While I was at a religious festival recently, one of my friends who was also attending asked me a question about James’ mention of God’s law as the royal law of liberty, and in conversation we sought to explore some of the implications of this statement in contemporary politics and the legitimacy of the state. Given the widespread interest in matters of politics and the legitimacy of government behavior in wider society, I thought this question and its discussion was worth sharing with a wider audience, but at the time the question was asked I lacked the time to write about it at length. We find the mention of the royal law of liberty in James 2:8-13, which reads: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
What does the royal law of liberty have to do with politics? The answer requires a bit of unpacking, but it is worth examining in some detail. For one, let us note that the obligation to love others, a love that is expressed in its negative form by avoiding certain behaviors like theft, adultery, lying, and violence, and in a positive form by the laws for generosity, for balanced measures and fair standards of judgment. It is noteworthy that we see both the negative and positive aspects of the love for our neighbor discussed by James, balancing examples of the ten commandments with the obligation to show mercy to others given the fact that we all require the mercy of God for ourselves. Aspects of mercy and justice are, of course, essential to politics, which is where the discussion between my friends and I moved from theological to practical levels of interest to our larger society, especially as citizens of the United States of America.
In the founding generation of the United States, it was common for those leaders to connect the freedom of our political institutions as a republic with the moral quality of the people at large. To give but one example, John Adams, the second president of the United States, stated that “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other .” Here too there is a connection between the laws and the morality of the people. To connect liberty and law, we must have a proper understanding of the question of regulation, and it is understanding regulation and where it is located that connects the royal law of liberty and the political order that we enjoy in our social context. Perhaps we are not used to understanding these matters, but it only requires some reflection to see that freedom is lost where people are immoral, and are lost for predictable reasons that can be seen over and over again in history.
Only a virtuous people can be free. By virtue, an entire suite of moral qualities is meant, including honest dealings in business, personal integrity, loyalty to spouses and family, generosity to neighbors, fair dealings with employees and customers, including fair wages, the avoidance of exploitation of others, living a life of sobriety, and the like. Because people who live according to the royal law of liberty are internally regulated and restrained by their adherence to God’s ways and laws, such people do not require external regulation. Their behavior is upright and moral and therefore they can be trusted. If they say they will do something, they will do it, even at some cost to themselves. Likewise, if they say they will not do something, their word can be trusted even in situations where temptation and distraction are present. Only a people who can be generally relied upon to live according to their word and to live nobly and justly can be trusted to be free of external restraint.
It is when trust in the goodness of business or one’s fellow citizens breaks down, for example, that we have a push for more regulations. It is not by accident that a grasping tendency of paternalistic government seeks to exploit any failure in any sphere of society as a way of restricting freedom and increasing regulation. Is there a mass shooting? Guns must be more closely regulated, even if the right to bear arms is constitutionally guaranteed in part as a protection against intrusive government. Can people who foolishly build their houses in flood-prone areas no longer buy home insurance because it is not profitable for private insurers? Government must therefore step in to subsidize such construction. Does a family suffer because an alcoholic father cannot provide for his family because his wages are going to liquor? The state must step in to provide for the families so that they can avoid suffering and malnutrition because of the addiction of their father. Such examples go on and on, as the solution to every moral shortcoming in society is the increase of external government regulation that seeks to force people to live the right way, enabling bad behavior, at the cost of dignity, by taxing responsible citizens for the upkeep of those who cannot govern themselves, and ensuring a permanent segment of society that can be relied upon to vote for the continuance of such government largesse because they have no confidence in their ability to survive without government aid of some kind.
Of course, it is far easier to maintain trust and good feelings than it is to recover them once they are gone. It is not so much the actual conduct of a given leader that determines whether freedom is possible, but the trust that people have in leaders. Let us also note that freedom and regulations go both ways–it is not only that in the absence of trust that the freedoms of ordinary people are curtailed by government, for certainly that happens, but in the absence of trust the freedom of leaders to act with the support and backup of those they lead is also curtailed. In the absence of trust in institutions and society at large, governments seek to regulate the conduct of their people and a restive populace withdraws its support from the initiatives of government, leaving those in office leading only themselves and those who directly benefit from the corrupt and inefficient government that is in place. Such a government is ill-equipped to deal with any threats to a society that exist. What remains for us is to be virtuous, and to establish and maintain those governments that allow virtue to be free. When we are self-restrained and obedient and regulated by the law of God internally, we do not need nor welcome external restraint. Let us be good, so that we can be free.
 Letter to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, 11 October 1798, in Revolutionary Services and Civil Life of General William Hull (New York, 1848), pp 265-6.