Federalism and covenant
Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 - The Lord of Hosts p/d 2 of 8
Good morning! The word “federal” comes from the Latin word for covenant, and the Bible’s overlapping covenants among its “tribal hosts” present a model of federalism that involves small, participatory units. Unlike biblical federalism, the United States’s federalism doesn’t involve its citizens at local or family levels, and a similar lack of involvement has led other Western mass societies in the last century towards totalitarianism. Click here to read the previous devotion in this “The Lord of Hosts” series.
The difference between a slavish, mass society and “tribal hosts” is federalism. The hosts—the political participation of individuals in families, clans, and tribes—are biblical federations. In the Bible, federalism creates political places, Professor Daniel J. Elazar suggests, through participation based on overlapping covenants:
[Biblical] Israel becomes, in effect, a partnership held together by covenantal or federal ties that link the people to each other through their tribes and also link them to God. These federal principles became so ingrained in Israelite political thought that, ever since, Jewish communities have been conceived as partnerships and have been organized through articles of agreement that are in themselves small covenants.1
Elazar emphasizes the links between federalism and covenant, and he points out that the word “federal” comes “from the Latin foedus, covenant.”2 God’s covenants and Israel’s early, tribal federalism have served as the core of Jewish political life from Egypt forward.
The United States’s federalism, too, along with the earlier federalism of the British colonies in America, derives in large part from the Bible’s emphasis on covenants. “Modern federalism,” Professor Charles S. McCoy writes, “emerged in Switzerland as the recovery of the Bible with its emphasis on covenant was combined with the political practice derived from Teutonic tribal covenants.”3 The Bible’s covenants left us a federal legacy, helping the founders conceive of ways for the state and national governments to relate federally.
But mass societies, even ones with legislatures and courts that relate federally, don’t involve citizens politically.4 Unless covenants reach into communities and families, we don’t experience federalism. “Only recently,” Elazar says, “as we have come to see the consequences of unrestrained individualism, both philosophically and practically, have political scientists begun to explore problems of liberty in relation to primordial groups— families, particularly, and ethnic communities.” Elazar points out that European forms of federalism removed from the political life of such “primordial groups” gave way in the last century to totalitarianism.5
While self-contained, today’s devotion also benefits from its series’s other devotions, including tomorrow’s. See you then!
Elazar, Covenant & Polity, 356.
Elazar, “Althusius’ Grand Design,” xxxvi.
McCoy, Federalism, 7-8.
Taking sides in a mass society’s ideological debate doesn’t constitute true political involvement. Thomas Merton suggests as much: “This very special and tempting force of propaganda—that it helps sustain the individual’s illusion of identity and freedom—is due to the isolation of the individual in mass society, in which he is in fact a zero in the crowd in which he is absorbed. It is this simple act of apparently thinking out what is thought out for him by propaganda that saves the individual from totally vanishing into the mass. It makes him imagine he is real.” Merton, Conjectures, 239.