Eric Hutchinson first drew my attention to the suggestive description of the government as a “nursing father” in the 23rd chapter of the Westminster Confession. The phrase is in keeping with the Reformed tradition’s sensibilities about the fifth commandment, for the command to honor father and mother, many divines tell us, is not limited only to our biological fathers and mothers.
Rather, that command teaches us that we exist as contingent beings within a given natural order and that, within that order, we owe deference and honor to certain people who are above us within that order. Thus, question 124 in the larger catechism:
Q. 124. Who are meant by father and mother in the fifth commandment? A. By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.
And so there is a positive role for government to play in promoting the good, not merely a purely negative role to play in trying to insure a value-neutral public square where ideas can duke it out in a kind of free marketplace setting. This is how John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, applied the idea,
[A] constitution is excellent when the spirit of the civil laws is such as to have a tendency to prevent offences and make men good, as much as to punish them when they do evil.
Later Witherspoon would say,
Many are of opinion that besides all this, the magistrate ought to make public provision for the worship of God, in such manner as is agreeable to the great body of the society; though at the same time all who dissent from it, are fully tolerated. And indeed there seems to be a good deal of reason for it, that so instruction may be provided for the bulk of common people, who would, many of them, neither support nor employ teachers, unless they were obliged. The magistrate’s right, in this case, seems to be something like that of a parent; they have a right to instruct, but not to constrain.
So one thing this suggests is that those who would reach for the smelling salts at the mere mention of anything other than a naked public square are working with something other than a close engagement of Protestant political thought or even of the history of American political thought. Nursing fathers shape their children toward something definite and positive; they don’t simply set them loose in the world.
And yet the imagery of fatherhood suggests something else, I think. Here is WLC Q. 130 on the sins of “superiors,” and recall here that “superiors” does not refer only to mothers and fathers, but also to pastors and government officials, amongst others:
The sins of superiors are, besides the neglect of the duties required of them, an inordinate seeking of themselves, their own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure; commanding things unlawful, or not in the power of inferiors to perform; counseling, encouraging, or favoring them in that which is evil; dissuading, discouraging, or discountenancing them in that which is good; correcting them unduly; careless exposing, or leaving them to wrong, temptation, and danger; provoking them to wrath; or in any way dishonoring themselves, or lessening their authority, by an unjust, indiscreet, rigorous, or remiss behavior.
This is the danger of the Orbanist move that I have been trying to get at in various ways for several months now. The energy of the new right in America is toward using government power to pursue the good. But too often their idea of the good is merely “whatever signals strength contra progressives,” or “whatever will trigger progressives.” There is no substantive vision of the common good, there is merely posturing and vanity and sneering. In other cases, they pursue the good without any regard for whether or not the specific course being pursued is wise.
We might put it this way, borrowing the campaigning v governing image that I’ve used from Mark Sayers in the past. “The good,” that a magistrate pursues is something that he or she accomplishes through governing and it is pursued in ways governed by prudence as well as the nature of governmental authority. But today most of our politicians never stop campaigning in order to start governing.
Moreover, due to technological and media dynamics, in campaigning our politicians usually become less like government authorities and more like media personalities. And so “the good” that the young right pursues is imperceptibly transformed from something like what Witherspoon or the divines might have meant and turned, instead, into something that is entertaining and performative, something that can drive ratings and elicit strong emotional response.
This is why, for all the bluster around him as a vehicle for the new right’s political vision, Donald Trump never really got around to doing good things once he was governing. (Well, it’s one reason. The primary reason is that Donald Trump is a horrible human being whose character renders him unfit for office.) But this isn’t about Trump; it’s about the way that power is imagined and actualized by the new right—which is why the preferred candidate of the NatCon set was recently seen instrumentalizing immigrants and almost certainly lying to them (there’s a commandment about that too) in order to elevate his profile and ingratiate him to conservative voters.
The problem with the new right is not that they want government to actually take a role in shaping the public square and even advancing a specific understanding of the good that actually contains positive, prescriptive moral content. That is all a welcome development when set against the libertarianism of the Reagan era. But if we regain a proper understanding of positive political power at the cost of understanding the centrality of character and virtue, then we will have lost. As Francis Grimke once put it,
If we are to stand, if our rise is to be permanent, if we are not to pass away like the morning mist or wither like the grass, beneath the material and intellectual there must be a moral basis. The house built upon the rock is the house that will stand when the rains descend and the floods come, and the winds blow and beat upon it. That rock is character, Christian character.
(Note that Grimke is saying this to African Americans, a bloc of people far more marginal and vulnerable than white conservative Christians are at present in America. So if Grimke thinks that even under those circumstances character is non-negotiable, how much more in our own setting today?)
When fathers are domineering, when they are deceptive, when they think their authority exists chiefly for their own self-satisfaction and pride, that is when their authority withers and their children rebel.
The new right has a vision of nursing fathers. But they will also birth a horrifying number of prodigal children. And so in the long run, unless they change course, theirs will only be a movement of mist and vapor.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).