Texas Tech University

Ryan Hackenbracht

Assistant Professor, Department of English, Texas Tech University 

"Holy Disobedience, Compulsory Liberty: Hobbes, Locke, and the Biblical Right to Be Bad"

"Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established"—Romans 13:1

For over three hundred years, and from the Old World to the New, the Bible has shaped Western notions of when we should and shouldn't resist the government. On June 14th of this year, for instance, Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted the above passage from Romans to justify his policy of separating migrant children from their parents (a favorite passage, it is worth noting, of American slave owners during the Civil War). The Renaissance philosopher Thomas Hobbes would have agreed with Sessions; he himself had quoted the passage three hundred years earlier when insisting that under no circumstances should citizens oppose their sovereign. His opponent John Locke, whose ideas influenced the American founding fathers, strongly disagreed. As Locke saw it, the same biblical passage also teaches us to "love thy neighbor as thyself" (13:9, a fact many of Sessions's critics were quick to point out), and so people have a right, even a responsibility, to speak up for the oppressed. In Locke's fierce debate with Hobbes over biblical interpretation, then, we find the origin of liberal ideas that would come to define the American experience, including the right to liberty and the right to tell an oppressive government, "No."

Ryan Hackenbracht is an assistant professor of English at Texas Tech University, where he teaches courses on Renaissance literature. His first book, National Reckonings: The Last Judgment and Literature in Milton's England, is forthcoming from Cornell University Press (February 2019).

Video coming soon!