Calvin and Cheney

Posted: June 16, 2009 by Scott Kistler in Philosophy, Politics
what would calvin say to dick cheney.jpg

My friend Rick from Endued sent me an article from Christianity Today that addressed the unitary executive theory advanced by Dick Cheney and others in the Bush Administration, and tried to put it in the perspective of Calvin’s political theory.  Here’s how the author, David Neff, defined the unitary theory:

But one young staffer in the Nixon administration, future Vice President Dick Cheney, became a champion of expansive executive power. Serving in Congress and in subsequent administrations, Cheney helped promote the theory of the “Unitary Executive,” the idea that, in [author Charlie] Savage’s words, the White House should exercise complete control over everything in the executive branch, which could be conceived of as a unitary being with the President as its brain. Attorney General Ed Meese, then-Representative Dick Cheney, and others pushed that notion in order to reclaim the de facto presidential powers that were squandered by Nixon’s overreach.

But after 9/11, the push to consolidate presidential power over national security issues took on new momentum. Sometimes Cheney’s rhetoric has gone to extremes. For example, he told Fox News’s Chris Wallace that because the President always has at his side a military aide carrying the nuclear “football,” and because the President therefore has the ability to launch a nuclear attack at any time without checking with Congress, he is free of any responsibility to check with Congress in exercising his national security duties.

Neff argues that Calvin saw the law, not a government, as supreme.  In fact, he believed that tyrants sacrificed their legitimacy.  It’s no surprise, I suppose, that Calvinists often resisted governments in France, Austria, England, and Scotland.

The first thing that struck me as I read the article is how much more I need to know about Calvin’s time in Geneva, in which he attempted to set up a godly government during the Reformation period.  I’ve heard it alternately characterized as a proto-Taliban state and as a “woman’s paradise” for the strict laws against men who beat their wives.  Neff writes that Calvin saw a balance between responsibility and liberty:

Calvin used the Reformation idea of church and state as separate and distinct spheres to foster liberty. For every duty God imposes, whether spiritual or temporal, there is a corresponding freedom that is required. If we are commanded to give our families material support, for example, economic freedom and the right to private property are essential. If we are to rest on the Sabbath, we must have the liberty to stop working and not be perpetually at the beck of employers. Each duty implies a corresponding liberty, and it is the duty of rulers to protect those liberties.

Because these duties come from God, religious liberty is a fundamental aspect of political liberty. Witte continues: “Political liberty and political authority ‘are constituted together,’ said Calvin. … When political officials respect the duties and limits of their office, believers enjoy ample political liberty to give ‘public manifestation of their faith.’?”

But what about the unfaithful political leader? Calvin wrote that “dictatorships and unjust authorities are not governments ordained by God.” They are no longer “God’s ministers” if they “practice blasphemous tyranny.”

In this part of the article, I wondered if there was some Americanization of Calvin.  It’s my impression that there wasn’t “religious liberty” in Geneva.  You wouldn’t necessarily expect to find religious liberty there, as the scorned and persecuted Anabaptists were the only ones really talking about it much in Calvin’s day (to my knowledge).  The church in Geneva, in my understanding, was to govern the moral aspects of people’s lives while the state maintained order.  One of the most famous cases in Geneva’s history was the buring of Michael Servetus at the stake for denying the Trinity.  There’s a tendency to think of the Reformers as the pioneers of our liberties when they seemed to be in a very different situation and time period from our  founders.

But as for Neff’s main point, I agree that law must above its enforcers.  He does well in painting a brief historical picture of the development of a powerful executive so that people know that it didn’t start with Nixon or Bush.  Part of the problem is that it’s unlikely that a president would give back power.  Some of the powers that the Bush Administration claimed are being claimed by the Obama administration, and certainly the recession has provided the justfication for further economic power for the president.

One of the troubling things about this is how results-oriented the political process has become.  Many people seem to be all right with expanded executive, legislative, and/or judicial power as long as policies that they like are enacted.  There don’t seem to be strong voices calling for the principles and limits found in the Constitution to be followed.  Sometimes I think our Constitution is almost worn-out from years of being asked to do things it was never meant to do.  In a free society, we have to be willing to tolerate things that we don’t like.

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