Living with Liberalism: the roots of constitutional, representative government

Russ Kuykendall writes about "showing up" in the public square, and the tradition of Christian political thought that is available as a rich resource to those who do show up.
December 8 th 2006

In bas relief above the gothic windows on three faces of the Peace Tower at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, three citations from Scripture appear. On the east face, "He shall have dominion also from sea to sea" (Psalm 72:8); on the south face, "Give the king thy judgments, O God, and thy righteousness unto the king's son" (Psalm 72:1); and on the west, "Where there is no vision, the people perish" (Proverbs 29:18). All three refer to God as the source of authority. The first speaks of God's ultimate rule, the second of the king's dependence upon God for his judgments, and the last, far from referring to "visions" or "farsightedness" in the more contemporary, English sense, speaks of "vision" as "revelation" or "revealed law."

Inside the adjacent Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings at 409-S, the Office of the Leader of the Opposition, is a room which has served both as "Shadow Cabinet" and Privy Council room, including for the Canadian war cabinet under Prime Minister Mackenzie King during World War II and for early international negotiations that led to the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). There are two doors to the room. Above one is carved, "Fear God," and above the other is "Honour the King" (1 Peter 2:17).

On the walls of the personal office of the Leader of the Opposition are medievalist scenes depicting virtues to be pursued by the Opposition in order to be an effective check on the Government.

When the Centre Block was rebuilt following the fire of 1917, then-Leader of the Opposition Mackenzie King was consulted with respect to what would become his office, including the depiction of "Opposition virtues." Mackenzie King initially wanted biblical scenes for these, but was convinced otherwise as to the suitability of medievalist scenes in this neogothic structure. When elected Prime Minister, King retained 409-S and it only reverted to the Opposition when outgoing Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker refused to leave after the 1963 General Election.

The citations are strangely incongruous with the thorough-going secularism, modernity, and liberalism of contemporary, Canadian political culture.

It was into this building that I walked in the middle of one of Ottawa's worst winters, January 12th 1994, to find my office on the fifth floor to begin working for the "Whip" of my party. I entered by the doors at the base of the Centre Block's Peace Tower, dedicated July 1st 1927 on the occasion of Canada's Diamond, 60th anniversary of Confederation to the memory of the women and men who had given their lives in "the Great War." I recall my sense of awe as I checked through security—relatively light, in those days—and looked up into the rotunda with what must surely be the best example of gothic fan vaulting in the western hemisphere, and down the Hall of Honour to the entrance to the Library of Parliament, modelled after Westminster Abbey's "chapter house" that served as the British Parliament's first library up till some time in the 19th century. A gothic revival architectural set piece constructed in the 1850s, the Library of Parliament was the only part of the original Centre Block that survived the 1917 fire.

I wondered: How did a farm boy from the Peace River Country of northwestern Alberta get an office, here?

Answer: I showed up.

On several occasions, I've been asked by evangelical friends and by folk from the Dutch Reformed community what my family thinks of my being active in politics. The short answer is that I've never asked them. But without giving a family history, suffice it to say that it was taken for granted that we would be home for "supper," that we would be involved in "church," and that we would take part in the wider community, including being sufficiently versed in current events and political affairs so as to become informed voters. As a very young man, my paternal grandfather immigrated to Canada from the States where my extended family has organized their "precinct"—like a "poll," in Canada—for the Democrats continuously since 1865.

Canada's—and the United States'—institutions of representative government are rooted in a much longer tradition. While I won't get into the details here, the U.S. Congress can be aptly described as an 18th-century British Parliament, while Canada's Parliament is very much the 19th-century version of Westminster. Working daily with the machinery of Parliament in a building architecturally reflecting Britain's, I couldn't help but be confronted with the depth of Canada's traditions of constitutionalism and representative government that go back not just to the roughly thousand years of the British parliament and state, but even further as part of a nearly 2000-year tradition of Christian political thought.

To work in Canadian institutions, today, though, one might think that this constitutional, representative tradition started only in the 17th century with early Modern political theory. To read contemporary political theorists of liberalism, the origins of "liberal democracy" are found in Athens, in Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1660) and John Locke's Second Treatise on Government (1690), and as further elaborated by political philosophers through the 18th century on up to John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859). Between Plato and Aristotle and Locke and Hobbes is just one big gap in political thought.

Let me bridge the alleged gap and outline a few principles of what liberalism calls "liberal democracy," and which I will insist on describing as constitutional, representative government. Far from there being a gap, the source of key principles of constitutional, representative government is some 1500 years of Christian political thought prior to Hobbes and Locke. (Much of what follows will rely on the anthology edited by Oliver and Joan Lockwood O'Donovan, From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook of Christian Political Thought 100-1600, Eerdmans, 1999).

The separation of church and state. As recently as a debate of this week in the Canadian House of Commons, I've heard Canadians insist "the separation of church and state" is not a Canadian idea, but an American invention. It is neither. The idea can be traced directly to Christ's pronouncement, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mark 12:17, ESV; cf. Matt 22:21 & Luke 20:25). As the O'Donovan anthology unfolds, this saying is the origin of the development of the profoundly Christian idea of the "dual authority"—political and church authorities. Over time, "dual authority" develops from "dual" into the plural authority of contemporary Canada and the United States, with institutions and voluntary associations of all kinds that exercise authority in various spheres of human activity.

The plural exercise of authority by council. This can be traced to the Jerusalem council of the first-generation church (Acts 6, 8, & 9, for examples) whereby authority in the early church was exercised not by one apostle, but by a council. (The roots of the "conciliar" exercise of authority can also be found in the Jewish Sanhedrin council, and in the Roman Senate, prior to Julius Caesar and Augustus).

The first, great empire of the post-Roman period in the West was the Carolingian Empire of "Charlemagne" who acted as an emperor taking decisions and actions in council. This continued in various regimes until the rise of absolutism in the West, relatively late, with the early, 16th-century Borgias (guided by Machiavelli's The Prince, 1505/1513), the 16th and 17th-c. Tudor and Stuart dynasties in Britain, and the 16th, 17th and 18th-c. Guises and Bourbons of France. The revolutions in Britain, France, and America were all efforts—in a certain way—to counter the rise of absolutism in the West.

Canada's government is headed by a prime minister—a "first minister"—who is "first among equals" in a cabinet of ministers of the Crown. Even when a regulation is issued it comes from the "Governor in Council"—from the cabinet. And the prime minister and his cabinet are collectively accountable to the elected House of Commons. Likewise, the U.S. president chooses a cabinet to advise him, and he can only "propose" legislation to the House and Senate who will—or won't—"dispose of" or pass these proposals, including budgets—into law.

The rule of law. The West inherited very strong traditions of the rule of law from both the Romans and because of Christian faith's roots in the Jewish tradition of the Torah—the first five books of what Christians describe as "the Old Testament." From the Roman regime and those that succeeded it in the West, there was a strong adherenceDe Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliæ to being ruled according to laws made by the authority of councils (cf. Henry de Bracton's , before 1259, and William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1765-1769). This precedes what the British tradition of government points to as the founding document of the British constitutional tradition in the Magna Carta—"the Great Charter"—of 1215. By Magna Carta, the Norman barons of England obtained King John's agreement that England—including the king and the barons—would be governed by laws. In both Canada and the U.S., the governments must be authorized by law to do anything, including to raise or impose new taxes.

Representation and consent. Again, going back to the Carolingian empire, coronation ceremonies were an occasion by which subjects indicated their consent as a confirmation of the monarch's being designated by God to the office of king. Countering the rise of absolutism in the West in the 15th and 16th centuries, both Catholic and Calvinist theorists elaborated more fully the idea that rulers were delegated authority that was confirmed by the consent of their subjects. Calvinist theorists of the late 16th century further developed a more explicit notion of representation that had roots running well back in Christian political theorizing and grounded in the biblical idea of covenant. Directly descended from these ideas, Canada and the U.S. have representative government—not the democracy (direct government by the people) of the ancient political community of Athens. I have seen Members of Parliament agonize as they balanced what represented the wishes of their electors—voters—with the demands of conscience and justice for the Canadian political community as a whole.

Human rights. The notion of human rights evolved in the West out of the rights held by virtue of a citizen's membership in a political or civic community—"civil rights." But the notion of human rights has deeper roots in biblical teaching about property rights (in the Decalogue—Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not steal" and "Thou shalt not covet") and in what the O'Donovans describe as "evangelical freedom." The O'Donovans point to "evangelical freedom"—the freedom to hold certain points of view in respect of doctrine and associate with those of like mind—developed by Christian political theorists, as the root of freedom of religion and conscience, and freedom of thought, opinion, speech, and association. Resisting the absolutism of the Stuart kings, the English Puritans formalized these in law, first, with the Petition of Right (1628) and, after the English civil war, Restoration, and the Glorious Revolution, with the English Bill of Rights (1688-1689). Both the United States' Bill of Rights (1789/1791) and Canada's rights charters, the Canadian Bill of Rights (1960) and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982/1983), were profoundly influenced by the English tradition of rights in statute and the common law. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) was likewise shaped by both the English tradition as well as by mid-20th-century Christian political theorists—in particular, the Catholic Jacques Maritain (Les droits de l'homme et la loi naturelle, 1942, et al.) and the Protestant Reinhold Niebuhr (The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, 1944).

Public discourse, pluralism, and religion. In the present, another tradition in the stream of Christian political theorizing is exerting a growing influence, particularly in respect of the problems of pluralism highlighted by John Rawls's seminal work, Political Liberalism (1993/1996). In a conference on pluralism and religion at McGill University, Montréal, in the autumn of 2002, William Galston, a liberal political theorist and College Park Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, referenced a tradition with a record of some 200 years of elaborating solutions to the problems of pluralism: neocalvinism. Jonathan Chaplin and David Koyzis, both neocalvinist political theorists, continue to make original and helpful contributions to the ongoing debate in the West about public discourse, pluralism, and religion—the current preoccupations of liberalism.

More intentional today

When I first arrived on Parliament Hill on that frosty January day, even in my party—characterized as a party over-run with evangelicals—there was a remarkable silence about religion of any kind, let alone Christian faith. Frequently in that 35th Parliament, the few of us who were intentionally and "integratedly" Christian in the practice of politics and carrying out parliamentary duties were at pains to avoid any explicit indication of adherence to Christian faith. For some who became my long-time "comrades at arms" in politics, I was the first evangelical or "conservative Protestant" Christian of any kind they had met in years of their being active in party politics.

Today, the situation is different. More Christians who are intentional in living "faith integral" lives, including in the conduct of politics, public discourse, and the formation of public policy, are showing up. More faith-integral Christians are showing up to run for office, to volunteer on political campaigns, to apply for and hold positions as political staff, and to work in institutes ("think tanks") of public policy. They are learning (as I did early on in politics) that for every political opportunist there are several who, irrespective of faith and political party, are interested in pursuing just policies that will lead to human flourishing for their fellow citizens. They are learning that if the excesses of liberalism are to be countered, faith-integral Christians must show up, ready to engage in informed and sustained argument and activism in support and pursuit of their understanding of justice and human flourishing. They are learning that Christians are most credible when their engagement is not limited to the important issues of marriage, family, and life. Christians' credibility is enhanced when they also have things to say about budgetary priorities, foreign affairs and trade, industry and labour, the machinery of constitutional, representative government itself, and human culture in all its manifestations.

Finally, I conclude with this anecdote. I was working at the Whip desk in the opposition lobby during a late sitting of the House, probably in June 1994. As was and is the practice, each caucus had only a skeleton crew of Members of Parliament representing it in the chamber in case of any procedural shenanigans. The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod from the Senate, down the hall of Centre Block, was received at the bar of the House by the Speaker. "Black Rod" summoned the Members to "attend" a "royal assent" by the Governor General in the Senate chamber. Dutifully, most of the Members filed out of the Commons chamber and down to the bar of the Senate chamber. I followed.

"Royal assent" is equivalent to a U.S. president's signing or vetoing a bill that has been passed by both Houses of the U.S. Congress. In Canada, when a bill has passed through both Houses of Parliament, the Governor General occupies the "throne" in the Senate chamber, the bill as passed is presented, and the Governor General—on behalf of the Queen—indicates assent to the bill with a simple nod.

After the nod, as the Members filed out of the Senate chamber and down the hall back to the Commons, I heard a Member complain about the trivialities of his job as a Member of Parliament—like watching the Governor General nod assent. And then, Margaret Bridgman, M.P. at the time for Surrey North, British Columbia, made this observation: "We just witnessed a bill that you and I debated become law for all the people of Canada across this land. That makes what we did pretty important, don't you think?"

Worth showing up for.

 

Russ Kuykendall is a former director of policy to a past Canadian Minister of Natural Resources and a former research fellow with Cardus.

Bio