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Against British Christian Republicanism
A free public post, in honour of the King's coronation
The below is a post originally published on my blog on the Ad Fontes website, shortly after the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.
This past week has been hampered by personal illness and family drama, and so in the absence of a fresh piece, I am reposting this article in honour of tomorrow’s coronation of King Charles III—and it is a free public post.
God Save The King!
The day after Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s death, I wrote an essay on the role of the monarchy in British national life. With her funeral now past, some now feel it is time to advance the case once more for Britain becoming a republic, among them some of my fellow evangelical Christians.
In this post, I want to outline in brief(ish) fashion why I think that there is, at present, no case to be made for republicanism by British Christians. The below is not a case for monarchy, but rather my attempt to show why I think the case for republicanism is a non-starter. There are other good arguments to be made, I think, but these four points strike me as the strongest ones.
1. There Is No Biblical Case Against Monarchy
The chief objection to monarchy–from both Christians and non-Christians–is that it is inherently unjust, since (1) it creates an arbitrary inequality between a hereditary royal line and the public, and (2) it imposes an unelected head of state. The right to equality (as defined by republicans) and democracy are, supposedly, fundamental human rights, which it is unjust to deny. Since God is just, Christians (so the argument goes) should oppose monarchy and favour republicanism.
However, this ignores the awkward fact that God instituted an earthly hereditary monarchy in Old Testament Israel. Since God is without sin there is no way he could do something which was necessarily evil. Monarchy, then, cannot be sinful.
We could put it like this:
God cannot sin
God institutes a monarchy
Therefore, monarchy is not necessarily sinful
Of course, much hangs on that word “necessarily”. Perhaps, because it was part of God’s purposes at a certain point in redemption history, the Davidic monarchy was not sinful, but other monarchies are. After all, Israel sin by demanding a king (1 Sam, 8), and Gentile monarchs are usually seen to “lord it over” people in Scripture (Mt. 20:25).
Some quick scriptural data to respond to this: despite Israel’s clear sin in 1 Sam. 8, there is broad consensus that their sin was not wanting monarchy as such, but their motives and timing. God promised Abraham and Jacob repeatedly that kings would come from them (Gen. 17:6, 17:16, 35:11), and Deuteronomy anticipates that Israel will have a king like the other nations (Dt. 17:14). It seems clear that, in God’s timing, Israel would have eventually been given a human king to rule under the LORD as their ultimate king. Israel’s problem was not wanting such a king, but wanting one too soon, in order to be like the other nations (1 Sam. 8:19-20).
To make a more fundamental response to this argument though: if we think that equality and democracy are fundamental human rights, this requires us to say that God suspended those rights by instituting the Davidic monarchy. Yet this is, quite simply, not the kind of thing that God does. Whilst the LORD is free to give and take away (Job 1:21), and whilst in his sovereignty he permissively wills injustice and uses it in his purposes (Gen. 50:20), he never directly imposes something unjust upon people. A firm Christian opposition to monarchy forces us to say that suspension of these supposed universal rights is okay if God does it, but that doesn’t feel like an argument that I think most want to make.
But isn’t the institution of the monarchy in part a judgement upon Israel, an injustice which they request and are culpable for? After all, God warns how a king will exploit them (1 Sam. 8:10-18). Well yes–in part, it is a judgement. But, as we’ve seen, God planned and promised monarchy to Israel as a good thing. The fact that they cock it up when the time comes does not make the institution of monarchy itself an injustice.
But what if monarchy, despite its injustice, was God’s gracious accommodation to Israel’s ancient context and culture? Life without monarchy was just not feasible then, after all–just like with Roman slavery in the New Testament. However, Scripture just does not even seem to contain towards monarchy the attitude which it does toward ancient slavery: that it is a non-ideal social structure which serves certain social goods, but which, in time, the Christain faith should undermine (e.g. 1 Cor. 7:21, Philemon 15-16). Despite obvious condemnations of the Roman empire, the imperial structure is not called into question, and nor is there any hint that the church is expected to alter that structure in time. Rather, Christians are to “honour the emperor” (1 Pt. 2:17).
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2. Christian History and Tradition Strongly Affirm Monarchy
A quick glance at church history demonstrates that Christians have, by and large, affirmed monarchy.
Aristotle famously outlined the three types of government as monarchy (rule by one), aristocracy (rule by a few), and polity (rule by many). Monarchy, Aristotle argued, was to be regarded as the best. Now, this was no endorsement of autocracy: Aristotle made clear that each form of government had its evil counterpart: bad monarchy becomes tyranny, bad aristocracy becomes oligarchy, bad polity becomes (to use the literal Greek word) “democracy” (perhaps more akin to what we would call “mob rule” these days, though that’s a discussion for another time!). Since, in Aristotle’s mind, the opposite of the best is the worst, tyranny is necessarily the worst form of government. Therefore, although he regards polity as the worst form of good government, “democracy” is the least bad form of bad government.
The Christian tradition, in works such as Thomas Aquinas’ De Regno, has, by and large, basically affirmed Aristotle’s thinking here–not because it wanted to “baptise” Greek thinking, but because it simply looked around the world and found Aristotle’s common sense, observation-based arguments to be evidently true.
Now, Britain’s constitutional monarchy in the 21st century is not the same as the monarchies Aristotle and Aquinas knew, and so we can debate whether their arguments still hold. But, if great Christian thinkers like Aquinas and others were happy to affirm monarchy when monarchs held even more control than they do now, it would seem a stretch to imagine they’d have any real problems with the power held by King Charles III.
Now, of course, as Christian history went on, different strands of the church came to be more critical of monarchy, most obviously the nonconformist tradition. I am not at all dismissing the contributions of these strands to church history. But, when the vast majority of theologians throughout history have affirmed something, it simply will not do to write them off en masse.
3. Christian Wisdom Is Contingent
If monarchy is a permissible model of government, it falls in the realm of adiaphora, “things indifferent”, something about which Christians are free to disagree. We must then ask whether monarchy is always a wise form of government.
Even here, however, there is no straightforward answer–this is the nature of wisdom. What is prudent and most beneficial (by whatever metric) in one set of circumstances may not be prudent and beneficial in another.
In my earlier piece on monarchy, I wrote the following:
Britain is not a nation started from scratch. It’s not a bright idea scribbled out on the back of a napkin in a bar by some idealistic upstarts, like America, Russia, or France. Britain is not written down. It is defiantly and frustratingly extant–there, like it not, like a thumb in the eye. Slowly, over a thousand years and more, it has become what it is, shifting imperceptibly together like tectonic plates forming a landmass.
Here, I think I get at two notable features of Christian wisdom: contingency and conservatism.
First: contingency. Whilst I relish (as done here) any chance for a friendly kick at my republican friends from overseas, I have no desire to make the case for America, Russia, or France to restore their monarchies–because it would, at this point in history, be deeply imprudent, since they all have what are, by now, well established post-monarchical political orders. I may have made the case for retaining the French or Russian monarchies in 1789 or 1917, but the fact is that I am not in France in 1789 or Russia in 1917. I am in Britain in 2022.
I often hear republicans say that, if we abolished the monarchy, “we’d be like Ireland” or “we’d be just like France”. Obviously, this would be true to some extent–but we would be more unlike than alike. A British republic would not be like a French republic for the simple reason that it would be a British republic.
Broadly speaking, with the exceptions of Portugal and France (the latter becoming a republic so long ago and in such different circumstances that comparisons are basically pointless), most of the former monarchies which British republicans like to point to were fairly recent dynasties. By contrast, Europe’s remaining constitutional monarchies have largely been around for far longer (especially Denmark, Norway, and Sweden). The effects of abolishing these monarchies, then, will necessarily be different to the effects of abolishing other kinds–and that’s before you even take into account the unique character of the people of each nation. This is why I titled this piece “Against British Christian Republicanism”. This is a contingent matter, and the arguments about it must be particular to Britain.
This need for contingency in Christian wisdom is brilliantly evidenced by the great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker (1554–1600). In his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Hooker debated openly with those seeking to replace episcopacy in the Church of England (i.e. rule by bishops) with presbyterian church government–the only biblical option, as far as the Presbyterians were concerned.
Hooker, as an Anglican, would happily argue for episcopacy. Yet, after agreeing that there are clearly certain things which the New Testament makes clear must be present in a church, Hooker argues that the precise implementation of these things is a matter for wisdom. Commenting upon the presbyterian system which John Calvin established in Geneva, Hooker says “I do not see how even the wisest man could have improved upon this course of action, if we consider the condition of Geneva at the time” (Laws 1.2.4).
We can transfer this principle fairly easily to the question of political government–indeed, Christians should probably find this principle even more operative in politics than in church, since we probably all agree that Scripture has far more explicit things to say about running a church than running a country. We can agree that, according to Scripture, there are certain things that all governments must do. How they achieve those things, however, is a matter for contingent wisdom.
Now, as a monarchist, I must concede that this principle of contingency means that, in principle, it is possible for republicanism to be, in certain circumstances, the right course of action. The argument can be made to abolish a particular monarchy in a particular nation; or, if a nation finds itself in a situation of founding itself, it can, in principle, choose a republican system of government if this is most prudent.
An oft-repeated observation about the British monarchy is that, whilst it does not work in theory, it somehow works in practice. This is entirely contingent: we could not export our way of doing things elsewhere–not because we are special, but because we are unique. If you are a republican, you may love the story and practices of various well-functioning republics, but it is a mistake to think that a British republic would be the same. “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps” (Prov. 14:15).
Of course, the question then is: how do we weigh up whether the monarchy is still prudent given the contingencies of Britain in 2022? This takes us to my next point.
4. Christian Wisdom is Conservative
My second point about Christian wisdom is that, against the modern obsession with revolution and novelty, it broadly stresses the need for small-C conservatism.
Returning to Richard Hooker: after outlining the dangerous extremes to which hardcore presbyterians went in the Reformation era, he says the following to his slightly moder moderate opponents:
Therefore, if we consider those of your party who have gone a little farther than you, and if we care about the present state of the monarch in authority over us, about the quality and disposition of our nobles, about the orders and laws of our famous universities, about the practice of civil and common laws amongst us, and about the mischief into which so many men, who began just as well as you, have fallen right before you eyes–if we consider all these things we have cause to fear lest, by too hastily undertaking something with such dire consequences, we might burden posterity with evils easier for us to prevent than for them to undo.
Hooker had already seen where the absolutist spirit of the Presbyterians could lead. Should such damage happen again, it would be incredibly hard to undo–and so conservatism was necessary at the point where the prevention of such evils was still fairly easy.
Hooker here deals with “known knowns”–the things you know you know. Conservatism, however, also compels us to consider unknowns–both known and unknown. We must be honest about the fact that we simply don’t know what all the effects of a certain change might be, or how severe its negative effects might be. This is the point of G.K. Chesterton’s famous illustration of conservatism and revolution in “Chesterton’s Fence”:
There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
A monarchy, of course, is a rather more multifunctional thing than a fence. We certainly know some of the things it does, and one of the more compelling arguments for republicanism is that the things it was set up to do can now be done effectively by other means. Yet can we really say that we know well everything that it does? Or what effect the removal of this monarchy from this society would have? Quite simply: no.
Now, this isn’t an argument against any and all reform of our government. The British monarchy has, obviously, reformed a great deal over the centuries. But it should be, to the wise mind, a compelling argument against radical reform which will be impossible to undo. “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty” (Prov. 21:5).
Now, of course, there are times where radical change is required–either because of a moral obligation, or because it is, after much careful consideration, the wise course of action. Pastors who have entered into existing churches will know this all too well. And yet we tend to exercise an amount of conservatism relative to the size of those affected. I should exercise more conservatism if I change my family’s daily routine than if I change my own; likewise, I should exercise more conservatism in changing the running of my church than the running of my household; the highest degree of conservatism, then, should be exercised when making changes to the biggest meaningful earthly community of which any of us are a part: our nation.