RELIGIOUS OBLIGATION IN RULERS

By John W. Chickering

It is a great truth, and worthy of a place among the few grand principles which lie at the foundation of all wise and just government, that 'the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men.' This may be understood de jure, or de facto; and in either sense must be believed, not only by those who admit, on the authority of the prophet, that it was spoken by a divine voice, but by all who do not deny the whole theory of an overruling Providence.

That the almighty Ruler retains both a right and an agency in the management of terrestrial governments, is undisputed by all who recognize his right and his agency in any thing. It is the atheist alone who would insulate the kingdoms of the earth from the kingdom of heaven. None would banish Jehovah from the smaller empires his providence has organized and sustained, but those who banish him from the universe his power has created.

Thus atheism in philosophy is sole progenitor of atheism in politics; and it should not excite our surprise, that he who 'sees' not 'God in clouds nor hears him in the wind,'—who beholds in the great things of the earth, the air and the sea, no footsteps of divine power, and no finger-prints of divine wisdom, should be equally blind concerning the progress of civil affairs, and should so have perverted his mind, and so tortured the moral sense which God gave him, as to believe, and to rejoice, that without God, kingdoms rise and fall, and that it is not 'by him' that 'kings reign, and princes decree justice.'

But with the atheist, that moral monster,'—— horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum,' we are not now concerned. We leave him to the darkness he has brought upon himself through his 'philosophy and vain deceit,' and to the enjoyment, if enjoyment it be, of his dreary cavern, more dreary than that of Polyphemus,—a godless world.

We come to inquire, by way of preparation for the more direct prosecution of the object of this article, concerning the views entertained by the great mass of mankind who believe in the existence and providence of Jehovah, as to his particular connection with the subordinate governments on earth, and the station which it is his holy pleasure to occupy in their control and management. And here we find at once, wide and hurtful mistakes; occupying relatively, such is man's tendency to extremes, the position of antipodes. Some, overlooking the twofold agency, partly civil, partly ecclesiastical, by which the Most High promotes his own ends and the well being of his creatures, have resolved each into the other, making religion an affair of the state, and civil government a matter for ecclesiastical influence; producing in practice the unseemly compound, commonly called "church and state," but which might be more accurately characterized as the ruin of both.

As the fruits of this mistake, the world has seen profane monarchs invested with titles of religion and piety. In some countries, aided by ambition and intrigue, it has brought kings to kiss the feet of the professed ambassadors of Jesus Christ; and gained for them honors and power, which their divine but humble master declined for himself. This mistake has been confirmed, if it was not originated, by the organization of the great Jewish theocracy. This was, indeed, church and state. But it was under a divine administration.—And although the fact that the Deity not only attested and ratified the alliance, but condescended to be legislator, judge, and executive, might at once have prevented the inference; yet men have inferred that the civil and ecclesiastical powers ought always to be thus commingled. The consequences might have been anticipated. The history both of Christianity and of the world, is darkened by their melancholy shade. Religion, unguarded by the miraculous intervention of Him who, under a former dispensation, smote the offerers of strange fire, has been corrupted by those who would do her honor, and crushed by the embraces of false friends;—and her splendid sojourn in the halls of power, has been met by reverses not less striking, and far more disastrous, than Moses met after being the protege of royalty; while the civil rights of men, invaded by ambition and avarice, under the name of religion, and with the sanction of God's name, have been yielded up without a struggle, under the impression, that resistance would be "fighting against God." What would not have been demanded in the name of man, has been freely given in the name of God;—men who in defence of their rights, would have ventured cheerfully upon treason, have shrunk with horror from sacrilege.

Thus religion and liberty have well-nigh perished together, and their present resting-place on earth resembles rather the one found by Noah's dove on her second flight, than the broad home, illimitable but by the world's circumference, which as philanthropists we hope, and as Christians we pray, they may soon enjoy.

Others again, warned, perhaps, by the disasters consequent upon the policy last described, have gone to the extreme, not less hurtful, and far more presumptuous, of excluding religious motives and religious principles from all influence in the affairs of the commonwealth. They have thus become quoad hoc, practical atheists. Content indeed, that the Deity should keep our planet in motion, and regulate its seasons and its tides; and surround and cover it with the blessings of Providence, nor careful to forbid him a participation even in the internal concerns of Jupiter, or Herschell,—perhaps even willing to admit in theory, the truth of the statement from the inspired record with which this article commenced,—they yet deem it best for man, considered either as a governing or as a governed being, that the notion of a presiding Deity should be as much as possible excluded from his mind. The mere juxtaposition of the words "religion" and "politics," or any of their correlates, is sufficient to excite the fears of these scrupulous alarmists; and if they do not imitate the example of the French, who were seen near the close of the last century, rushing madly with the pendulum-like oscillation of human nature, from the bonds of religious despotism, into the very wilderness of atheism, and denounce Jehovah as a usurper, and his adherents as rebels against "the powers that be," they strive to separate all questions and acts of government from God and his laws, as if there were no God; thus making, if not an atheistic people, an atheistic government. Far otherwise, we cannot but pause here to remark, acted the noble men, the sifted wheat of three kingdoms, who were thrown by God's providence through ecclesiastical tyranny, upon these shores. If they for a time, with a strange tenacity of old habits, which showed that principle, not passion, led them, clung to the very usages respecting toleration, which had exiled them, they at least preserved the nation which they founded, from the character and the curse of a nation which despises God. Heaven grant, that the pendulum may not even now be swinging to the other extreme!

While we would have the affairs of the nation managed as if there were no church in the world, we would not have them managed as if there were no God in the world. Could our voices reach the millions of our countrymen, as Joshua's voice reached the thousands of Israel, we would say as he said, 'If the Lord be God, serve him.' In a word, while we believe that the civil and ecclesiastical departments ought to be distinct, and that their union is a departure from the intention of Him who formed both, and that it is fraught with the most disastrous consequences to both, we do not believe that the almighty Ruler has excluded himself from the control of either, or given the least permission that either should be managed on any other principles than the eternal principles of right, which are embodied in his character, and laid down in his word.

When we speak of a sense of religious obligation, we mean more than a general undefined belief that such an obligation exists. Such a belief is withheld, we trust, by comparatively few who hold important places in our national and State governments. But can it be doubted by any man who has accustomed himself to contemplate the distinction between mere intellectual assent, and the warm, practical conviction which reaches the heart, and controls the conduct, that this belief may coexist with as total an insensibility to the claims of Jehovah, as if it were William IV., or Nicholas of Russia, who performed them, instead of the Most High God?

Is it too much to desire, nay to infer, as a duty, from what has already been said, that our rulers in the executive, legislative, and judicial departments, both in the general and State governments, should have an abiding consciousness of accountability—should live under a felt pressure of obligation—to the Sovereign of the universe, which should assume, as it must where it exists at all, a practical, binding force? Is it too much to ask, that they should remember that they are the servants of God for good to this great people, and that to their own Master they stand or fall? That they rule by God's permission, and for his ends; and that a higher tribunal than any on earth awaits the termination of their responsibility to man? That they should remember their obligation, in common with those who elevated them to office, "whatever they do, to do all to the glory of God;" and the solemn truth, that a sin against God or man, whether of omission or of commission, whether committed in private, in the family circle, or in the high places of authority, is no less a sin, when committed by a judge, or a legislator, or a chief magistrate of a State or nation, than by the humblest of his constituents? In a word, do we claim too prominent a place for religious principle in the administration of public affairs, when we avow our desire that the rulers of a people, who are the nominal, and in a free government the real, representatives of the people, should be daily and practically aware, that they are accountable to a higher Power, thus realizing, if not in the highest and most Christian sense, yet in the literal signification, the picture of a good ruler drawn by the prophet, who, in the name of the almighty Ruler, declares, "He that ruleth over men, must be just—ruling in the fear of God!"

We cannot reflect without occasion for the deepest gratitude, that in contemplating the advantages of such a state of mind and of heart, as possessed by men in authority, we are not confined to a priori reasoning. England has had her Alfred, her Edward VI., and her Matthew Hale; Sweden her Gustavus Adolphus; our own most cherished and beloved country, a Washington, and a Wirt, with many others among the dead, and not a few among the living, to whom our readers may recur as we proceed, both for illustration of our meaning, and proof of our assertions.

Among the effects of this sense of obligation, which go to show its importance to every man in public life, we mention first, its influence in checking the love and pride of power. It will not be said by any man, who has acquired even a smattering of the science of human nature, that the simplicity of our republican institutions excludes all danger from this source. It is the great weakness of man, to desire power; and, having it, to be proud of it; and, in his pride, to abuse it. It matters not whether it be the power of a monarch on his throne, or of the humblest village functionary. If it be power, or even the semblance of power, it charms the eye of the expectant, and, too often, turns the head of the possessor.

True, in this land, power walks in humble guise. She rides in no gilded chariot—is clothed with no robes of state—is preceded by no heralds with announcement of noble titles—is decorated with no ribbons and stars. Nor is there an office worth seeking, as a matter of gain, except in some special cases, growing rather out of individual character and circumstances, than from design on the part of legislators. But who will deny, that rank, here, as elsewhere throughout the wide world, has its attractions? And who, that has thought upon the subject carefully, doubts that they are as strong, as if it were hereditary? As far as pride of heart in the possessor is concerned, undoubtedly the temptation is even greater. That rank is not hereditary, and is therefore attainable by individual effort, opens a fountain of ambition in a thousand hearts, which, under another constitution of society, would never have known ambition, but as a strange word, while the fact that it is ordinarily the prize of talent, attaches to it an additional power to tempt and seduce the mind. It need not be said, that so far as this love and pride of power exists, it tends to subvert all the true ends of government.

That the influence of a sense of subordination and accountableness to the Supreme Being, will be direct and strong in checking these tendencies of human nature, is so plain as to command assent without argument. Who can be proud in the perceived presence of infinite splendor and worth? How can ambition thrive under the overshadowing greatness of almighty Power?

It is recorded of Gustavus Adolphus, that being surprised one day by his officers in secret prayer in his tent, he said: "Persons of my rank are answerable to God alone for their actions; this gives the enemy of mankind a peculiar advantage over us; an advantage which can be resisted only by prayer and reading the Scriptures." This remark, though it does not specify the moral dangers to which the royal worshipper was exposed, has reference, undoubtedly, in part, if not mainly, to that pride and loftiness of heart, which are the unrestrained denizens of those high regions in the social atmosphere, which lie above the common walks of life. Let a man in one of the high places of the earth, be accustomed only to look down, and he is ready like Herod of old, to fancy the flattery, truth, which tells him he is a god;—let him look up;—there Jehovah sitteth above the water floods and remaineth king forever!

Another important effect of such views of religious obligation, will be seen in restraining the blind and ruinous excess of party feeling. He is a short-sighted politician indeed, who utters a sweeping denunciation of party distinctions. And if they may be harmless, and even in some cases form the very safety of the nation, then party feeling, without which parties could not exist, is, in some of its degrees and developements right and desirable. But like the lightning of heaven, while it purifies the political atmosphere, how easily and how quickly may it desolate and destroy! In its healthful action, it is like the gentle breeze, which refreshes man and fertilizes the earth; in its excess, like the tornado, which sweeps away every green thing, and even upturns the foundations of many generations.

When it is a modification of true-hearted patriotism, seeking the public good by party organizations, it is right and safe; but when it is the offspring of the wicked selfishness, already described, it is restrained by no bounds, and directed to no good end. When a public officer, of whatever rank, becomes the servant of a party, instead of being a servant of God, for good to the people, it is not difficult to foresee the consequences.

No argument is necessary to show that he who feels himself accountable to God, will be but slightly constrained by the bonds of party influence. So far as he regards the ends of a party as accordant with the true ends of government, which in some cases may be nothing more than the truth, and in others nothing less—his sense of religious obligation will of course not interfere with his diligent prosecution of those ends. But at that critical point, where ends zeal for party, for the sake of the common weal, and begins zeal for party, for the party's sake, and for ambition's sake, there a sense of paramount obligation, like the magnetic power, will still the whispers of selfishness, and counteract the tendencies of party commitment. The Christian politician knows no party but the party of patriots, or, if that party be divided, he seeks not the building up of either fragment for its own sake—but the building up on the best and most hopeful, or if need be, on the ruins of both, the great fabric of public welfare. Who does not desire to see a deep sense of allegiance to one who is our Master, pervading the leaders and the adherents of the great political parties, into which it is so common and perhaps necessary, for nations to be divided?—under such an influence, how might excesses be restrained, needless repellances be neutralized, and how soon, instead of fierce bands of brethren gathered in distinct and opposing array, like the dark clouds of summer, meeting over our heads, might we see the beauty and the strength of party organization, without its wide severance and its deadly hate, like the rainbow, which is not more beautiful in the variety of its colors, than in the grace with which the divine Painter has blended them.

It will be denied by none, of whatever religious or political faith, that public morals are, under a government like ours, the life-blood of national strength and safety. The day that shall behold us a nation of gamblers, or duelists, or profane swearers or drunkards, or Sabbath-breakers—will be the day of our political death. Armies, and navies, and enterprise, and numbers, with a sound hereditary government, may for a time give prosperity to a dissolute immoral people. But in a government like ours, where the laws and the administration of law, are as quickly and as certainly affected by the popular sentiment, owing to frequent elections, as the sunbeams are reflected from the summer clouds, prosperity cannot survive morality a single day. And who can tell how important, in this view, it is, that our public men should be public models of private virtue!

Oh, when, our hearts exclaim, when shall the evil example be unknown in the high places of power; and purity, truth, high-toned Christian morality, beam like another sun, from the seats of influence? The true answer to this question would afford another argument for the importance of that sense of religious obligation which has now been considered. The command of God is the only mandate in the universe which can effectually restrain human passions and desires. The voice which comes attended by the sanction, "Thus saith the Lord," is the only voice which can successfully say, "peace! be still," to the winds and the waves of wrong inclination. When our rulers shall "all be taught of God,"—and yield themselves to a constraining sense of his dominion, and their own accountableness—then, and not till then, will they as a body, be such models of private correctness and virtue, as many of them, both among the dead and among the living, have been, for the imitation of the young men, the hope and glory of our land.

Again, and it is the last consideration we shall present, how powerful a tendency would such views on the part of our rulers, possess, to awaken the utmost vigilance in the guardianship of their sacred trust, and to elevate the mind and heart to the purest feelings, and the noblest efforts.

A sense of accountability, in some manner and to some tribunal, is essential to ensure fidelity under all temptations to indolence or perversion, in every case in which men are the recipients of any trust. Apply this principle to the case of him who holds some political station of high importance. He feels himself responsible, not only to men, but to God. He knows and remembers that he is the servant of God for good, to the people. This remembrance and impression is the sheet anchor of his steadfastness. Other principles might hold him amidst the storms and commotions of the popular sea, and of his own heart; this must. With what care will he watch the precious trust, which comes to him under the seal of heaven! How sedulously will he guard the doors of the temple of liberty, when he perceives within it the altar of God, and finds his sentinel's commission countersigned with the handwriting of Jehovah! His heart, too, will be filled with the purest and most exalted sentiments.

The fountain from which such a man daily drinks, sparkles with the elements of all that is grateful and refreshing.

The purest patriotism, the sweetest charities of domestic life, the most expansive and wise benevolence, all spring up in the heart together, the consentaneous and harmonious fruits of the love and fear of God. It was in the same school that Wilberforce learned to love the slave—Howard to love the prisoner—Wirt to love his country—and all to love the world. They feared and obeyed God—and all noble and generous emotions grow spontaneously in the soil of the heart thus prepared and enriched.

Nor is the effort less marked or less salutary upon the mind. Its thoughts are loftier, and its purposes deeper and more steadfast, for being conversant with the great subject of divine obligation. No man can think much of the Deity, and realize strongly His constant presence and inspection, without an elevation of views, and a growing consciousness of that mental power, for the right use of which he is accountable to Him who bestowed it. We were not made to inhabit a godless world, and we cannot make it so, in speculation and in practice, without a deterioration analogous to the dwarfish tendency of emigration to a region colder than our native clime. "God is a sun," to the mental as well as to the moral powers; and in the frozen zone of practical atheism, both degenerate and die. The noble motto, "Bene orasse est bene studisse," applies with hardly less force to secular, than to sacred studies.

With what energy must it arm the soul of the patriot statesman struggling against wrong counsels, and discredited dangers, to know that the God of truth and of right, sees and approves his course! With what new power does his mind grasp a difficult and embarrassed subject, when he feels that the Former of that mind, now demands from him an exertion of its highest powers! What exciting power, to call forth the most thrilling eloquence, can be found in the crowded senate-chamber, compared with the consciousness that for every word he must give account to Him, whose applause, if he fulfils his high behest, will surpass in value the shouts of an enraptured universe besides!