“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
There have essentially been two forms of governance across human history: autocracy (“the rule of one”) and democracy (“the rule of the people”).
We are watching the former on display in China, where Xi Jinping has claimed an unprecedented third five-year term as chief of the Communist Party and surrounded himself with loyalist officials. And in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where Vladimir Putin has declared martial law in areas he illegally annexed and is now building defensive lines to deter Ukraine’s advance.
We are watching the latter on display in the UK, where former chancellor Rishi Sunak looks set to become Britain’s next prime minister after former prime minister Boris Johnson pulled out of the race late yesterday evening. And in Pakistan, where an election commission has disqualified former prime minister Imran Khan from holding public office.
But the political issue that strikes closest to home for Americans is, of course, the subpoena issued by the January 6 committee on Friday. The committee is demanding that former president Donald Trump produce documents it has requested by November 4 and sit for a deposition on November 14. This is just the second time in modern US history that Congress has taken such a step.
Whether a former president can be forced to testify before Congress or not is a complex legal question beyond my purpose today. Rather, I want to ask whether this issue advances autocracy or democracy and then to think biblically about the enormous ramifications of this issue for our lives and for our nation.
Who is defending us from whom?
Two responses to the committee’s subpoena are dominating the news.
One side claims that Mr. Trump’s actions on January 6 constitute a breach of constitutional authority and must be held to account lest our nation’s democracy devolve into autocracy and tyranny. The other side claims that the January 6 committee is acting autocratically and threatening our democracy for partisan purposes and political “theater.”
Each side claims that it is defending democracy from autocracy. And each claims that the other is doing the opposite.
Our Founders created a democratic republic with the checks and balances that are now being debated. They believed that “all men are created equal” and thus should govern themselves rather than be governed by a tyrant. But they also believed that because people are finite and fallen, none should be trusted with undue power over others.
In the only previous democracy of historic significance, the ancient Romans also believed the latter premise and consequently created a republic with even greater checks and balances than ours. The eventual outcome of their Republic offers crucial lessons for ours.
“The state passed from vigilance to slumber”
In his magisterial biography of Julius Caesar, historian Adrian Goldsworthy notes that “the Republic’s constitution, which was carefully balanced to prevent one individual or section of society from gaining overwhelming control, granted Rome freedom from the frequent revolution and civil strife that had plagued most Greek city-states.” He explains: “At the heart of the system was the desire to prevent any one individual from gaining too much permanent power. . . . Therefore power within the Republic was vested in a number of different institutions.”
Roman “magistrates” corresponded to our presidency with their power to command troops and dispense justice, but Goldsworthy states that “this was essentially temporary and lasted only for the twelve months of office. It was also limited by the equal power of colleagues holding the same office.” Corresponding loosely to our House of Representatives, “the voting assemblies of the Roman people possessed considerable power within the Republic, but had little or no scope for independent action.” And their Senate “did not have the power to legislate, but the decrees resulting from its debates went to the Popular Assemblies for approval.”
Despite a system that diffused power much more strongly than ours, the Roman Republic eventually devolved into the autocracy we know as the Roman Empire. Our Founders understood the reason: democracy depends on consensual morality. Said differently: To govern each other, we must be able to govern ourselves.
Goldsworthy quotes the first-century writer Velleius Paterculus: “When Rome was freed of the fear of Carthage, and her rival in empire was out of the way, the path of virtue was abandoned for that of corruption, not gradually, but in headlong course. The older discipline was discarded to give place to the new. The state passed from vigilance to slumber, from activity to idleness.” And the result was that their experiment in self-governance ultimately failed.
John Adams’ well-known warning to his fellow citizens was therefore extremely appropriate: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Benjamin Franklin likewise observed, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” And Samuel Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, stated, “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.”
“When you fear God you fear nothing else”
Over libraries and other public buildings across Christendom we find Jesus’ declaration, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). However, such inscriptions omit Jesus’ necessary precondition: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples” (v. 31).
To “abide” in Jesus’ “word” means to live under its authority. This requires that we live out Jesus’ teachings every day in every dimension of our lives, whatever their cost. As biblical scholar D. A. Carson notes, such perseverance is “the mark of true faith, of real disciples. . . . such a person obeys [God’s word], seeks to understand it better, and finds it more precious, more controlling, precisely when other forces flatly oppose it.”
Tomorrow I plan to discuss the implications of today’s conversation for our national future. For now, let’s close by applying Jesus’ call to biblical perseverance to our personal lives. We read in Revelation 12 of believers who “conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their own lives even unto death” (v. 11).
Oswald Chambers noted, “When you fear God you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God you fear everything else.”
Whom—or what—do you fear today?
NOTE: I want to thank my son, Dr. Ryan Denison, for his excellent work in writing the Daily Article last week while my wife and I took a few days of vacation. I am grateful for the privilege of sharing this ministry with him.