Throughout history, the relationship between government and divinity has been, to be polite, stormy.
From the Pharaoh of ancient Egypt to the emperors of Rome to Louis XIV of France to Hitler and Stalin, those in power have sought to become the final authority. In some cases, they claimed to be personally divine. In others, they claimed to be “divinely appointed”. And in the most extreme instances, they declared that there was no such thing as divinity.
No matter what the particulars were, whenever those in power proclaimed themselves omnipotent, tyranny was always the result.
In the Middle Ages, a debate raged across the Europe over the concept of “divine rights”.
Leading the dialogue for the proponents was King James I of England. His philosophy is summed up in his 1609 publication, Works, in which he said, “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…. I conclude then this point touching the power of kings with this axiom of divinity, That as to dispute what God may do is blasphemy….so is it sedition in subjects to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power.”
The chief apologist for those who believed that those in power were accountable to both God and their subjects was Robert Cardinal Bellarmine. Bellarmine was a Jesuit who lived in the 16th century. He wrote, “Secular or Civil authority is instituted by men…. It depends upon the Consent of the multitude to ordain over themselves a King or other Magistrates, and if there be a lawful cause, the multitude may change the Kingdom…. Mankind is naturally endowed and born with freedom from all subjection, and at liberty to choose what form of government it please” (from Patriarcha).
Consent of the governed…naturally endowed with freedom…liberty – sound familiar? A copy of Patriarcha was in Thomas Jefferson’s personal library.
America has been unique precisely because she was created around those principles, and because the governed have insisted that those in power adhere to them.
Today, that is no longer the case.
Americans below the age of 40 do not, as a group, even know what those founding principles WERE, much less how they have shaped the course and fabric of our nation. And since the governed are not insisting that those granted authority recognize and honor the trust that has been placed in them to preserve and protect the common welfare, the powerful have succumbed to the constant temptation that access to power brings.
Corruption is now so commonplace that instead of outrage, it is greeted with shrugs. America’s citizens have allowed a ruling class to develop, composed of individuals who are as convinced of their absolute “right to rule” no matter what crimes they commit as any sixteenth century king. The Illinois Governor’s scheme to sell a Senate seat is just the latest example.
It’s not enough to just shake our heads in wonder.
“Consent of the governed” is supposed to be more than just words on a 200-year-old document that makes us feel warm and fuzzy every July fourth. It’s supposed to be a call to the governed to decide – every day – how they wish those who have been granted authority to behave. It’s supposed to remind both the people and the government that there are consequences for bad behavior.
The fact that those consequences have not happened is the fault of the governed. We have the right to withhold consent. It’s time that we exercised it.