Bertrand de Jouvenel in Sovereignty notes has an effective, if reflexive, definition on political authority. A person has the authority to request those things which those to whom the request is directed feel is in his authority to request. In this manner, an “authoritarian” regime is one, paradoxically, which lacks authority. It must substitute force and terror and other methods because it lacks the authority to do what it commands. A master/slave relationship is unjust only if the slave rejects the authority of the master. In a monastic setting, the authority (freely granted) to the abbot by those in his care would in another setting seem more servile than much of the Slavery seen in the old south. However, because that authority is freely granted it is just. In that regard, one might regard coercion as the sign a government is going off the rails. The more coercion, the more imperfect the union.

The general principle that decides whether a government is exceeding its authority or restricting too much the liberty of its people therefore is measured by the amount of coercion required to enforce its decisions and not by an analysis outside of the culture and context of that particular action.

In St. Silouan the Athonite, St. Silouan teaches that following traditions of freedom, equality, hierarchy, and love as demonstrated by the Trinity (for example read the opening chapters of John Zizioulas Communion and Otherness and On Being and Communion), that the correct way for the authority, such as an abbot or staretz (spiritual advisor) is to give his command once, and if it is not obeyed offer no reprimand or repeat the command.

Parents however, cannot apply that rule in the same way. Children need repetition. As the saying goes, “The problem with children is that they are so darn immature!” In part this as well goes for men in society. Government lies somewhere between the monastery and the family regarding the need for repetition and the assumption of maturity of its members. Society cannot put a stop sign at an intersection and leave it up for just a week and leave it at that. We need reminding of the regulations and rules that society needs to operate smoothly. Additionally as generations pass and peoples come in and out of our society the customs and regulations must need be repeated.

The political process then is a exercise in walking the line, minimizing coercion in a way that maximizes human flourishing by locating and utilizing the authority that is generated naturally in human intercourse. From these simple observations a few general principles might be extracted:

  • Authority, as it is generated by human contact and connection, can be strongest if generated locally, that is personally.
  • Permission to do a thing is not approval. Government or its representatives can firmly condemn abortion, adultery, and so on. The point is that saying a thing is harmful to flourishing is not the same as coercing one to stop.
  • The sign of better governance is not abstract review of its principals but a review of how much coercion is required to keep it in order.

Recently, Jason Kuznicki reconsidered the same-sex marriage question, and his considerations as always are well worth considering. Like abortion, eugenics (Downs abortions for example) and euthanasia these are matters on which Christian tradition frowns. But … how does the Christian traditions and theology noted above as well as Jouvenel’s ideas on authority instruct us to order policy?

Marriage, as noted toward the end of his essay, is an institution which has grown up in community, fostering, encouraging, family to aid in the raising of the next generation (and the care the prior). In that mode, it would be permitted for a state to maintain a statement of the need to support the nuclear stable family. It is not optimal for the state to either enforce denial of same sex marriage to Boysville, New Hampshire or on the other hand to insist that it be part of the community in Evangeliste, Kansas. It is however, likely that those small communities can generate the authority to enforce policies which from an outsiders perspective are far more encompassing, but from within the community are however within the limits of freely granted authority.

Today’s easy access and dissemination of information makes coercion harder if not impossible to hide (especially in the long term). A lot of coercion present in society could be removed by granting to the local community, where authority is strongest, those things which affect the community. That community can then grant to higher structures, city, county or state, the authority to regulate relations with other communities. Likewise states to the federal level. What needs to be watched for is local communities governments resorting to undue coercion to enforce their requests especially on subsets of their community.

However that seems a easier line to walk than finding a non-coercive way of finding a federal or state level statement on marriage that  both Boysville and Evangeliste will swallow.

(Note: I’m thinking out loud here, hoping that commeters will help me solidify my thoughts with more coherence. )

Filed under: AbortionChristianityGovernmentHomosexualityReligion

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