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January 9, 2009

Augustine on Blagojevich

The debate over the validity of Gov. Rod Blagojevish's appointment of Roland Burris as the next senator from illinois is ultimately a legal issue and not a moral one, according to Stanley Fish in today's New York Times. Fish, a professor of law at Florida International University, says the topic has been debated thoroughly already, by St. Augustine:

This debate was about the status of churchmen who had cooperated with the emperor Diocletian during the period when he was actively persecuting Christians. The Donatists argued that those who had betrayed their faith under pressure and then returned to the fold when the persecutions were over had lost the authority to perform their priestly offices, including the offices of administering the sacraments and making ecclesiastical appointments. In their view, priestly authority was a function of personal virtue, and when a new bishop was consecrated by someone they considered tainted, they rejected him and consecrated another.

Augustine, however, argued that authority was a function of one's office, not one's character: "It is the office that speaks, appoints and consecrates. Its legitimacy does not vary with personal qualities of the imperfect human being who is the temporary custodian of a power that at once exceeds and transforms him."

Here's guessing that another saint, one named Paul, would agree. The apostle urged obedience to the governing authorities, who happened to represent the Roman Empire, not known for its commitment to fairness. Said Paul:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.


Real translation of Romans 13 is not post here, Paul say different fings.

Burris should be seated, since there is no hint of evidence that there was any quid pro quo in his appointment by Blago. But Fish is wrong to suggest that the morality of Blago have nothing to do with it. Our modern liberal democracies are built on the consent of the governed, and to the degree that a governor or other elected official behaves so badly as to lose the trust of the people, his actions need to be scrutinized--and if they appear to have been born of corruption, those actions need to be nullified by the courts or the legislature. Morality does indeed enter into the picture.

Is Guthrie suggesting that Paul's support of government authority tells us it's OK to quit preaching the Gospel if the government tells us to? I know Peter and Paul had their disagreements, but I think Paul would agree with Peter that "we must obey God rather than men" when it comes to the mandate to preach the Gospel.


You make a good point, but Blagojevich has received "the consent of the governed" twice, by election. A lot of people knew he was a political rat when they voted for him, or didn't care. I believe leaders should be both moral and competent, but we all (not just the governor) need to abide by the rules, and not change them in the middle of the game. In this case, I believe Blago (as bad as he is) has the rules on his side. Perhaps we the people need to vote more discerningly next time. Someone, I can't remember who, said we generally get the leaders we deserve.