Slaying Leviathan: Limited Government and Resistance in the Christian Tradition
By Glenn S. Sunshine.
Canon Press, 2020.
Paperback,194 pages, $15.95.
Reviewed by Zachary Yost.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 heralded a new era in American political discourse. For many, Trump, for all his many foibles and faults, represented a giant hammer with which increasingly dissatisfied people could smash away at the more or less progressive status quo and attempt to bring about a new order of things. What exactly that new order is to be has yet to be determined, and those who desire a change are certainly not in agreement.
This search for something new has resulted in a cottage industry for intellectuals of various stripes putting forward proposals of varying degrees of radicalness. On the right there has been a renewed interest in political theology and the relationship between church, state, and the role each has in promoting a moral order.
One of the first books in this genre came in 2018 with Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. Deneen, in what was to become a continuing theme, rejected the enlightenment and all but conceded that due to its Lockean principles America itself had a misbegotten founding, but stopped short of suggesting just what kind of orders should replace that of “failed” liberalism.
However, Deneen is quite moderate in contrast to the Roman Catholic integralists that have followed after him, some of the most prominent being Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule (Common Good Constitutionalism) and writer Sohrab Ahmari (The Unbroken Thread). One of the most radical books in this vein is the 2020 book Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy by Fr. Thomas Crean, a Dominican friar, and Alan Paul Fimister, a Roman Catholic theology professor, which goes all the way in arguing that the state must be subordinate to the church, specifically the Roman Church.
Protestants have not been left out of this intellectual milieu, with the recent release of Stephen Wolfe’s controversial book The Case for Christian Nationalism, which clocks in at 488 pages. Wolfe is a staunch reformed Presbyterian and touches on numerous issues, ranging from the mixing of races and relations between the sexes to men’s testosterone levels with what one reviewer has characterized as “a series of vituperative harangues.” At the very least it is clear that Wolfe urges for a radical reorientation of American political and theological life.
All this revolutionary talk from both Protestants and Roman Catholics makes Slaying Leviathan: Limited Government and Resistance in the Christian Tradition, by Glenn Sunshine, a refreshing and much needed perspective and grounding in this turbulent age.
In contrast to many other recent offerings in this genre, Sunshine does not respond to the current societal crisis and increasing secularization with rather improbable flights of fancy that imagine instituting a Thomistic theocracy or its Protestant equivalent. Rather, Sunshine introduces readers to a simple yet thorough understanding of political theology rooted in history and promotes simple and feasible reforms that have some chance of actually happening. One can’t help but see Machiavelli’s line that “it appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of the matter than the imagination of it; for many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen” coloring the entire work and its useful reliance on actual history and experience with governing.
Sunshine goes back to the earliest days of the church to unpack various theories about the relationship between the church and the secular world, specifically the state. He argues that the early church’s experience with being a minority and persecuted religion set the stage for the clear separation of the church from the state that has characterized much of Christian political theology in the ensuing centuries.
Drawing upon the idea of sphere sovereignty, a form of the separation of social powers put forward by the Dutch theologian and eventual prime minister, Abraham Kuyper, Sunshine argues that “religion and government in Christianity are separate institutions with different spheres of authority and with distinct responsibilities.”
This early history demonstrates that the church is clearly able to fulfill its mission, even if it is facing persecution, let alone not actually running the state itself. With a much appreciated frankness, Sunshine distinguishes himself from the integralists by explicitly stating, “Until Christ returns, theocracy is off the table.”
Sunshine’s crash course through centuries of political theological thought serves as an excellent primer on the subject, even separate from the rest of the work itself. He pays special attention to Augustine’s emphasis on the fallen nature of man and its implications for how much can realistically be expected from a state (not much is the answer, and Sunshine begins the chapter with a quote from Cicero that sets the tone for this chapter: “never was a government that was not composed of liars, malefactors, and thieves”).
Of special note is Sunshine’s discussion of Pope Gelasius I (492-496) and his assertion of the two-swords theory that “all earthly rulers are answerable to their ecclesiastical superiors, who are themselves subordinate to the pope.” Sunshine characterizes Gelasius’ claim as “bold and essentially unprecedented” and states that this claim of Roman supremacy is hardly in keeping with church tradition, let alone the sixth canon of the Council of Nicaea, and that the Eastern Orthodox and Coptics have never recognized this innovative claim.
While noting that Augustine has something of a mixed legacy when it comes to religious toleration due to his advocacy for the state suppression of heretics, ultimately, Sunshine concludes, in sharp contrast to contemporary integralists such as Sohrab Ahmari who incorrectly draw upon Augustine to argue in favor of theocracy, that “we cannot rely on government to deal with our Sin, because government itself is subject to Sin, and is ill-equipped to solve social problems outside its proper purview.”
Continuing on with his history lesson, Sunshine does an excellent job of briefly explaining the implications of the Protestant Reformation, especially the theories of Luther and Calvin, on distinctions between the proper role and relationship between the Church and the state and directly connecting these developments to later thought that would develop in England and eventually the United States.
Of note, Sunshine does not toss John Locke out, as has been the habit of other thinkers, such as Patrick Deneen, but rather argues that Locke’s Two Treatises is a “great accomplishment” that synthesizes medieval and more modern political and theological thought.
This is most significant when it comes to Protestant theories of resistance, justifications for disobeying or even overthrowing unjust authority, and what actions are justified in doing so and which ones are not.
Sunshine again makes a welcome contribution here in that he makes moderate proposals, but unlike some theologians and clergy, this moderation does not amount to ignoring the current societal crisis, or simply surrendering to the secular world. In his moderation he similarly avoids falling into the extremism born of desperation that can be seen in other Christian political thinkers, such as Stephen Wolfe, who explicitly states, “Here I will justify violent revolution,” and plainly rejects the idea that his arguments are meant to be understood as purely academic ivory tower abstractions.
Sunshine, whose book predates Wolfe’s, is refreshingly clear that even though “there is no question our unalienable rights are being eroded” currently “self-defense is justified today; active resistance to the government is not.”
This sensible moderation is once again rooted in Sunshine’s knowledge and understanding of history. By rejecting abstract states that have never existed, and instead focusing on what can be learned from past experience in the form of the actual history of church-state relations and violent conflict, Sunshine concludes that our present circumstance, while certainly not good, does not meet the level that requires a call to arms, such as the Schmalkaldic League in the holy Roman Empire, or the Huguenots in France.
Overall, Sunshine’s work is a most welcome edition to the growing body of contemporary political theology. The work is undoubtedly rooted in a reformed perspective, but even those who might diverge theologically will find this work to be an extremely useful short primer on the history of Christian political thought. By rejecting idle speculation about “pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen” and instead focussing on actual history, Sunshine provides actual an useful perspective when it comes to considering how Christians and fellow travelers should act in the world as it actually is.
Zachary Yost is a freelance writer and researcher based in Pittsburgh. He is the co-host of the War, Economy, and State Podcast. Subscribe to his Substack, The Yost Post, and follow him on Twitter @ZacharyYost.
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