If there is no God, that fact has political consequences. If there is no God, then people are just material beings, an odd cosmic coincidence. If there is no God, our yearnings for love and friendship and truth and beauty are not what they seem. They are just biological impulses.
And if different people have different sorts of impulses then there is certainly no basis for saying one person's impulses are right and another's are wrong. Those impulses just are -- random bits of energy in a cosmos without morality.
What would a humane politics be like in such a universe? It would, first, try to ensure that everyone had the "right" to act upon their impulses. If someone had an inclination to, say, sadomasochism then they should be able to act upon that impulse. But, second, politics would ensure that one person's exercise of his or her impulses would not unduly interfere with other people acting upon their impulses.
So political authority would simply be a matter of constraining people from trampling on each others' toes. There would, in fact, be no distinction between political authority and political power. Political authority in this atheistic, but liberal, world would be nothing more than the exercise of power to preserve people's right to do as they please.
Political authority would always have to be on guard against those nut cases who believed there is such a thing as objective morality to prevent those people from imposing that morality on others. They would be the greatest threat to liberty that could exist.
In fact, if it's not already there, the Western world is moving rapidly in the direction of viewing political authority in just this way. This world view was summed up quite neatly a few years ago in the U.S. Supreme Court decision (Casey vs. Planned Parenthood) which stated, "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of the mystery of human life." In other words, there is no truth, moral or otherwise.
However, if there is a God who has created the universe then that would have political consequences too. It would mean that there is purpose and meaning in the cosmos. And if the human person were created with free will -- the ability to choose between right and wrong -- then it would seem to be of the utmost importance to know what is right and what is wrong and to always do the morally good thing.
It would also mean that our yearnings for love, friendship and truth are not mere biological impulses, but an important part of our human identity. We form communities not just to survive but also as places where we can fulfil ourselves by entering into relationships with others.
Political authority in this sort of universe would not be identified with power although it would include the imposition of constraints on people's behaviour for the sake of the common good. More basically, political authority would involve the ordering of the human community so that good can flourish and evil can be avoided. It would encourage the development of virtue and it would, so far as is reasonable, discourage the exercise of vice. In short, the basis of political authority would be morality, not power.
In such a situation, it would be important that those in authority be people of virtue. Part of being a scoundrel is to blind oneself as much as possible to the light of the truth. And if one is walking in moral darkness, he can hardly be a guide leading the community into the light.
It could also be helpful for those in authority to share their authority as far as is reasonable so that all parts of the social organism are full of life and initiative. Many functions can be better carried out by smaller communities within the large community. For example, except for the most extreme situations, children should be reared by their parents rather than by the government.
When authority is properly exercised there will be a flourishing of true freedom. Not the freedom which sullenly says, "I can do whatever I please," but the freedom which obeys legitimate authority and honours that which is morally good and which strives to foster the good in others.
In the Western world, we tend to privatize faith and religion, leaving the public domain to those who are functionally atheistic. But there is a question of fact here -- Is there a God or is there no God? And if there is a God then that should have significant implications for the way political authority is conceived and exercised.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.