News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Does the NSA Program Betray Christianity?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Does the NSA Program Betray Christianity?

One of the more outstanding questions in contemporary politics is the attempt to tie together religion and politics. Whether it is Islamic, Christian, Hindu, or Jewish fundamentalism, many citizens of many countries believe that the social, cultural and economic conditions of their milieu demand a political response that has a core religious component. Indeed, in most of the solutions advanced by these advocates, there is ultimately no difference between the political and religious. ...

Of course, how each religion fleshes out the relationship between the two varies. In the most extreme cases, there is no differentiation between the religious and political authorities, such as most in contemporary Europe and other parts of the world understand as comprising a representative democracy.

As many historians point out, the development of the modern representative form of government has at least one source in the Protestant rebellion against the religious and political hegemony of the Catholic Church. The most important model for this was developed by John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland.

The reasons for Calvin’s development of a Presbyterian form of governance have their origin in his reading of the Christian and Hebrew scriptures. Recognizing that the top-down, hierarchical and monarchical structure of Catholic Christianity was unchristian, he advocated and established in Geneva an ascending group of interlocking presbyteries, with a group of representatives making ultimate decisions affecting the community.

Calvin’s thought was even more strongly informed by the ancient Judaic and prophetic voice in the Jewish scriptures that said that God alone is ruler. These prophetic voices continually inveighed against attempts by the priestly caste and the King to usurp that role. For Calvin, a representative form of government understands the fallibility of humans and invests the use of power in the community, not a single leader.

The preceding comments provide an ironic background to the recent support by some in the evangelical movement for the expansion of executive power by the Bush administration. Perhaps no single instance of this power is more exemplary than the NSA surveillance program. As many commentators observe, the crux of this issue is the following: the President asserts that the Constitution gives his office the right of inherent privilege. In its most extreme form, this inherent privilege means that the President has the right to undertake actions which his office, and his office alone, deems necessary for the welfare of the Republic.

Of course, should the President succeed in establishing this as a constitutional precedent, the President’s power will not only be supreme in foreign affairs and military matters but potentially any other social and cultural s/he deems necessary. The problem with this, of course, is that the form of representative government set up by the founding fathers was one of checks and balances. The President’s recent efforts, should they prove successful, could potentially abrogate this system of checks and balances.

There is another, more particular irony to the NSA surveillance program. This relates to the idea that many Christian dispensationalists believe that in the end times the surrogate for Satan, the Anti-Christ, will use surveillance technology to consolidate his power over the world and to persecute believers. As many critics of the President’s NSA program note, it provides exactly a type of comprehensive surveillance that the Anti-Christ would no doubt envy.

Supporters of the President’s NSA program say that only enemies are targeted. Yet, news reports, whistle-blowers, and testimony by the Attorney General before Congress call these assertions into question. Since this program has no oversight by our elected representatives, and since the President has muzzled those who do have access to the true extent of the program, such assertions demand a sense of trust in the power of the executive to do the right thing.

I suggest, following Calvin and the Jewish prophets, that no one person has that much wisdom. Nor can they be trusted with the kind of power that is inherent in allowing decisions like this to be made by one office or person. The representative form of government, as envisioned by Calvin and the founding fathers, understood that no one human can be trusted—no matter their best intentions. In the words of the well-worn phrase, the road to Hell is paved with the best of intentions.

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