Five years since the publication of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed sparked a dialectical war among religious conservatives over their Lockean heritage, the cannons haven’t stopped firing. To the contrary, the war is expanding to new theaters.

One benefit of the conflict is that it has pushed conservatives to refine their understanding of government’s role. In a recent article, Brad Littlejohn characterizes the debate as a disagreement between those who, like Locke and Jefferson, see government as a neutral umpire created to protect God-given rights and those who, following Peter and Paul, see it as an institution “sent to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”

Who has it right? Should religious conservatives in the 21st century consider neutrality and the protection of negative rights their guiding political principle, or should they reserve that honor for the punishment of vice and the reward of virtue? That is an interesting question, but it obscures an even deeper one that only comes into view when we consider the role of government before the Fall.

Reflecting on the prelapsarian world is the Christian version of imagining the state of nature. The latter is of dubious value, because, as various thinkers have pointed out, it’s an exercise in fantasy, more likely to confirm biases than uncover truth. There never was a pre-political, pre-social “state of nature” for historical human beings. But, however literally one interprets Genesis, orthodox Christians know there are real truths to be learned from Paradise. How people would have behaved had Adam and Eve never disobeyed God can reveal truths about the ends of all human action, including politics.

So what would prelapsarian politics have looked like? Perhaps it would not have existed at all. This is a view held implicitly by Christians who believe government is a “necessary evil” inflicted on humanity by sin. It was arguably Augustine’s view, too. In Book XIX, Chapter 15 of the City of God, Augustine cites Genesis 1:26 to support his claim that God “did not intend that His rational creature, who was made in His image, should have dominion over anything but the irrational creation,––not man over man, but man over the beasts.”

But this is not the only Christian perspective. Thomas Aquinas agreed with Augustine that coercive rule is an effect of the Fall but disputed that coercion is the essence of government. In his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, he defines right government as an institution created to do three things: guide society in “things to be done and known,” provide important services (e.g., defense) that the people cannot supply on their own, and correct morals (i.e. punish evil and praise good).

Aquinas argues that only the first task would be necessary in Paradise. Adam and Eve lacked neither material resources nor moral goodness, so a government directed to provide either to a prelapsarian society would be redundant. However, even without sin, people require guidance. After all, humans are not angels; they are not naturally omniscient.

This is where Aquinas’s logic excels Augustine’s, at least with regard to the interpretation set forth above. As James R. Rogers notes in First Things, humans are temporal, physical beings that are by nature subject to differences in perception and understanding. To act together as one and avoid mistakes, they must subject themselves to what game theory calls a “focal arbiter.” Rogers describes this role as that of a logistical overseer, entrusted with information by people unable to effectively communicate on their own, with the purpose of preventing inefficiency and furthering the common good. Is this the unnatural “dominion” that Augustine so heartily lamented? No, but it appears to be political authority nonetheless.

The need for a focal arbiter would appear to increase as a community grows in size and interpersonal communication becomes more difficult. Presumably, prelapsarian cities would face many of the same questions postlapsarian cities do, like what side of the road to drive on and where to build the town square. At a large scale, the bodies assigned to provide the answers would look decidedly like governments. They would not perform many of the functions we associate with the state today, it is true. But that would be a sign of their innocence rather than their inadequacy.

This thought experiment reveals the limitations of both liberal and post-liberal religious conservatives as characterized by Littlejohn. The essence of government cannot be the protection of rights if there could be a political community with no endangered rights, yet that is exactly the nature of our hypothetical Paradise. Nor can government be reduced to the punishment of evil and the praise of good, even if those are two of its most important tasks today, because they would fulfill no function in a prelapsarian culture. Instead, we are left with the conclusion that government’s most fundamental purpose is to guide society in “things to be done and known,”

Several questions remain. By what process, for one, would a prelapsarian focal arbiter be legitimately installed? By what power would he make public decisions? And would “things to be done and known” be limited to purely practical considerations, like what side of the road to drive on? Or would they extend beyond that, to projects not merely justified by necessity?

Aquinas answers the first question in Question 96, Article 3 of the first part of the Summa Theologiae. He speculates that even without sin, organic variation would cause some people to have more wisdom than others (though none would be less wise than they ought to be). He then concludes that the wisest human beings would be naturally justified in assuming political authority. Presumably, because their companions would be completely rational—Aquinas lists “perfect obedience of the inferior powers to reason” among the qualities of Edenic innocence—they would recognize and submit to that authority automatically.

The answer to the second question follows logically from Aquinas’s answer to the first. If it is wisdom that justifies rule, then it is wisdom, the virtue that allows human beings to determine the best way to act and discern the will of God, that would empower a prelapsarian ruler to arbitrate effectively among “things to be done and known.”

Finally, Genesis itself offers probable answers to the last two questions. In the first Creation account, God commands Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it.” In the second account, God commands Adam to “till” and “keep” the Garden of Eden. These words do not connote bare survival. Rather, they seem to imply the proactive cultivation or transformation of the world into something that gives greater glory to God. We can therefore imagine that a prelapsarian government would be interested in more than just protecting its citizens from misunderstandings and mistakes. In all likelihood, it would also coordinate people to build grand monuments, plant beautiful gardens, or perform in song and dance, all as free tributes to the Lord.

Readers may be more or less convinced by these interpretations of Aquinas and the Bible. Moreover, what they contribute to our understanding of politics in the here and now is perhaps of limited value, given how difficult it is to distinguish between government’s necessary and provisional duties in the particulars of a fallen world. But even if the exact characteristics of focal arbitration are left unsettled, the recognition that government’s most fundamental purpose is logistical oversight is revealing.

It does not mean that protecting citizens’ rights or punishing evil and praising good are unimportant tasks. Still less does it constitute a prescriptive agenda for political action. Nevertheless, it clarifies the ideal end to which that action should be directed. And in doing so, it may point to a third way for those caught between conservatism’s warring camps.

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Posted by Collin Slowey

Collin Slowey is an independent writer on politics, culture, and religion whose work has been featured in The American Conservative, The Dallas Morning News, and Public Discourse, among other outlets.


  1. One of the problems that comes with traditionalism is that it relies too much on the past to observe, analyze, and respond to the present. And when we consider almost all of the sources cited above, those sources come from a completely different time and situation in history. But also, part of today’s approach is a part reaction and part overreaction to the past, such as the times of the sources cited above. And unless we understand the contextual differences and are up front with the abuses from the past, we will be certain to misapply and possible do worse than those in the past did.

    One of the contextual differences between the times of most of the people cited and now is that we are striving to have less of an authoritarian government now than then. After all, what is democracy about but the collaboration as equals with all others from society and thus the need to share power. Is that what the above article is about?

    BTW, a word must be said about Romans 13 and the reference to punish evil. The evil in that context is never defined. If one wishes to go to the end of Romans 1 to define evil, then we Christians must demand that the government punish every sin mentioned in Romans 1. After all, Romans 3:9 says that the religious (Romans 2) are not morally superior to the atheist (Romans 1). Are we choosing wisely if we make no distinctions as to what sins should be punished by the government?


    1. Israel understood from the beginning the differences between civil law, which is the responsibility of government, and moral or religious law that are the responsibility of the priests or today the church.

      Paul didn’t need to define the evil that government must punish because no one was confused about it. They didn’t have socialists redefining every term to win debates by definition and confusing everyone.

      Today,much of every piece of communication must be devoted ti defining terms because socialists have redefined the important ones and sowed confusion.


      1. Roger,
        First, you don’t know what socialism is. I can tell because you both speak of it as being monolithic and thus use it as a scapegoat for what is bad in the world and thus you use the term pejoratively.

        And no, Israel’s past indicated that they didn’t understand. Take the trial of Jesus. Was it proper for the religious leaders to ask the government to crucify someone who broke their religious code. Take the multiple times that Israel persecuted and even murdered the prophets. Plus, Israel’s governments were suppose to be theocratic whether they were ruled over by judges or by kings. How many times did the OT write about how Israel’s and Judah’s kings failed to remove alters to other gods?

        In the west, we live in pluralistic democracies or, if you please, democratic republics. That you would mention Israel’s governmental setup and responsibilities today when talking about pluralistic democracies shows what I said about traditionalists: they rely too heavily on the past to interpret and react to the present.

        BTW, for your ideological approach to government and economics, I want you to consider the following. Saying ‘we alone can fix it‘ is just as narcissistic as Trump saying ‘I alone can fix it.’ That is why I said that democracies are about collaboration. I lean toward Marx. But like every other ideology, Marx’s theories are not omniscient. They need to be combined with other approaches.

        Did you know that if we take the Communist Manifesto seriously, we would have to conclude that the most Marxist country around today is Germany. After all, Germany has codetermination laws that at least gives some power to workers to minimize or prevent them from being oppressed by owners.


  2. “Instead, we are left with the conclusion that government’s most fundamental purpose is to guide society in “things to be done and known,”

    Flights of fantasy such as this can prove anything. Reality is much more limiting. The only government God ever created is our only guide to the best government. Israel had no human executive, legislature or taxes. It has only courts to adjudicate the civil laws of the Torah.

    Theologians have maligned that government for centuries. They must think God didn’t know what he was doing. Can we agree that Gid is wiser than those theologians and knows more about government than all of them? After all, Gid could have made Moses all powerful like the monarchs theologians so admire.


  3. These days, I find that most authors are interested in taking a safe approach and offering a known audience what they want to hear. What I find in Mere Orthodoxy, and in this article, is a willingness to risk and argue something new for the benefit of the reader. I am very thankful for this article because it forces me to think about theology, politics, and economics, from a Christain perspective that engages with the best of Christian tradition. How could any engaged Christian not be thankful for that?


  4. A snake got in the garden. As someone has said somewhere, image bearers had freedom and ability to will and to do what was good and pleasing to God, and yet not unalterably… and so they might fall. Since they might fall, shouldn’t the wise government have prepared for an incursion of, say… a lie (or liar) and trained citizens to respond to it?
    The 9th commandment is “don’t lie”. But again, someone somewhere wrote that the other part of that command is to proclaim truth. As the moral law existed before the fall, then the government before the fall should’ve been proclaiming truth and defending against lies.
    So, a fundamental responsibility of the government IS defense – at the very least against lies (and liars).
    Another thought: The fundamental governmental purpose of the King of Creation (the absolute sovereign of the cosmos) is much more than logistical oversight… but more like prophet (because we’re ignorant), priest (because we’re sinful) and also king (because we’re weak). If there’s more to the governmental of The King than logistical oversight, then it’d follow that there is more more to the government of His image-bearers.


    1. Well put.

      This article is useful, but I don’t find its final point convincing.


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