Decades of federal intervention in the affairs of state has so muddied Tennessee government’s service to its people that its governor, facing a new temptation, is having trouble seeing the real principles by which to operate.
Gov. Bill Haslam faces a deadline. By Friday he is to decide whether the state should open a health insurance exchange under the Affordable Health Care for America Act that became law in 2010. Already two neighboring states — Georgia and Alabama — have rejected the unfunded mandate. But 23 states have agreed to help President Barack Obama and the federal legislature implement the law with state or partnership systems, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Tea party and other activists converged in Nashville on Dec. 5 to demonstrate their opposition. But it remains hard to reach a free market and conservative-oriented verdict when pragmatism and a genuine desire to serve the people of Tennessee drive Gov. Haslam toward assisting the new federal intervention among Tennesseans.
Origins of right of revolution
Gov. Haslam, an elder in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, is a man whose Christian outlook is informed by the intellectual and spiritual flame that ignited the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. His state’s first constitutional provision typifies the sort of thinking inspired by reformed theologians such as Frenchmen John Calvin and Philippe Du Plessis-Mornay and Scotsman John Knox. Their influence brought an end to ancient doctrines of royal absolutism. The doctrine of God’s sovereign rule over mankind informs the Tennessee declaration of rights. “All power is inherent in the people,” it states, and they have “an unalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform, or abolish the government in such manner as they think proper” (Article 1, section 1).
Tennesseans’ right of revolution rises from an understanding that God’s law controls all nations and principalities, and that kings and presidents serve God in a covenantal (feudal or federal) relationship. Christianity as taught in the Presbyterian church envisions three parts to that covenant: Between God and ruler, between ruler and people, and among the people and God. The people owe fealty to their king insofar as he is just and obedient to God. But if he revolts against God, or commands them to disobey God, they are free to resist. They disobey, overthrow or flee him.
Calvinism favors a decentralized social order marked by goodwill and cooperation. “Its historic opposition to absolute monarchies and aristocracies and its favor of republican forms of government [is] well known,” one history says.
Now, reformed theology requires the Christian to pray for and honor the magistrate, and in this respect could be called conservative. I use the term revolution guardedly, because supporters of popular sovereignty and state sovereignty also are revolutionary, but reject the majesty of God and the authority He grants among mankind. So French and Soviet revolutionaries are distinct from Calvinist ones — the Americans, the Scots, the Huguenot or the Dutch.
Calvinism makes it easier for one to obey authority, because it conceives authority as coming from God. The Reformation produced many martyrs who humbly accepted their government’s death penalties for the sake of religious conscience. But where Protestants were not ordained to yield their lives on the scaffold, they went to war, often led by lesser nobles. In resistance they brought to life such important Protestant doctrines such as interposition and nullification, which we can combine into the “doctrine of the lesser magistrate.”
In this teaching, a people led by a lower officeholder resist with force a greater who has violated a covenant or agreement. “[D]ukes, marquises, earls, sheriffs, mayors, and the rest are bound by the duty of their place, to succour the commonwealth, and to free it from the burden of tyrants, according to the rank and place which they hold of the people next after the king,” says Junius Brutus (pen name for Plessis-Mornay), whose 1689 Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants was a bestseller in the colonies, according to John Adams in his Works. These ideas are behind American colonial revolt in the 1700s and the Southern states’ secession votes in 1861.
Sphere sovereignty and Gov. Haslam
One important development of the reformed faith is the concept of sphere sovereignty, best expressed by Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch prime minister whose 1898 lectures at Princeton explored the many influences of Calvinism. In his talk on politics, Kuyper says government, required because of the fall of man into sin, is a mechanical system placed on top of the organic life of society that is the commonwealth within the legal borders of a state such as Tennessee.
Presbyterians are the chief defenders of this understanding of relations among individuals, family, church and king, and the governor’s thinking is favorable toward it. As explained in some of the reformed faith’s chief documents, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), grace envisions more than just a personal relationship with God. In society, grace implies liberty among men, and from the strong man. Grace, which operates upon a framework of divine law, creates the prospect of political and economic freedom.
But Gov. Haslam and his people are no longer free politically, but U.S. subjects, carriers of water and hewers of wood. So it’s difficult to seek to amplify a space of liberty among a citizenry not used to it, among a people who clamor for convenience, “lower health care costs” and other purported benefits of a nationalized health-industrial complex. When everything is socialized, as it were, pragmatism takes a powerful hold, because principles of freedom seem no longer in play. Rather, the clamor for a fair share controls, the gimmes overwhelm.
Gov. Haslam’s religious roots say that he is “God’s minister to you for good” (Romans 13:4). Do these duties before his creator require him to join the federal program, or to say “No,” as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did Thursday? He said today that he will not.
The governor’s ideas as a Presbyterian elder have influenced Western civilization for 500 years, overturning kingdoms, enlarging the role of the common man and his rights to his castle and the safety of his papers, effects and person. The political status quo makes it difficult to draw these conceptions into mind and give their genius space in which to operate. But Gov. Haslam’s Christian heritage would suggest that he interpose on behalf of his people, protect those their liberties that survive and leave to Uncle the operation of his own scheme.
Junius Brutus [Philippe Du Plessis-Mornay ], Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos [A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants] (Edmonton, Canada: Still Waters Revival Books, 1989, 1689) 180 pp. P. 142
John Calvin, On God and Political Duty, ed. John T. McNeill (New York: Bobbs Merrill Co., Inc., 1956), 102 pp.
Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987, 1931). 199 pp.
H. Henry Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House Co., 1990, 1939), 221 pp. P. 93