Christian Nation?

Last Sunday, my Pastor gave a message based on the line in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come.” That got me thinking about how unamerican Jesus is. We tend to think that the best form of government is democracy, but here Jesus is telling us to pray for the imposition of a kingdom.

The Christian Right is sort of famous for claiming that the United States was founded by Christians on the basis of Christian principles. But is the democratic ideal a Christian ideal? The Declaration of Independence says, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends (preserving certain unalienable rights), it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” Compare that to this statement: “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves” (Romans 13:1-2). In this same passage, the essential purpose of government is a restraint on bad behavior rather than a defender of personal rights.

There’s a basic contradiction here. From a biblical view, it seems more accurate to say that the American government was indeed established by God, but that he did so by means that were anything but Christian.

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4 Replies to “Christian Nation?”

  1. Asking if the democratic ideal is a Christian ideal is a great question. I suppose the Christian ideal looks more like a very wise, kind, and goodly king, to put it in strictly temporal terms.

    But, do you not suppose that when Paul uses the word “authority” he is assuming an authority that is legitimate? Is authority that is taken for oneself necessarily an authority “established by God” as Paul is conveying the idea here? I wonder. I completely agree that the purpose of government is a restraint on – or outright force against – bad behavior. But if the “government” under a cruel and murderous dictator ceases to protect those who are governed, indeed, causes its people to live in abject terror, it could be that even the Apostle himself would concede that a revolution is in order, is at least permissible, because the dictator’s authority is really no authority at all.

    Yet, I feel your pain. Surely the Framers never intended, indeed, could scarcely have imagined our modern-day love affair with “rights”.

    But I don’t see an outright contradiction between the language of the Declaration you have set out here and Paul’s words. I think if we read Paul’s words the way I suggest, the line “whenever any Form of Govenment becomes destructive of these ends . . . it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it” can be adopted without too much stretching. St. Paul was no political scientist – thank God – and if I am right, his sole concern in the Romans passage is the problem of believers not submitting themselves to legitimate authorities. He was not thinking about how a people or person go about the business of governing. So, how does one?

    The Framers concerned themselves with granting authority without vesting it in any one group of people, let alone one person. The authority they gave us is a very simple document called the US Constitution, a document which some say contains an amendment which has been very wrongly interpreted and applied.

    Do we say then that ANY governmental authority is to be submitted to, no matter what? This idea strikes me as a kind of pacifism almost. Why would taking up arms against an outside force be o.k., but taking up arms against an internal one be forbidden?

    But, much of this may be tangential to what you wanted to point out. I do see the contrast between the two writings, though, again, not necessarily a contradiction.

  2. One of Paul’s points in the first seven verses of Romans 13 is that the world’s governments are in fact governed by “a very wise, kind, and goodly king,” even when it may appear otherwise. This is where the apostle contradicts the Declaration. Jefferson wrote, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Apart from creating people with certain rights, God is not an active participant in the institution of human governments. This is an expression of the hands off God of Deism. What Paul says is, “Governments are instituted by God, deriving their powers by delegation from Him.” In other words, we should view our democratic participation—or any other system of human politics—as an instrument of the sovereignty of God, not as the sole basis of legitimacy of authority.

    What makes a government’s authority legitimate? According to Paul, it is the simple fact that “there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” He does indeed appear to apply his commandment to “submit to the governing authorities” to any and all governmental authorities. The specific government of reference at the time would have been the first century Roman Empire. We might argue about it, but I think this government might qualify as oppressive. It would certainly beat King George on any reasonable tyranny scale. Paul’s own submission to the governing authorities was ultimately a submission to martyrdom.

    The biblical limit on submission is not some perceived tyranny, but some direct conflict between obedience to human authority and obedience to God’s revealed will. The persecution of Christians in the early Church provides a good illustration. They could not obey God and submit to the government’s demand to recant faith in Christ and stop preaching the gospel. The consequence of their refusal led to all kinds of ill treatment—things like the seizure of property, imprisonment, and even execution. According to Hebrews, these early Christians “accepted [these things] joyfully” (Heb 10:34), for which they are commended.

    What they could not do is use their ill-treatment as a cause for inciting rebellion. I very much doubt that the Apostle could ever bring himself to “concede that a revolution is in order.” But maybe we should say it like this: Even if a revolution is in order, Christians should stay out of it. Perhaps this is a limited form of pacifism. So be it. (I should point out here that I have said nothing about legitimate causes for nations going to war against other nations).

    One very interesting question posed by the concept of democracy, with relation to biblical theories of human government, is the way it puts the citizen on both sides of the equation. He is not just ruled, but has a share in the ruling. Hmmm. Tricky.

    I do believe, by the way, that the Constitution of the United States is a stroke of political genius. The reason, as you point out, is the way it distributes power under the rule of law. This makes for a form of government that is more effective than most in avoiding tyranny. What’s good about it, I might argue, is it’s separation of powers, not it’s “democracy.” So I am in this unenviable position with regard to the American Revolution: I would not have supported it at the time, but I am glad God did.

    Thanks for the great comments.

  3. I agree tha Paul means any government when he uses that term. What I want to know is what the words “authority” and “government” mean. A government is not just any old thing. The word like any word must have definable limits. Is a government any person or group of people who can impose its will on a larger group of people? What about a man or group of men who take all the property for themselves, the wives, and, say, the children for its food supply? I’m trying to find an outer bound of the term.

    Paul doesn’t just tell us to submit and leave it at that. After telling us in verses one and two that we should submit to authority because it is God who grants it, for some reason he goes on to describe what governments do; protect its citizens. Do what is right and you should have no reason to fear, he tells us.

    In light of Paul’s presumption is there no situation the Christian can imagine where he would not be bound by Romans 13? He would not be bound NOT because a government has exacted an onerous hardship on me particularly, e.g., forbidden me to practice my faith, but otherwise generally does protect me from harm, but rather he would not be bound because the “government” does not do what Paul takes for granted a government will do. Which is to say it is no longer, or never was maybe, a government.

    I might not have supported the Revolution either. Based on my understanding of life in the colonies in the 18th century, the British rule was precisely the kind of thing Paul had in mind with this passage (and 1st century Roman rule certainly was b/c Paul says as much). But, to be fair to our forefathers, King George could have very easily avoided the bloody mess by letting the colonies go. Instead he chose to send troops across the Atlantic to defend his rights in the States. If he hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t read today about the American Revolution, we’d read about an wholesale adverse possession, all perfectly legal.

    Thanks for suffering through one last comment from me.

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