Back to Basics

There are many blogs that talk about current events in both politics and economics that say pretty much what I would want to say only better, so I think I will go back to what I know best and what I have not seen much of – explicating the Constitution and it’s origins.

I will be starting with the topic of kings/rulers/authority from the Judeo-Christian viewpoint. I had this in mind before the royal baby mania, so this only appears to have a pop culture reference.

In most, if not all, textbooks on government, the four “theories of government” are listed as evolutionary (family), force, divine right, and social contract. They are often spoken of as mutually exclusive but should be seen as more of a continuum along which one can move in either direction.

The evolutionary, or family, government is still with us in every society. The first government system everyone is born into is some type of family wherein an adult or adults are in charge and teach and guide children. With extended families tribal governments based on kinship would naturally develop. This type of government is still in existence in many parts of the world as is seen on any news story about the developing world.

As family groups traveled, following game or other resources, and came across one another, what would usually happen is that there would be a fight over the resources. Conflict was the natural outcome of most encounters, not a “let’s all sit around the campfire and sing Kum By Ya” kind of situation. One group would prevail over the other and then one or some combination of three things happened: annihilation, assimilation, or/and enslavement. Annihilation would eliminate the need to share scarce resources. Assimilation (generally only females of child bearing age) would be used if the winner deemed it beneficial to them. Enslavement was used if extra labor was needed and the winning group was confident of maintaining control or if the slaves could quickly be sold to another group. With assimilation or enslavement there is a change from family government, with allegiance based on kinship ties, to force government, with rule through fear.

Ruling by force requires surveillance and a large military or security presence. This type of government uses resources to keep the security forces happy lest they overpower the ruler and take over for themselves. Rule by force is inherently unstable.

Ruling by force and fear doesn’t keep everyone in line, so the usefulness of divinity becomes obvious as it is much easier to maintain control over people by ruling with the authority of the religion of the people. By claiming either divinity in oneself or the direct support of the god of the people, many simply obey through allegiance with the religion. Even though the fear of punishment was still there, since disobeying the king would be disobeying the god, there was still the desire to please that is not present in a pure forced government.

It is important to understand the idea of what political scientists call the “divine right” theory of government. European kings are always mentioned as the main or even the only supporters of the theory of divine right government. Sometimes a magical story of how a man became a king is used to discredit the idea and make people seem foolish to believe in the concept, such as the story of King Arthur. However, people in Europe didn’t actually believe that receiving a sword from a lady in a lake is how someone gets divine authority. (I do, however, enjoy the “Dennis the Peasant” scene form Monty Python’s Holy Grail movie and I have shown it to my students every year.) European Divine right is also said to mean that the ruler’s power was unconditional, that is, unrelated to behavior. It is contrasted with the Asian idea of the Mandate of Heaven, which is conditional on the ruler’s behavior. The subtext is that the Christian idea of divine authority is inferior to the Asian idea of divine authority. A proper analysis of the Biblical text and historical documents of the American founding will show that the behavior of the ruler does matter. While earthly authority might rest only in the king, he was subject to God and His laws.

While the term “divine right of kings” is considered by many to apply only to the rulers of Europe from the early middle ages until the “Enlightenment”, the idea of divine rule is much older. The Pharaohs of Egypt were considered to be reincarnations of the god Horus. Before the Pharaohs, the fist written evidence of divine rule comes from Mesopotamia. The ruler who declared himself divine was Naram-Sin of Akkad. He identified himself as the husband of the goddess Ishtar. Divine rule was not claimed by every Mesopotamian king and some 200 years passed before another king claimed divinity. There is also some evidence that Babylonian kings used deification as a means of consolidating their power over regions. In the Roman empire the emperors claimed divinity for themselves.

In the next post I will address divine right in the context of the American settlement and founding.