The Declaration of Independence was written in the long shadow of Magna Carta, a thirteenth-century document that maintained that even the king was bound by law, not only the law of the commonwealth but God’s law. King John reluctantly bound himself to the charter’s provisions by attaching his seal. To ensure that the king would abide by his word, “the leaders of the nobility held the city of London and the Tower as security until oaths had been administered to ensure that Magna Carta was observed.”1 The mistrust of the king by the barons was justified. He immediately sought nullification of its restrictions by appealing to Pope Innocent III for relief. On August 24, 1215, the pope issued a bull annulling the Charter and plunged England into a civil war. But a year later, King John died, and it fell to his nine-year-old son Henry III and subsequent kings to feel the full force of Magna Carta.
Why was Magna Carta so revolutionary? “It established for the first time a constitutional principle . . . that the power of the king could be limited by a written grant.”2 But what if the king refused to abide by what he agreed to do in writing? If the king breaks the stipulations of the charter and tramples the rights of his vassals, then lesser rulers and the people with them, may deprive him of his power. This fundamental principle, while not always followed, became an essential part of English Common Law. It was not happenstance, therefore, that the architects of the Declaration of Independence followed a similar principled strategy in outlining their grievances against King George III by using a written document to state their grievances. While certainly not as tyrannical as King John had been, nevertheless, a majority of colonists believed that their rights as Englishmen had been violated, and they wanted relief.
Students of History
The Declaration of Independence was not written in a worldview vacuum. The architects of the Declaration were students of history. They understood that ideas have consequences, especially if an idea becomes a law and is enforced by the sword. While the taxes levied on the colonists were not oppressive, certainly not when compared to modern taxation rates, it was the idea that the king could tax a people without restraint that set the colonials into action. Their rallying cry of “no taxation without representation” was not a denial of the right to taxation but only the claim that a ruler could tax without restraint. Even the final edition of Magna Carta (1225) included the provision that the king could levy a special tax when required. It was the fact that the granted power was in writing and both parties agreed to it that made the document so historic.
“God’s Lieutenants or Man’s Tyrants”
The lessons of Magna Carta were hard learned. The authority that political rulers possess is not absolute. King James I held to the “divine right” theory of government. He argued that “the state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth; for kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself are called gods.” Unlike God, men, even the best of them, are sinful creatures who are prone to abuse power. All power, no matter how benevolent, must be “checked and balanced” in some way. King James believed that he was his own best brake on tyranny because he ruled under God’s watchful eye. This is every tyrant’s delusion.
Modern rulers are no different. They believe that their political position gives them the right and duty to act as gods. To oppose their policies is akin to blasphemy, because they are the anointed.
The great ideological crusades of twentieth-century intellectuals have ranged across the most disparate fields—from the eugenics movement of the early decades of the century to the environmentalism of the later decades, not to mention the welfare state, socialism, communism, Keynesian economics, and medical, nuclear, and automotive safety. What all these highly disparate crusades have in common is their moral exaltation of the anointed above others, who are to have their very different views nullified and superseded by the views of the anointed, imposed via the power of government.3
In biblical terms, the role of government officials is ministerial (Rom 13:4). They are to minister in a civil capacity in the same way that fathers minister in family government and church leaders (elders and deacons) minister in ecclesiastical government, all according to God’s standards of limited governmental authority.
The temptation, however, is for rulers to view their governmental position as greater and more power-filled than it was ever designed to be so that they can bring salvation to the people. To get around the specific limitations of governmental authority outlined in Scripture, the power hungry ruler claims that his “vision” is as a “benefactor.” “Give me more power, and I’ll put things right. Let me pass more laws, and we’ll all be safe and secure.” Jesus warned of the danger in viewing civil government in salvific terms:
“And there arose also a dispute among [His disciples] as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called “Benefactors”’” (Luke 22:24–25).
The self-anointed politician believes he is called to rebuild society by political programs. Given enough power and money, he tries to convince the masses, he will do what no politician before him has ever done. So government programs increase, deficits balloon, and those the politicians claim to help suffer under the illusion of progress. It doesn’t matter that the programs failed; the intentions were honorable. Jesus steers His disciples in a different direction: “Not so with you, but let him who is greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as the servant” (22:26). Leadership positions are ministerial.
Like the rulers who wield power, the citizenry too often encourages the lust for power in God’s name by demanding from their rulers the benefits of heaven. But rulers have no such storehouse. To benefit the many, they must steal from the few. If American politics is to change, a new Magna Carta must be formed that limits our appetites.
- Elizabeth Hallam and Andrew Prescott, eds., The British Inheritance: A Treasury of Historic Documents (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999) at 14. [↩]
- Hallam and Prescott, eds., The British Inheritance, at 12. [↩]
- Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy (New York: Basic Books, 1995) at 5. [↩]