“Yeah?” I replied. “What makes you think that?”
“Well,” he seemed confused, “Didn’t the U.S. Congress pass Obamacare into a law?”
My reply only increased his confusion: “The Congress did. But the American people didn’t. The law still needs their consent to become valid.”
Explaining the American social and political system to Europeans can be a tiresome experience. Europeans just don’t seem to be able to climb out of their boxes of digesting everything in terms of the centralized almighty state and its decrees. The concept of federalism, especially, is a huge stumbling block; how can you have “one nation,” wonder they, if you have competing powers and authorities within the same nation? Or if the States can nullify Federal laws?
But the federalism of the political institutions is the smaller problem for the European mind. The bigger problem is the individual vs. the State. Europeans, whether they are aware of it or not, whether they admit it or not, are genuinely terrified of the way Americans view their relation to their own government.
When a law is passed by a Parliament in a European nation, the average European automatically accepts that the law is valid for the very reason that it is passed by a proper parliamentary procedure. The law may be immoral, or may be contrary to common sense, or the law may be outright discriminatory and oppressive, but it is still valid in the European mind, just because a bunch of politicians voted for it. Even if the law is completely against the consent of the governed, it is still valid and it deserves compliance. The consent of the governed is never a factor in the European thinking, and the average European never even allows for such a factor to play any part in his dealings with his government.
Compliance is the key word that describes the relationship between the individual and the State in the European setting. The European citizen is not allowed nor expected to exercise discernment once a bill is codified into law. There is no option for the citizen to exercise any active opposition to it, only passive compliance. The best a European individual can do against unreasonable or outright immoral laws is to seek for ways to comply with the law in such a way that provides the least damage to his individual ethical feelings, and to his life, liberty, and property. If the law allows for such choice between different modes of compliance, then the individual can pick one; if it doesn’t, he must comply even to his own detriment.
Such is the attitude of the European mind. When it relates to the law, its first thought is “compliance.” There is no higher lawgiver than the national legislature, no higher court than the Supreme Court, and no higher executor than the government. Therefore whatever civil law is, must be right and must be obeyed. A law cannot be opposed except through the same legal and political process that produced it – and by default, through the same political class that produced the law in the first place. There is certainly no higher moral law to give the ideological basis for any opposition, no divine law, and no God to Whom legislators, judges, and rulers must give account.
A powerful example of this European mentality is the recent decision of a European court against the display of crucifixes in public buildings in Italy. Even though the decision was made by a court far away from Italy, by judges who know next to nothing about Italian traditions and history – or care nothing about it – even though the prevailing public opinion in Italy itself is for having the crucifixes displayed, public schools in many places are beginning to comply with the court’s decision. The European brain is trained to obey and comply, no matter what.
We in America very often make the mistake to believe that just because in the last 60 years most governments in Western Europe – and in Eastern Europe in the last 20 years – never used force against their own people, Europe is somehow free, and the rights of the individuals are safe and protected. We assume that because European nations have experienced the “the rule of law” that the Founders of these United States envisioned, therefore Europeans are free and their rights are protected. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Europe was freer under the absolutism of Louis XIV and Frederick the Great than it is today. The absolutism of the democratic State is much more total and unrelenting than the absolutism of the Sun-King. And the reason the European totalitarian democracies didn’t use force on a large scale in the last 60 years is that the very subjects of those democracies never think in terms of consent, only in terms of compliance. The new absolutism is not based on external force but on the internal self-censorship of the individuals who view the State’s decrees as ultimate and final.
In stark contrast to this stands the political ideology of the original American Republic. One of the things that made – and still makes – America unique as a political setting is that little phrase in the Declaration of Independence: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
Consent is the key word here. In this foundational document of our American liberty, governments are declared to be secondary and derivative, rather than a primary source of law and power. A true American doesn’t consider his government to be the source of its own powers; its “just powers” are derived from his consent to acknowledge the government as legitimate and just. Furthermore, government is not an end in itself; it serves a purpose: “To secure these rights.” The ramifications of this are enormous; and the very rebellion of the colonists against King George found its legitimacy in this idea of limited function of the just government.
True, a European might be able to relate to the principle of the consent of the governed, but they would do it in a very limited way: That the governed exercise their “consent” by appearing regularly at the ballot box. Outside of that ritual of confirming their “consent” the governed can use different means of protest against specific government measures or laws. But compliance with the laws is non-negotiable, whatever the outcome of their protest would be.
A true American must disagree with such a limited view of the value of his political consent or non-consent. The value of the consent of the governed is not limited merely to a general recognition of the political system as a whole at the time of voting. Such an approach would have seemed irresponsible to the early colonists. A responsible and freedom-loving citizen must exercise his consent or disagreement concerning every single law or act of the government, not just in relation to the general political and legal system. Every government decree must be carefully scrutinized and declared valid or null by every citizen of a free society, and every citizen must decide whether they would obey it or not. Compliance with the law can come only as a result of self-conscious, informed consent with the law – and that means every law, not just the legal system in general.
The history of America is replete with examples of active resistance of citizens against immoral, unjust, or stupid laws. The early colonists were smugglers at sea, rebels at home, and evaded paying taxes when they disagreed with them. They also disobeyed the Proclamation of 1763 and moved to settle new lands west of the Appalachians. They kept their guns when the British governors tried to confiscate them, and they obstructed the King’s tax-collectors. And of course, the event that started the Revolution, the Boston Tea Party, was a display of defiance against the ability of the British government to impose laws on a people against their consent. The American Revolution was only a logical outcome of a political ideology that had been developed in the colonies that no government and no law can have just power without the consent of the governed.
Admittedly, this healthy political ideology for the legitimacy of government has been in retreat for the last 200 years, but even in the 20th century we see it at work in America. Even today, there are hundreds of federal and state laws that have failed to become reality because the governed refuse to comply with them. Federal gun-control laws are the best example, being defied by state governments and individuals alike, but they are not the only example. Back in the 60’s there were hundreds of heroic Christian fathers and mothers who defied the law of the State and took their kids back home to educate them, very often facing persecution and jail sentences. The infamous “anti-hate-speech” laws, designed specifically to kill any Christian testimony in the public square, have only produced the opposite result, encouraging many individual Christians and Christian leaders to speak publicly about their beliefs. True patriotic America may have been in retreat for quite a while but she is far from defeated, and in fact, she is getting prepared to strike back at the new tyranny of the centralized State, learning from its Founding Fathers. Amazingly enough, even the Left in America, with its worship of the State and with its belief in using the power of the Federal government to impose its socialist agenda, also has a long history of defiance and open resistance to laws that the leftists find offensive to their ethical feelings. As long as the concept of the consent of the governed is alive and well in America, laws will keep being defied and nullified if they fail to pass the test of that consent.
And that’s why it is still not sure if we have socialized total Federal healthcare in America. The American people haven’t spoken yet. And therefore the healthcare law is far from valid.
What is amazing is that this confuses my European friends. It is obvious that in contrast to the European political ideology, the American ideology is the one that fosters and encourages political liberty; it is the system that imposes truly realistic checks on the expansion of government power. In fact, it is so obvious that one wonders what is it that makes Europeans unable to see it. Europeans themselves know very well from their historical experience what the unlimited government power can do to their life, liberty, and property. Then why are they so unable to accept the moral superiority of our political system? Why do they still base their relation to their governments on compliance rather than consent? Don’t they see how it is detrimental to their liberty?
The reasons for their blindness are religious. After the French Revolution, European nations have based their entire political and moral thinking on a rejection of the Triune God and His revelation in the Bible. The transcendent basis for the society’s laws and morality was lost. Once it was lost, someone had to fill the vacuum, and it was by default the most powerful human institution, the State. The State became the final authority in all matters, legal and moral and political, and therefore the laws of the State have become the new divine law, thorough, comprehensive, regulating every facet of man’s existence, controlling his every move, making him thoroughly a creature of the State. The individual lost any right to appeal to anyone higher than the State because there was none higher than the State, the State becoming god on earth. In such a religious system any thought of considering consent before compliance would be tantamount to sacrilege, a blasphemous act, an affront against the god.
There is no way to understand the history of Europe after the 18th century without understanding this major religious change in Europe’s political and moral philosophy. The rise of the nation-states, the two world wars, Marx, Hitler, the national liberation movements, the rise of Communism, the founding of the European Union, and the beginning of its demise in the last one year – none of those events in history make any sense unless we understand the paradigm shift caused by the abandonment of the Christian religion in Europe as a basis for the European political and social fabric. Europe as a concept was established on the basis of its faith in the Bible, and it will go down in history with the disappearance of that faith. And today’s European inability to understand the American concept of the consent of the governed is caused by that religious rejection of that faith.
In contrast, our American system was based from the very beginning on the belief of our Founding Fathers that it was not the State, but God Who rules over the affairs of men. This denied the civil government any role of being divine or declaring the divine will. The individual and the State in such a political ideology are equal before God, they both have equal rights and responsibilities to search and interpret God’s will for their society. Therefore the consent of the governed is the pivot of the political system, it is the practical application of the verse in Proverbs 11:14, “Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.” Both the government and the governed act as “counsellors” under God, seeking to apply His Law to their specific situation. Without the transcendent basis of a Lawmaker in Heaven Who has declared the Law, the consent of the governed remains an empty phrase. It is the religious foundation of the American Republic that made it a safe haven for liberty and justice, and a city on a hill for the world. A sovereign God, and a limited civil government and limited individuals under God’s Law is the only foundation for liberty.
Therefore, my European friend won’t be able to understand our political system unless he understands its religious foundation first. As long as Europeans reject Jesus Christ as their Lawgiver, they will have political false messiahs for ultimate lawgivers, and will have no recourse against their immoral and foolish laws. Passive compliance with tyranny and oppression is the fate of a godless people. Only a God-fearing nation can force its government to hear its voice and only a God-fearing nation can have its political rights secured against tyrants. A lesson that we Americans should never forget.