Is Sovereignty Protestant?

I spent last weekend participating in an interesting Federalist Society/Liberty Fund colloquium, “International Law, Foreign Law, and the Constitution.” Some of readings for the colloquium discussed the development of the concept of sovereignty in international law. It’s striking how closely the concept relates, historically, to the Protestant Reformation. The great theoreticians of sovereignty were mostly, though not exclusively, Protestants seeking to provide an intellectual grounding for the Westphalian system, people like Grotius and Vattel, though Vattel is more an Enlightenment than a Christian thinker, it seems to me. Even Bodin, the 16th Century French writer credited with the first comprehensive theory of sovereignty, was a crypto-Protestant, at least according to the Tudor secret police.

The core components of Westphalian sovereignty were the equality and independence of states. Each state had an equal right to govern itself and no state had the right to meddle in another’s internal affairs. The non-interference principle extended especially to religion. According to Vattel, for example, the Law of Nations, a set of rules derived from natural law, prohibited attempts to impose the “true faith” on a state from the outside. In fact, Vattel argued, even peaceful missionary work was prohibited, unless the local government allowed it. (Vattel made an exception for the Twelve Apostles; they had resisted the state’s attempts to silence them, he conceded, but they could perform miracles). Sovereignty, presented as a matter of natural law, greatly assisted the Protestant Reformers, who were seeking a principled, “neutral” justification for resisting the Catholic Church’s assertions of universal jurisdiction. It takes a natural law to beat a natural law.

Protestants and Catholics don’t fight about these things so much anymore, but one can see a similar pattern in contemporary disputes about international human rights. Even though contemporary human rights law tends to speak in a secular idiom, it’s hard to miss the strong religious, natural law aspect of some of its key concepts, such as “human dignity.” International human rights advocates assert that these concepts are universally true and must apply as a matter of law everywhere. States that resist, in turn, often assert their sovereignty, and their position is often a moral one: “You can’t impose your norms here, because this is our country, and we have the right to decide.” Sovereignty thus continues to serve its historical function as a mechanism for resisting centralized moral authority in a fight about ultimate value. – MLM

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2 responses to “Is Sovereignty Protestant?

  1. I think Mark is definitely on to something here.

    In fact, the recently released Note on the financial crisis from the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice actually includes this very passage:

    “So conditions exist for definitively going beyond a ‘Westphalian’ international order in which the States feel the need for cooperation but do not seize the opportunity to integrate their respective sovereignties for the common good of peoples.”

  2. markmovsesian

    Thanks, Ron, very interesting.

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