Acton Institute Powerblog

Advanced Studies in Freedom Wednesday Edition

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

BRYN MAWR, July 12, 2006 – Yesterday I outlined in brief a biblical case for the legitimate and even divine institution of civil government. Having established that the State is a valid social institution, the next step in what is broadly called social ethics is to outline the scope of the State’s authority and its relations to other social institutions.

A valuable place to start might be in defining what the role of the State ought to be, rather than simply cataloguing the specific tasks of the State one by one, starting with the punishment of the wrongdoer, and so on (in this sort of endeavor, I think Aquinas’ maxim regarding when to make law is invaluable). Gaudium et spes gives a valuable starting point for a discussion of the common good: “The sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” Leo XIII says that “Civil society exists for the common good.”

In some sense, too, the State exists for the common good, although its role is clearly defined and sharply delimited: to ensure some of the necessary preconditions for the realization of the common good.

Recall what Lord Acton writes of liberty, the highest political end, that it is necessary “for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.” These highest objects of civil society could be summed up in the concept of the common good. Thus Acton writes that beyond the core and proper center of the scope of governmental authority, the State “can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation–religion, education, and the distribution of wealth.”

In discussing the relationship between the Church and State, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the State’s responsibility with regard to the first table of the Decalogue in a similar way. He argues that the State effectively meets its responsibility in promoting and protecting the Church by carving out space for the existence of the Church, ensuring its ability to exist and vigorously thrive in freedom.

In our American context, I think we can understand the establishment clause of the First Amendment to effectively accomplish this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Bill of Rights therefore protects and even promotes the right of the Church to exist

Simply put: the government exists to promote and protect liberty, a necessary but not sufficient condition for the attainment of human virtue and flourishing, also called the common good.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. Jordan's scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), and he resides in Jenison, Michigan with his wife and three children.

Comments

  • Marty

    Thanks for taking the time to post on anarcho-capitalism and the role of the State. As a Catholic, I was a supporter of distrbutism, but have come to repsect the role of the free market. My first real experience with libertarian thought was the anrcho-capitalists who claim to be the only true followers of Hayek and Mises.

    I can’t support their anarchists views and I am glad you have began to tackle this topic. I have enjoyed the book Ordered Liberty and hope to see more from Acton on the proper role of the state.

    Thanks