The Question of Authority

This article originally appeared in the May-June 1994 issue of the Public Justice Report.

By James W. Skillen

WASHINGTON, D.C.—[This is the second in a series of articles designed to rearticulate the aims and basic principles of the Center for Public Justice.]

Government and the People

By what authority do governments govern? What is the ultimate source of their authority?

Almost everywhere today, authority is questioned. Anyone who holds an office of authority seems to come under suspicion. And yet no institution or organization can function without a board of directors, or an executive committee, or a president, or all of the above.

Whether suspect or not, any position of authority forces this question: by what authority does one hold an office of authority? In a voluntary organization the answer to this question may come easily: authority arises from those who organize it and write its bylaws. For a family the answer may seem obvious, namely, that those who produce children have the responsibility and the authority to rear them.

When it comes to politics and government, however, the question of authority remains much in dispute. But you ask, how can that be? Surely we settled this question in the United States at the very start, didn't we? Government is of the people, by the people, and for the people. Governmental authority is grounded in the ultimate authority of the people.

Well, yes and no. In democratic countries such as ours, governments are tied by elections and other means to the governed, but "the people" are not obviously or unambiguously authoritative. Our Constitution, for example, was designed to set limits to the expression of a popular will. The Constitution cannot be amended without a huge effort in every state—an effort that goes way beyond anything needed to elect representatives. The Constitution, written by people a long time ago, carries more authority than do the people living under it today. Within that constitutional framework, the president has more authority than any single senator or representative. The U.S. Supreme Court has authority denied to all other Americans. "The people" clearly do not act as a mass to govern themselves. So in what sense is American government grounded in the ultimate authority of 'the people"? Is this reality or a myth?

At the very least we can say that American government is accountable to the governed. Americans have, by constitutional design, rejected autarchical government—the kind of government that depends on nothing outside itself and is accountable to no other body of human beings. We have a limited, government that depends in various ways, including regular elections, on the people being governed.

But still we have to ask, in what sense do "the people" function as the ultimate authority to which government is accountable? If, in response to this question, we answer that the people are ultimate because they need not appeal to anyone or anything beyond themselves, then we have simply transferred the idea of "autarchy" to the people. In other words, people acting democratically can do as they please and design government to do whatever they want it to do without reference to anything outside themselves. Government is nothing more than the expression of the will of an autarchical, self-sufficient people.

But if this is true, another question arises: what constitutes a people? Why should any individual submit to any other person or group of persons among "the people"? Why should I accept the principle that the will of the majority holds authority over me, especially if I think I am right and the majority is wrong? If a human mass of people can be autarchical, why can't every individual be autarchical? In fact, isn't our system based on the principle that "the people" are nothing more than the sum of autonomous, self-governing individuals? If so, then by what authority other than myself should I submit to anyone other than myself? Do "the people" as a fictitious mass really hold any authority at all?

Ultimate Authority

In the final analysis, there is no way to avoid the question of ultimate authority. Even if we Americans think we have escaped the indignity of being subject to autocratic kings, to aristocratic landowners, to ecclesiastical authorities, and to every other outside authority, we are still left with the unanswered question of why any of us should have to submit to anyone else, especially to a mass called "the people." There is nothing self-evident about the claim that the people may hold authority over me or that a majority should have authority over minorities in the name of the people.

We can go one step further. By what authority may I claim to have authority over myself? The self-government or autarchy of each individual is not even self-evident. After all, I did not create myself or rear myself. I can escape neither historical nor environmental influences, neither my own genetic make-up nor death. To claim that I am a self-sufficient authority unto myself is a pretty bold and pretentious claim for someone so tied to forces and authorities beyond my control.

So, then, perhaps there is no ultimate authority for government. And perhaps that's the reason for the predicament we are in. Governments govern not with authority but merely with whatever meager power they can muster by trying to keep people as happy as possible in the illusion that they are the ultimate authority behind government. Governing has become little more than interest-group brokering and poll watching as governments give lip service to the authority of the people, who, in turn, pretend to acknowledge the authority of government.

By this point, you might suspect that I am about to reach the conclusion of an argument that will prove the existence of divine authority over human beings and their governments. The logic will lead inevitably, step by step, to God's ultimate authority since we cannot locate it among human beings. But not so fast. That conclusion will not appear inevitable to most people who remember a little history and who have heard arguments like this before.

Religious Arguments Discredited

For example, a Christian answer to the question about ultimate authority has been largely discredited or twisted beyond recognition. One reason why the argument for God's ultimate authority over government has become suspect is that this argument has usually been made by another human authority claiming divinely appointed superiority over civil government. Different ecclesiastical authorities once argued that civil governments are subordinate to the church because God grants authority first or chiefly to the church. Even in Puritan New England, only church members had the right to vote. So the argument for the ultimacy of divine authority was made not so much to credit God's authority over government but to claim divine credit for the superiority of a particular human authority (whether church or monarch) over government.

The populist, democratic answer seems to be an improvement here, and in the early Republic it even made use of an appeal to divine authority. According to this argument, government's authority derives from the people as a whole, not from church, king, or aristocracy. This can be justified in a religious way by saying that God implanted inalienable rights in every person. On the basis of those inalienable rights of freedom and property individuals then delegate limited authority to government. Thus, government derives its authority from the people who derive their authority from God.

Two difficulties remain. The first is that an argument for the divine origin of individual rights doesn't really offer a new answer to the question of how government derives its authority from the people. Individual rights may come from God, but government's authority does not come from God. This simply drives us back to the problems associated with claims of autarchy. What if a minority believes that its God-given rights are not being respected by a government whose authority is supposedly grounded in the rights of the people? By what authority is this minority obligated to submit to government? Why should it not appeal to God's higher authority and disobey the government? How can any individual, or minority group, or even a majority appeal to God's authority above government if God holds no direct authority over government but only over the individuals who create government? How can government claim authority over people if it has no basis for its own authority other than that granted by the people?

The second difficulty with the position that God has authority over individuals but not directly over government is that it adds nothing to the practical workings of representative government. A group of citizens might try to justify its cause by appealing to divine authority, but it will gain the right to exercise authority only if it can win votes. Politics remains a power struggle among contending groups, and those who win have the right to govern whether or not they appeal to God. An appeal to divine authority for government becomes entirely extraneous and beside the point. Or it may become a threat to those who believe that politics has nothing to do with God. People who get elected by calling on the name of God may appear suspect because it might seem that they would be willing to do undemocratic things after they get elected.

Divine Authority and Human Responsibility

Is there any way to resolve these difficulties? Perhaps, but it requires a distinctive standpoint. If God's authority is really ultimate over government, and in human affairs generally, then there can be no claim whatsoever to human autarchy. Neither individuals nor "the people," neither government nor the church, can be autarchical, because all are subject to God.

The Center for Public Justice affirms that good government is a task of human stewardship granted by God. According to the Scriptures, government is a gift of God's grace, which is being revealed finally and fully in Jesus Christ, who now lays claim to ultimate authority over all human affairs, including human government. This confession authorizes neither Christians nor any church to claim special authority over civil government. It does, however, turn attention to the transcendent grounds of government's authority and away from every autarchical claim by individuals, by "the people," and by anyone who holds a government office.

This means at least three things in regard to our reflections above.

First, we should recognize that a legitimate political appeal to divine authority will have to be something different than an argument to justify the authority of one group (such as Christians) or one institution (such as the church) over the body politic. Government in the body politic requires its own ground of ultimate authority, not a transfer of that ground to some other non-ultimate human entity.

In the second place, consequently, we ought to agree that arguments about how government ought to fulfill its obligations should appeal to God-given standards for government rather than to some other institution's or to "the people's" claim of divine authorization or inspiration. The mutual accountability of citizens and government before God should not be thwarted or confused by one group's or one institution's claim to divine authorization that would supposedly put it above and beyond the ordinary accountability process of representative government.

This leads, in the third place, to the biblically grounded proposition that government is directly accountable to God and derives its authority ultimately from him. It is not just individuals who have God-given rights; governments have a direct calling from, and an obligation to, God to govern according to principles of justice that transcend human devising. But government's authority is of a specifically limited, non-autarchical kind that ought to be inscribed in a constitution and guarded carefully by means of regular elections, judicial review, and other means of accountability.