When we discuss Martin Luther’s view of civil government, we usually speak of the high regard Luther had for government and its duty to restrain evil and secure justice. To restrain evil is also how the "first use" of God’s law is often defined. Restrain evil. It sounds so reactionary, as if Luther thought of government as a police force and little else. At least, that’s what our shorthand way of describing Luther’s view on government might lead us to believe.
But Luther’s view on government is much more complex than a simple restraint function.
In his commentary on Psalm 82 (Luther’s Works, Volume 13), Martin Luther describes the virtues of a prince in active – rather than reactive – ways.
Not only is a prince to help – a reaction, for sure – but a prince is to further the cause of the poor, the orphans, and the widows. A paragraph later Luther writes that a prince should make his whole kingdom into a hospital – a place of healing and of preventative medicine, to use today’s terms – a place where the poor are lifted up and others are prevented from falling into poverty.
See now what a hospital such a prince can build! He needs no stone, no wood, no builders; and he need give neither endowment nor income. To endow hospitals and help poor people is, indeed, a precious good work in itself. But when such a hospital becomes so great that a whole land, and especially the really poor people of that land, enjoy it, then it is a general, true, princely, indeed, a heavenly and divine hospital. For only a few enjoy the first kind of hospital, and sometimes they are false knaves masquerading as beggars. But the second kind of hospital comes to the aid only of the really poor, widows, orphans, travelers, and other forlorn folk. Besides, it preserves rich or poor, his living and his goods for everyone, so that he does not have to become a beggar or a poor man. If the law were not kept, no one could keep anything from another, and all would have to become beggars together and be ruined and destroyed. However, there are many who are not beggars and do not become beggars. For them the overlord is providing in this hospital. Luther’s Works (13:53)
Running throughout this essay is Luther’s trust in the power of laws, of just laws, and of righteous leaders. In the above-cited section Luther says, "If the law were not kept . . . all would have to become beggars together and be ruined and destroyed." Later in this section Luther writes, "In a word, after the Gospel or the ministry, there is on earth no better jewel, no greater treasure, nor richer alms, no fairer endowment, no finer possession than a ruler who makes and preserves just laws. Such men are rightly called gods." Luther’s Works (13:54).
A fair argument can be made on the basis of these passages (and others in Luther’s writings) that Luther advocates for a strong – dare I say socialist? – government that is heavily involved in providing for the welfare of its citizens. Yet given the sinful nature of humankind and our institutions, and a very mixed historical track record, is Luther here too optimistic about the role government can truly play in providing for the welfare of its citizens? Is government the answer to our social problems?
I have a small government, even libertarian streak in me (btw, see a wonderful article in Sunday’s Washington Post on the resurgence of Libertarianism). Yet I’m also disillusioned with government, like many in my generation (see another article by Naomi Wolf in Sunday’s Washington Post about the disillusionment many young people have regarding government and politics). I’m skeptical of the ability of government to meaningfully address a variety of social issues, including poverty, health care and racism, among many others. Is my skepticism born out of libertarianism or out of disillusionment with the political process? Heck – is my libertarianism born out of my disillusionment? I’m not sure.
But if I care about my neighbor and the future of my country, I ask myself this question: If not government, what other of society’s institutions are able to have a widespread impact on the welfare of our people? Surely the church cannot feed the poor (see EXHIBIT B of this recent post), and neither can well-meaning community organizations. Only the government that has the scope and reach to make meaningful changes in the broken structures of our society. But can government do it? Can government make meaningful changes in our broken society? I doubt it, because our government consists of "We The People," and We The People can be a rather selfish lot.
Naomi Wolf’s piece in Sunday’s Post prescribes a "crash course in democracy" for the politically-disillusioned post-Boomer set. Perhaps she is right. Perhaps the generations that never experienced a military draft or a mass political movement – and which grew up in an era of money politics where primaries and conventions and platforms mean little because money is the name of the game – perhaps we need a crash course in the workings and the potential of our democracy. Perhaps.
But knowing how democracy works is not enough. We also need a vision. Like Martin Luther, we must have high expectations for our government and its leaders. We need to remember that the work of governance is a holy work – a God-given task! We cannot write it off as a soiled mess of selfish, power-hungry fools. Luther has set for us a high bar of good governance. We should hold onto that image of the hospital, and demand of our elected leaders the kind of stewardship and leadership worthy of workers in God’s hospital.