We are all familiar with the long tradition of social contractarian thinking which has pervaded Western civilisation, having a distinct expression during the Early Modern period with Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau. While the theories were and remain controversial, it is largely accepted today that social contract theories are more of a political heuristic, a method for thinking through the conditions for engaging in a common political life via an abstract “state of nature”, or from behind the “veil of ignorance”, rather than trying to prove the existence of an actual hypothetical social contract which binds or an actual “state of nature” or “veil of ignorance” which itself must be chosen eyes wide open.

One of the pre-political conditions for engaging in social contractarian thinking, neglected by most political philosophers, is the affirmation of God as my oft quoted portion from Locke shows. Without God, oaths, covenants, and contracts would be meaningless and all social bonds would dissolve. David Gauthier, a contemporary political philosopher in the Hobbesian social contract tradition, is one of the few to acknowledge the Lockean point. While his academic career is dedicated to using game theory to show how a godless Hobbesian social contract theory can provide the framework to create binding political obligations, he admits that in the end Hobbes theory cannot bind the one who can materially evade the contract without the means of enforcement, and in that sense, Locke does have a point. There has to be an ultimate judge whose scrutiny we cannot escape, whether in this life or the next.

In this post I would like to engage in a similar heuristic in the social contractarian tradition, not to figure out the terms of this contract, but to work out what sort of civil religion, and what sort of characteristics of God must be publicly acknowledged, in order for social contracts to have force and to serve as an adequate basis for a polity founded on agreement. I shall call this “social covenant” thinking to highlight its religious nature, and for the civil theology to be framed I shall call it “Acts 17 Civic Theism” where the characteristics can be drawn from Acts 17:22-31

So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to inhabit all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His offspring.’ Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to suppose that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the craft and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now commanding men that everyone everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness…

We may extract from these verses the following characteristics:

(1) Everyone worships God whether they do so rightly or wrongly, in knowledge or in ignorance. When Aaron made the golden calf and declared it to be their God, they trying to worship Yahweh, they were not trying to worship something else, they merely worship Yahweh *wrongly* against God’s expressed instructions. As such the case here is analogous to the “strange fires” problem of worship, the sin is not worshipping a different entity from God but worshipping him wrongly, in some cases at least.

The sin of paganism as such could be two-fold, (1) worshipping the true God wrongly and (2) worshipping other gods *in addition* to the true God.

From here we can infer that there is both a duty and a right for everyone to worship God as the Virginian Constitution puts it:

That religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and, therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience…

-Constitution of the State of Virginia

It is this duty of worship which will secure the other duties which makes possible civil society and civilisation. But first, we need some flesh on this God whom everyone has a duty to worship:

(2) “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth”. God is the creator of all things in heaven and on earth and has power over all creation, including us, as well as is the determiner of their shape, form, and nature.

This point is vital as oaths, covenants, and promises has force only if (a) there is a God who has power to visit punishments for violations of such oaths and (b) the terms of an oath have an intelligible meaning and referent based on an intelligible creation determined by an intelligent God. Man cannot mean woman, not matter what we contemporaries say, and we cannot alter the meaning of marriages at will. For oaths, covenants, and promises to be meaning, words must have objective meaningful referent, they must be able to refer to an objectively intelligible reality.

This point can be held consistently with henotheism or belief in a plurality of other gods as long as there is one supreme almighty God who is both creator and Lord of all heaven and earth, and who will be the enforcer and judge of covenants and oaths.

(3) “God… does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things… we ought not to suppose that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the craft and thought of man.”

The point of these verses is to put God out of human control. For God to be almighty Lord over all of us, he cannot be controlled by us, whose presence and “being” can be subject to our crafting abilities and control, where we can direct God’s presence into temples and stuff to serve a “needy” God and to satisfy his “needs”, etc. This is an important point because if there’s a religious group who can claim to be able to direct God’s presence or control God’s presence on earth, to be able to meet “God’s needs”, then God cannot serve as an impartial arbiter or enforcer of oaths between the different religious believers because God would be in the favour of one religious group who can uniquely meet his needs for a dwelling place. So this wouldn’t preclude God being able to manifest his presence on earth, it would only preclude us being able to control it via our crafting abilities and human power.

So it is essential to any social covenant between different religious groups that God is not subject to the control of any particular religious group.

(4) “He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness”

Belief in an afterlife wherein we shall be judged on our performance on oaths is essential to the force of oaths as clearly, it is pointless to have an almighty God who yet doesn’t care if we fulfil our oath or not, and only a belief in the afterlife wherein God will us to account for our oaths will give such oaths their force.

And further, when the power dynamic between different parties are uncertain, it is fundamentally the sacredness of the oath, and fear of judgement in the next life, which shall maintain the sacredness of the covenant, for even if by force and war we can escape the judgement for violating the same in this life.

These considerations merely posit the explicit or express doctrines necessary for maintaining a cohesive and coherent society between parties, they are the preconditions for any form of oaths, covenants, and compacts to have any meaning or force at all. To my knowledge, only the various US states’s constitutions have come the closest to spelling out these theological preconditions for civil society.

I’m sure there’s a lot more to be said, but I think Acts 17 Civil Theism could be a credible alternative to Christian nationalism.

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