Subject: America’s Guiding Principles #4 & #5: Limited Government & State Sovereignty
John 19:10-11 “Pilate said to Him, ‘Do You not know that I have power to crucify You, and power to release You?’ Jesus answered, ‘You could have no power at all against Me unless it was given you from above.’”
We are in the midst of State primary races, where television commercials are filled with the back-and-forth rhetoric of candidates as they try to convince us why they are the right person to represent our state. Why are state political races important? They narrow the field of candidates to a single person to represent each political party. Believe or not, we the citizens of the United States are supposed to have the power to govern ourselves. We do this by each state electing who they want representing their interests.
But why we are known as the “United States”? We probably forget that we didn’t start that way. Prior to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, there were no states. There were thirteen colonies, first established by settlers who came from England and other European countries nearly 150 years earlier to escape persecution for their religious beliefs. So they viewed the idea of creating a centralized government with complete distrust. They knew why they came to America – to be free of the tyranny they had left. They took their sovereignty and their local laws and customs very seriously, and were not willing to give that up.
Think of each colony more as an independent little nation rather than a state. They each had their own government, with no legal ties to each other except through any arrangements they may have made. They had fought so hard for their independence that the last thing they wanted was a new tyrannical government that was more powerful than them and could tell them what they can and cannot do.
The topic of individual state’s rights versus government power dominated the discussions at the 1787 Convention. The delegates all rallied behind a core belief in individual liberty, which required minimizing government oversight. But they also understood things like a national army and national security required a federal government. The argument heated up over which rights would go to the government and which rights would remain with the states. It took nearly four more years, plus creating ten Constitutional amendments (The Bill of Rights) to form the republic of the “United States.”
Our Founders crafted the Constitution with two crucial principles – that the individual states retain as much sovereign power as possible and that our government have only limited authority, never becoming large nor powerful enough to encroach on the rights of the states to maintain their own character and to solve their own problems. The majority of power was to remain in the hands of the local population. This was the vision of our Founding Fathers. And this is why voting in our state elections is so important – it allows each of us to exercise our inalienable right to liberty. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist paper No. 31: “The State governments, by their original constitutions, are invested with complete sovereignty.”
How did our Founders get this wisdom to design a national system that protects it’s citizens? One way they did this was to learn from history. This is where our verse for this week comes in. Pontius Pilate, with full authority from Rome’s Caesar, could do as he wished with the life of Jesus Christ. Of course, Jesus countered that real power comes from His Father in heaven, not Pilate. But where did one man get so much power that he alone could decide whether any person lived or died?
The Roman Empire began as a flourishing republic, where its citizens were represented in government by the Senate. The difference between a republic and a democracy is that a republic governs by a system of laws and not by majority rule. Democracies often rule by self-interest, replacing what ‘ought’ to be (objective laws) with what ‘should’ be (passion and feeling). The main purpose of a republic is to control the majority, to prevent it from oppressing minority groups. Our Founders learned this by studying the fall of the Roman Empire combined with studying the Biblical doctrines of the inherent depravity of sinful mankind.
What happened to Rome, that Pilate could send Jesus Christ to his death? Power switched from the Senate to the Caesars – individual men who were immoral tyrants. Rome’s economy weakened as the government needed more tax revenue to pay its debts. When the citizens despaired, Emperor Diocletian instituted the ploy of “bread and circuses” to entertain them. Rome’s collapsing political, economic, military, and social institutions rendered it too weak to defend itself against the invasions from the north.
The Roman citizens had become apathetic. They didn’t care enough about their way of life to defend it. Our Founders learned this valuable history lesson. They instituted principles 4 and 5: Limited government and state sovereignty. May we as United States citizens take these biblical truths, and history lessons, to heart.
Ed Croteau is a resident of Lee’s Summit and hosts a weekly study in Lees Summit called “Faith: Substance and Evidence.” He can be reached with your questions through the Lee’s Summit Tribune at Editor@lstribune.net.