November 23, 2000, Thanksgiving Day
The Honorable Al Gore
Vice President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. Vice President,
Let me introduce myself. I am a husband and the father of seven and an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. I am also a professor of social ethics at a theological seminary and a Ph.D. candidate in the history of constitutionalism in seventeenth–century Britain. I am not an ignorant, disgruntled American but a political philosopher (not a politician or political scientist) deeply troubled about the state of our nation.
For the last two weeks, I, like many Americans—Republicans and Democrats alike—have experienced growing concern about the survival of American constitutional government and the rule of law. Yesterday, in responding positively to your supporters' appeal to allow manual recounts to continue in three Florida counties and to require the Secretary of State's office to include those results in the final, certified election results for the State of Florida, the Florida Supreme Court exercised a breathtaking violation of the constitutional principle of the separation of powers, sweeping aside statutory law adopted by the legislature and the lawful and prudent exercise of administrative duties by the executive branch. No doubt their decision was to your liking. But it is extremely alarming to me as a political philosopher and historian of political thought. It brings us to the brink of an extraordinarily dangerous situation: the installation in office of someone whose claim to that office is not simply doubted but vehemently rejected by a huge and well–informed part of the citizenry.
I know the argument that all you want is to ensure that the voice of the people is heard. The Bush campaign played into your hands on that line by insisting all along that it trusts the people and you don't. But, in agreement with our founding fathers—who, because they believed in the sinfulness of man, set up a constitutional order designed to preserve the rule of law in a system of separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism—I trust neither the people nor the government completely.
Instead, I trust God, who reigns over all, and I recognize that our founders established a prudent system that would minimize the harm to be expected from the sinfulness of both the people and their governors. Recall that John Adams called the American system "a government of laws, not of men."
Our constitutional system carefully provides for the expression of, and consideration of, public opinion. It includes a system for electing government officials. It is important that the people's voice be heard in that system. It is, however, also important that the system work according to the rule of law, the concern of which is for impartiality of process, not for attainment of specific ends. Among the hallmarks of the rule of law enumerated by the late Nobel Prize–winning economist and political philosopher Friedrich A. Hayek are predictability (the rules of the game must not change in midstream) and impartiality (rules must be adopted whose particular effect on particular people cannot be foreseen). Those hallmarks reflect a Biblical standard of justice as well: "You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial. . . . But in righteousness you shall judge your neighbor" (Leviticus 19:15). "You shall not show partiality in judgment; you shall hear the small as well as the great; you shall not be afraid in any man's presence, for the judgment is God's" (Deuteronomy 1:17).
Those principles are endangered by the strategy your campaign has pursued in the Florida election: a strategy that has sought—and now obtained–the neglect of laws, duly passed by a legislature, whose impact on specific competitors in specific elections could not be foreseen and was therefore utterly impartial; a strategy that has included intentionally singling out heavily Democratic counties for recounts and neglecting others; a strategy that has sought the disqualification of overseas ballots, contrary to Federal law, because it could be foreseen that including them in the count would be more to your opponent's advantage than to yours, while seeking to qualify other ballots, contrary to Florida law, because it could be foreseen that including them in the count would be more to your advantage than to your opponent's; a strategy that entrusts to biased hand counters the responsibility to divine the "intent of voters" when all the evidence they have before them is a "dimpled" or "pregnant" chad—which could as easily be explained as a voter's last–second decision not to vote for someone as it can be explained as a voter's intention to vote for someone. That your attorneys have managed to get a court comprising six Democrats and one Independent all appointed by a Democratic governor, to endorse your strategy does not negate the cold, hard facts of the case.
So I find myself facing a great moral dilemma. As a Christian, I believe that the Bible is the Word of God and that it instructs me in my duties. Among other things, it commands me to "be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves" (Romans 13:1–2). What will this entail for me should you manage, through legal legerdemain, to gain the presidency now? On the face of it, it would seem that it would require me simply to submit to you as my president merely because you hold the office. But it is not that simple.
First, the Constitution, not the president (or any other officer) is the supreme earthly authority in this country. This passage, therefore, requires me to submit to the Constitution more than to any officer.
Second, merely holding an office is not by itself proof that one is an "authority" as the word is used in this text. One who attains an office illegitimately is not an authority but a usurper. Consider this: In many countries, an election situation like what we are enduring at present would have resulted in intervention by the military, brushing aside whatever the election results might be, and installing someone chosen by the military. We who believe that government depends for its legitimacy in part on the consent of the governed would without hesitation conclude that the new president in that situation was illegitimate and that the people were not morally obligated to submit to him. I thank God that we have not seen that happen in America—although, with your intentional disenfranchisement of overseas military voters, it would be understandable (though still wrong). But my aim here is simply to drive home the point that merely holding an office does not entail legitimate authority.
Third, the text of Romans 13 itself goes on, after those first two verses, to define what it means by an "authority" to which "every soul [must] be subject." Such ".rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience' sake" (Romans 13:3–5) That is, a real "authority" punishes those who do evil, not those who do good; he is a minister of God; and the reason for submission is not mere fear of punishment but conscience—a conscience that testifies to the citizen that submission is the right and good thing, because the authority is legitimate.
Mr. Vice President, presently you hold office legitimately. But–having carefully followed the details of this twisted election recount process; having carefully listened to the attorneys' presentations to the Florida Supreme Court on Monday and then read them later; having carefully considered the relevant state election laws (which are not, despite claims to the contrary, self–contradictory); and having carefully read the Florida Supreme Court's decision handed down November 21—I am convinced that if you are declared the winner after all of this, you will have stolen this election. You will not be a legitimate authority should you be inaugurated President of the United States.
And that, Mr. Vice President, puts me in a terrible situation. It puts me in a situation of having to denounce the authority of the titular president of this nation; of having to approve of others who do likewise; and of having to admit the legitimacy, in principle, even if not in prudence, of attempts to supplant you. (I do not say usurp, for only legitimate authority can be usurped.)
But, Mr. Vice President, I have some consolation. First, I would be doing no more than what the founders of our country did when, in the Declaration of Independence, they renounced a king and a parliament that had forfeited their legitimate rule over the colonies by violating the transcendent "laws of nature and of nature's God." Second, I would be doing no more than what the opponents of James II did when, convinced of his intention to overthrow the British constitution, they sought and attained his removal from the throne and his replacement by William of Orange. Third, I would be doing no more than what David did in ancient Israel when, King Saul having forfeited his legitimacy by disobeying the commands of God through the Prophet Samuel, he resisted Saul's rule until at last God removed Saul from office and installed David, whom He, through Samuel, had previously anointed king.
Mr. Vice President, I am sure there are many, many thousands, even millions, of Americans who find themselves facing the same dreadful choice I am facing. Few will have approached that choice in quite the same way I have approached it. Perhaps they will not enlist the same line of reasoning. But what is crystal clear is that they will approach it. And many—not only Republicans, but even many Democrats who voted for you will conclude as I have concluded. Then we shall have you to blame for the most serious undermining of the constitutional order this country has ever suffered.
I love America, Mr. Vice President. I love its Constitution and its Declaration of Independence. I love its amazing system of separation of powers, of checks and balances, of federalism—so wisely constructed by men who knew their own sinfulness and knew that it affected all others. Please, for God's sake, do not sweep those things away.
Concede the election now, Mr. Vice President. You may then be able to run again four years from now not only with the high esteem of the American public, which will recognize that you have chosen the good of the country over your own ambition, but also with a clear conscience.
I pray that God will give you wisdom and humility.
E. Calvin Beisner
Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Social Ethics
Knox Theological Seminary, 5554 N. Federal Highway, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida 33308