious, because the Chruch has blessed it and given it a holy sanction, rendering it indissoluble, save by the authority that sanctions it. So also is the State a religious instituion, but only on the same ground, only because the Church commissions it, and commands the subject to obey it. But the Church is competent to declare when obedience ceases to be a duty, and to prescribe the mode and measure of resistance.

But this the Professor declaims against, as reestablishing the supremacy of the Church. Be it so. Does not he himself contend, that the Church is Divine? Is he more afraid to trust the Church than the State? Is the Diviity of the former less than the Divinity of the latter? Nay, through what medium will he transmit the Divinity to the State and the Family, if not through the medium of the Church? Does he contend, that there is any other mediator between God and men, than the man Christ Jesus, who has founded the Church, and is its Life? If the Son of God is the only mediator, then it must needs be only through the Church, his body, that the divine virtue can be communicated to the State and the Family. To deny, then, the supremacy of the Church, and to represent the Church, the State, and the Family, as three coordinate institutions, each supreme, independent, in its own sphere, without reference to a common superior, is to fall into a gross absurdity, and to contradict the fundamental doctrine of the Christian religion.

But what guarantee have you that the Church will not abuse its power? Strange question for one who believes in the Divinity of the State and the Family! Just as if God needed to establish one Divine instiution as a check on another? Why, the Professor has not mastered the very alphabet of his science. Ask, what guarantee we have that the Church will not abuse its trust? Why not ask, what guarantee we have that God himself will not tyrannize? Is not the Church a Divine institution? Does it not rest on the Rock of Ages, on the Foundation Stone, the precious Corner Stone, which the Lord himself hath laid? Is not God's own Son its Support, its Head, its Life, agreeably to his promise, "Lo, I am with you always unto the end of the world"? If you believe this, that is, if you believe in the Church at all as the Church of God, this distrust is not only unreasonable, but blasphemous. Why, then, refuse to build on the Church? They were, if we recollect aright, the foolish builders, who rejected the Stone, which the Lord had laid in Zion. But the subject requires an ampler discussion than we can now give it. We will only say, in conclusion, that with much that Professor Lewis advances, we heartily concur; his Discourse is marked by rare ability, and great richness of thought; but it has quite too much heathenism, and too little Christianity, for our taste and faith.