Discover more from Postliberal Order
The Herod Objection
Or, Why fear January 6?
For at least a few years to come, the princes of the Western world will succeed in making the events of January 6, 2021, an annual memorial of “threats to democracy.” For Christians, however, January 6 will remain the feast of the Epiphany of our Lord—not only in 2022 but usque in saeculum. Long called Twelfth Day (or Twelfth Night) in English-speaking lands, the feast of the Epiphany commemorates the obeisance of the three kings to our Infant King. Although often celebrated on a nearby Sunday in the revised Catholic liturgy, January 6 remains a public holiday in many countries: in Poland, for example, Epiphany was restored to its honored place as a public holiday fifty years after the Communist regime had taken it away. Today a new regime seeks to suppress the Epiphany yet again.
Epiphany provides a good moment to consider a common objection to the way that political Catholics conceive of power. The objection is usually inchoate, but runs something like this: political Catholics, integralists and the like seek the direct subordination of political power to the Church or to Christian morality, which being an obvious absurdity (the culture is no longer Christian, etc.) is either risible or, perhaps, extremely dangerous. Politicians left, right and center should thus be apprehensive about the increasing influence of common good conservatism and political Catholicism over political thinking on the right. Let us call this objection the “Herod objection.”
St. Matthew begins his telling of this story as follows: “When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda in the days of Herod the King, behold, there came Sages from the East to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to adore him. And Herod the King hearing this, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (2:1–3 Reims).
Herod’s fear of the Infant King was taken by the tradition as characteristic of the apprehension of temporal rulers at the power of the divine. “Ye have heard from the Gospel,” commented Pope St. Gregory, “how, when the King of heaven was born, an earthly king was troubled. For earthly greatness is brought to confusion when the might of heaven is made manifest.” This earthly greatness or terrena altitudo is confounded not least by the infuriating willingness of other kings to offer to the Infant King their most prized treasures: “And opening their treasures, they offered to him gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh” (2:11).
Yet the tradition has always taught that, properly speaking, the power of the Infant King was no threat to earthly kingdoms—instead it was a challenge to their worldliness, a puncturing of their pride and, in the end, the only sure guarantee of their long rule. The Epiphany story thus contrasts the troubled Herod against the pious Sages who acknowledged the true source of their power. The Vespers hymn of the Epiphany, Crudelis Herodes, Deum—which dates from the fifth century—goes so far as to offer a kind of reassurance even to Herod:
Why, impious Herod, vainly fear
That Christ our Saviour cometh here?
He takes not earthly realms away
Who gives the crown that lasts for aye.
The Epiphany reveals Christ’s kingdom in the most surprising way, in his mere infancy, but in such a way as to be a confirmation of good rule and a confounding of wicked kingship. In the decades after the publication of Machiavelli’s Il principe in 1532, the Herod objection returned in a new way. Tying statecraft to Christian moral teaching seemed to many princes as a threat to the security of their power. In his 1589 Della ragion di stato, Giovanni Botero answered the objection as follows:
If the Romans did not attempt anything without the advice and approval of the auspices and the augurs, if the Turk does not start to wage war or to do anything of importance without consulting the mufti and obtaining his judgment in writing, why should the Christian prince close the door of his privy council to the Gospel and to Christ and follow a reason of state contrary to the law of God as though it were a rival altar?
Today the Herod objection takes new forms. As the liberal order grows more paranoid and insecure, it lashes out at its opponents with increasing ferocity. And as is often the case, right-liberals provide an essential form of support for this collapsing disorder—whispering in Herod’s ear the old tale that Christianity’s political ambitions are its greatest threat. One must ask: who is worse, Herod or the servants who stoke his fears and carry out his orders?
Yet the Infant King is only a threat to the pretensions of today’s worldly powers. Where they see freedom in licentiousness and manipulation, Christianity sees the strength of polities in flourishing families and stable countries. Every year, the feast of the Epiphany reminds us to watch for the new techniques of Herod as well as the renewed manifestations of our Christian faith—in the spiritual power and the temporal as well.