In the last 150 years, a remarkable theological shift in doctrine has occurred. Some of the older orthodox writers on the history of doctrine might have reported it had they been alive to witness it, but none of the moderns have commented on it.
For 1900 years, with increasing frequency after the Reformation and leading up to the American Revolution, the Augustinian doctrine of "the Depravity of Man" has been a premise in reasoning leading to the conclusion that the powers of the State must be limited: that a separation of powers must be woven into constitutions, and the path to power riddled with the landmines of checks and balances.
Because man's fallen nature meant that he could not be trusted with centralized political power.
George Washington is reported to have said,
Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force. Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. . . .
It is for this reason that libertarians do not trust "the government." They are often portrayed as being "anti-government." But it is this "anti-government" attitude that made America the freest and most prosperous nation in history.
How do libertarians respond to the accusation that they do not have enough trust in government? John Adams wrote in 1772:
There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty."
Should libertarians have more confidence in their government? Thomas Jefferson, 1799:
Confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism. Free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence; it is jealousy, and not confidence, which prescribes limited constitutions to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power.… In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.
James Madison warned the people of Virginia (1799):
the nation which reposes on the pillow of political confidence, will sooner or later end its political existence in a deadly lethargy.
Madison added in Federalist No. 55,
[T]here is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust. . . .
Trusting government, having "confidence in government," is un-American.
The British historian Lord Acton put it this way:
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
The exercise of political power is problematic. We should assume that "great men" -- that is, powerful men -- men who wield the force of "the government" -- are morally corrupt. This assumption should be considered confirmed if he increases his own power during his time of "public service."
"Good intentions will always be pleaded for any assumption of power. The Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters ... but they mean to be masters."
~ Daniel Webster
The New Depravity
To be sure, while Christian theologians were using the Depravity of Man to support the state, many others were using Enlightenment premises on the goodness and perfectibility of man to attack authority and community.
After the Civil War, following the great American theologian Abraham Lincoln, the Depravity of Man became the Benedict Arnold of dogma. The doctrine became a turncoat premise in syllogisms buttressing an increase in the paternalistic powers of the State. Whereas Man's "depravity" earlier meant that man could not be trusted with power (whose corrupting influences Lord Acton saw residing in
man himself), the modern doctrine indicts the fallen and untrustworthy masses ("the People") and supplicates the sinless and infallible State for social salvation. Because the masses are depraved, you see, the centralized state needs more power to control them.
- Because criminals are depraved, we need a Police State.
- Because Arabs are depraved, we need a Garrison State at home and offensive first-strikes abroad.
Here are links to both sides of the coin: first, why the Depravity of Man formerly and rightfully meant the need to limit the State, not increase its scope; and second, why the doctrine of Man's Depravity does not cancel out the fact that man is created in God's Image, and that God intends to save man's culture, not just his soul.
Depravity and Statism
Depravity and Social Order