The Hart home has a problem. The missus and I are about 2/3 of the way through season four of The Wire (for at least the third time for the whole series), and we are also making our way pleasantly through West Wing thanks to being smitten by Newsroom. As I’ve tried to explain elsewhere, you can’t have two more diametrical views of political life in the United States than Simon’s sober portrait of the state of nature (Hobbesian) with a veneer of civilization or Sorkin’s inspiring depiction of large, national institutions like the executive branch of the federal government or the reporting of network news organizations. The conflict within this hyphenated blogger is thoroughly appreciating the self-interest that pervades all walks of life in Simon’s Baltimore and the genuine love of country that steers both West Wing’s president, Josiah Bartlet, Newsroom’s anchor, Will McAvoy. So powerful have Sorkin’s series been that I have found myself rooting for President Obama and (finally) recognizing how destructive (even if entertaining) conservative talk radio is. (I am still enough of an Augustinian and Madisonian to understand that people in power need to be questioned and checked.)
And thanks to the life of Martin O’Malley serving as the basis for the white city-councilman who becomes mayor in Simon’s Baltimore, I’m especially hoping that O’Malley beats Hillary in the Democratic primaries and becomes president. Then maybe Simon and Sorkin can co-produce a series on an O’Malley administration.
Another Aaron, the one who blogs for Ref21, has a few remarks about Calvin on civil government that help me justify my new-found patriotism and the shows that inspired it:
In Calvin’s estimation, the Christian life is properly one of constant gratitude. Gratitude bears fruit in holiness — we can and should say “thank you” to God with our lives as well as our lips. The root of gratitude is constant and careful attention to God’s remarkable gifts to us in spite of our creaturely finitude and culpability both for Adam’s sin and our own. God’s greatest gift to us, of course, is Jesus Christ, to whom we are joined by the power of the Spirit as the basis of our forgiveness, renewal in the divine image, and restoration to fellowship with the Triune God. But God has given other gifts to us — gifts that are common to believers and unbelievers alike, but should no less be noted and appreciated. Government is one such gift. Any reflection upon civil government which does not ultimately lead to gratitude (and therefore greater holiness) is faulty by Calvin’s standard. Thus he introduces the subject of human government in his Institutes by observing: “It is of no slight importance to us to know how lovingly God has provided in this respect for mankind, that greater zeal for piety may flourish in us to attest our gratefulness.”
It is, importantly, not government in abstracto that should lead us to “gratefulness” but government in concreto. To put a finer edge on this point: it is this government — this president, this congress, this parliament, this prime minister, this monarch, this mayor, etc. — that should properly catapult us into a posture of prayerful gratitude before God. Calvin has little interest, in fact, in government in the abstract. Thus he dismisses debates/conversations about the “best kind of government” (whether monarchy, oligarchy, or democracy) as an “idle pastime” for persons who have no real influence upon the particular form of government where they live. He proceeds, ironically, to spend some time considering the advantages and disadvantages (and there are both) of each “kind” of government, but concludes the matter by highlighting the superfluity of even his own words: “All these things are needlessly spoken to those for whom the will of the Lord is enough. For if it has seemed good to him to set kings over kingdoms, senates or municipal officers over free cities, it is our duty to show ourselves compliant and obedient to whomever he sets over the places where we live” (emphasis mine). What really matters, in other words, is not what government would be best, but what government you’ve been given. That is the government to which you must submit; that, by the same token, is the government for which you should offer thanks, with both your lips and your life, to God.
It may even be that for Calvin, gratitude is the basis for the Christian life.