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God, by whom kings and queens do reign

Monday, 12 September 2022  | Paul Tyson

In the proclamation of Charles III as king, you may have noticed that the theology of divinely mediated sovereignty was solemnly declared, and that this understanding of sovereignty is the grounds of all legitimate political and legal authority in Commonwealth nations. This proclamation – stated before God to all the peoples of the Commonwealth – appealed to ‘God, by whom kings and queens do reign’, to grant our new sovereign long life and a happy reign over us.

Meanwhile, in the English Parliament, the vow of allegiance to the new sovereign was taken by all parliamentarians. This will happen in all Commonwealth parliaments as well. It is a solemn public oath sworn before God and sworn on the Bible, in utmost seriousness, for our parliamentarians are servants of the Crown. Every Australian politician with a seat in any Australian parliament must promises to ‘bear true allegiance’ to the Crown. And the king is not only our sovereign in matters temporal, but he is also Defender of the [Christian] Faith and the titular head of the Church of England.

So it would seem that the British, and we also, as subjects of the English Crown, are all public Christians. As such, we are all required to recognise the true transcendent and divine source of the political authority under which we live. This public religious requirement is incumbent upon us, even if we are private atheists, or private agnostics, even if we are private republicans, even if we are not affiliates of the Church of England, and even if we are devout adherents of a non-Christian religion. Publically, our parliamentary representatives take Christian vows before God, on our behalf, to a divinely authorised monarch.

The interesting fact is that we Australians have a public religion: it’s the Church of England, and its head is also our political sovereign. Further, this public religion is the grounds of legal and political authority in our system of law and government. So ‘religious freedom’ in ‘secular’ Australia is actually the practice of allowing citizens to privately not believe what we publically must respect and must submit to, as upholders of right law and order in our land. That is, ‘religious freedom’ in our Crown-based system of law and government is not the private right to have a religion or no religion of your personal choice, whilst in public we are all secular and non-religious. The exact opposite is that case. We must uphold a public Christian religion, though in private you can believe whatever you like about the divine. You can even disbelieve entirely in the reality of the divine; your private integrity and convictions are your own affair. But in public, you and I must uphold the principle of the divine grounds of public law and power. This first principle is the foundation of the system of law and government under which we live, and it is so indispensable, so fundamental, that adherence to this first principle is not optional for Australian parliamentarians and citizens.

Somehow, over the past one and half to two centuries, this first principle of the public religious grounding of sovereign and just power has become confused in our minds. It has become so confused that we now habitually get the traditional relationship between public religion and private conscience entirely inverted. For example, former Prime Minister Scott Morrison was almost exactly wrong in the manner in which he situated his religion in the personal domain only, and seems to have often approached public political life in an a-religious and calculatedly ‘realist’ manner. In public and political life he was a secular political pragmatist, with no ultimate religious commitments or sacred moral absolutes, but in private he was a pious Christian, personally subject to the transcendent and moral truths. He should rather have aspired to be a Just and Good Prime Minister, upholding the public religious commitments of those who are ministers of the Crown, and if he was a pragmatic and secular political ‘realist’ in his private convictions and non-public actions, perhaps that would have been his personal business and of no concern to public life.

The solemn oaths of our politicians under the conditions of the reign of a new monarch reveal that we have a public religion and that ‘religious freedom’ is the opposite of what we thought. It also reveals that sovereignty is still, in practice, theological. The Uluru Statement is correct; sovereignty is spiritual, it is not simply an assertion of power.

Functionally, we typically adhere to the secular theory of the ‘sovereignty of parliament’, which is a fairly recent construct, intriguingly at odds with us still having the Crown as our actual sovereign. We now also typically believe that political and legal ‘authority’ is derived from this nebulous and pliable thing, ‘the will of the people’, which a valid democratic parliamentary process alone is held to both manifest and create. But in reality, the metaphysics of transcendent authority as the embodied symbolic grounds – however imperfectly expressed in actual government – of our system of law and governance mediates a divine legitimacy to our way of life. Unlike ‘parliamentary sovereignty’, the mediation of divine authority to our laws and government, through our monarch, is not a theory. This is the practical institutional reality of our Crown-based system of legal and political authority. That is, the Crown is the theological and final symbol of just political and legal order in our actually existing public system of justice and governance.

Normally, we do not notice the Crown very much, but at times like this it is visible. And something genuinely interesting is now visible. For if government and law is simply about power, that is, if might and mere legal and parliamentary process makes right, then all displays of the glory and dignity of sovereignty, and all public ceremonies showing proper deference to the authority of law and government, are fake. But if there indeed is a real difference between might and right, if mere legality and the democratic process itself are not identical to moral legitimacy, then something transcendent needs to be the grounds of good law and morally valid power. There must be Justice and Goodness as divine realities if we are to respect the principles of the rule of law and the concept of good governance. Transcendent qualitative truth that is above us must be, in some imperfect and ever humanly mediated way, the grounds of law and power under which we live. So it is right and, well… satisfying, to have these theological public rituals done in high seriousness, as a king is proclaimed. For the King is a living symbol of transcendent ruling authority, whatever sort of person the sovereign (in private) actually may be.

In the actual reality of our Crown-defined system of law and political authority, Justice and Good Governance stand above all human interests and knowledge. And conceptually, perhaps this is why we have a sovereign who is a symbol of divinely mediated authority, but who makes no laws and is not a political actor, unless (as in Australia) the normal system of political action fails. But for reasons that are hard to fully understand, we usually accept the fiction that human interest entirely constructs legal meanings and political power. Maybe it is our unthinking belief in this fiction (which, perhaps both our politicians and our public now largely believe) that makes us so cynical about politics.

Perhaps it is time to be more metaphysically realistic, both negatively and positively, about power. Negatively, sin and evil are normal features of human life. That is why we need laws to aspire to justice, and government to aspire to serving the common good. But these aspirations are meaningless if there is no Justice and Goodness that stands above simply what the rich and powerful can get away with. That is, without faith in the transcendent source of sovereignty, we cannot uphold respect for political and legal authority itself. The Crown is thus a very metaphysically realistic feature of our laws and government.

With the above in mind, let us then reflect, for a moment, on what metaphysical and theological freight is carried by the very simple phrase ‘long live the king!’ And perhaps we as citizens actually might need to really believe what our political representatives solemnly swear. For perhaps upholding fealty to the Crown – as the living symbol of the divine origin of our earthly system of power – is civically necessary for a system of law and power that aspires to imperfectly administered Justice and Goodness. The alternative is a base ‘realism’ of symbolically unadorned mere power. But would power just as power be morally and politically sustainable? The case could be made that the theology of the sovereignty of the Crown is remarkably politically realistic.

Paul Tyson is an Honorary Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland.

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