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“Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.”  – Colossians 3:2

Americans have long expressed concern about the character of their high officials. Opinion polls show that until recently most would have rejected out of hand a presidential candidate lacking religion; many still do. Although a subset of those who insist on a professing executive and who think of the United States as a “Christian nation” recognize the need for religious diversity or speak loosely, small but vocal minorities receive disproportionate attention as they press for the entire community’s conformity to their ways. Ever fewer secular liberals, on the other hand, believe that religion positively influences civil society. Some of these secularists, following Herbert Marcuse, have even modified the concept of toleration such that they now deal intolerantly with the intolerance of outlooks deemed illiberal, especially religious outlooks.

Many members of liberal society, including those with sympathy for religious groups, have believed that Christianity possesses foibles that are correctable only by acculturating the religion’s practitioners and teaching them to accept liberal principles as first principles.

The debate about religion’s role in politics has always involved the question of the appropriate attitude toward political authority. Before Marcuse argued for a new, repressive tolerance, Thomas Hobbes represented the extreme position in the liberal tradition with his recommendation that religious beliefs be subject to political control. One hundred years later and across the Atlantic, Thomas Jefferson exemplified a contrary position when he called for a “wall of separation between Church & State” – a far cry from governmental control of religion. Opting not to employ the kind of state oversight that Hobbes recommended, many of today’s liberal regimes have accordingly relied on a mutual and ideally universal respect for rights to speech and opinion to referee these conflicting views of religion’s place in politics, and of what religion itself is. Still, many members of liberal society, including those with sympathy for religious groups, have believed that Christianity possesses foibles that are correctable only by acculturating the religion’s practitioners and teaching them to accept liberal principles as first principles.


In the American setting, Benjamin Franklin early on recognized these foibles and planned for their elimination. In so doing, Franklin acted as an agent of the larger force of liberalism and its proponents’ – Hobbes, Bacon, Pufendorf, Locke, Hume and others – new formulation of religion within politics. But Franklin’s self-avowed goal of popularizing the liberal ideas and virtues necessary for the health of his new nation makes him stand out. Unlike prior and contemporary liberal political philosophers, most of whom authored less commonly read treatises, Franklin communicated through relatively accessible means, such as by writing his Autobiography, a book that edified many readers.

Franklin writes in this elliptical account of his life that he saw the seeds of a problem in the moral pluralism of the American colonies. He notes a local diversity of beliefs about morality – its composition, what is and is not included in it – as he recounts what he calls his “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection.” As other sec-tions of the Autobiography indicate, the various Christian doctrines that Franklin knew bore responsibility for some of this diversity. Among the moral consequences of Christian belief in Franklin’s day was a hushed contempt for political authority that could prove anemic to citizenship. Franklin diagnoses two colonial Christian sects with this anemia in his book.

First Franklin took aim at the Presbyterians. Near the middle of his account, Franklin laments that his local Presbyterian preacher’s message regularly consisted of little more than justifying the correct way of regarding the particulars of the sacrament of communion, of the keeping of the Sabbath and of proper modes of worship. Franklin begrudgingly concedes that there is “some good” in these things, but he maintains that the sermons neglected to care for things common to all people in the New World. They excluded any sentiments of patriotism because they disregarded the relatively universal morality that patriotism uses. This group of believers, Franklin observes, would rather make fellow colonists “good Presbyterians than good Citizens.”

Franklin’s second diagnosis, this time of the Quakers, also involves the prioritizing of a smaller religious community over the larger political community, but it additionally brings to light how the smaller depends on the larger. Franklin specifically criticizes the Quakers’ pacifism, which, as he sees things, is only tenable because the government that the Quakers live under will defend itself. The Quakers benefit from what they regard as the dirty work that the British government executes, although this work sometimes almost fell upon their membership. “Hence a Variety of Evasions to avoid Complying, and Modes of disguising the Compliance when it became unavoidable,” Franklin writes. “The common Mode at last was to grant Money [for munitions] under the Phrase of its being for the King’s Use, and never to inquire how it was applied.” The Quaker representatives split their allegiances between the British government and the laypeople in their constituency, and they ended up not only holding their noses but blindfolding the eyes of the represented as they acrobatically yielded to political dictates. Perhaps most hypocritically, even as the Pennsylvania Quakers finally did as they had to, they retained a morally superior position – acting as if they were not witting participants in “the King’s” decisions – and therefore they never properly acknowledged the legitimacy and authority of those who took care of those dictates for them.


Franklin’s treatment of these two Christian groups serves to state the grounds on which he rejects not just religious doctrine devoid of public value, as in the case of the Presbyterians, but the equality of religious and political authorities, as in the case of the Quakers. Both types of sectarians undermine political cohesion, he says. Franklin therefore draws a plan outlining how these entities should relate while avoiding the foregoing flaws. Akin to earlier liberal thinkers, he offers a civic religion that he believes capable of gaining universal consensus. This he refers to as his “intended creed, containing … the essentials of every known religion, and being free of everything that might shock the professors of any religion.” Franklin’s universal religion consists of only a few articles:

  • “That there is one God, who made all things.
  • “That he governs the World by his Providence.
  • “That he ought to be worshiped by Adoration, Prayer & Thanksgiving.
  • “But that the most acceptable Service of God is doing Good to Man.
  • “That the Soul is immortal.
  • “And that God will certainly reward Virtue and punish Vice, either here or hereafter.”

Most of the items listed maintain compatibility with Christianity, but they do so precisely by “being free of everything that might shock” other believers. Take the first article listed above. Although, for example, Exodus 20 emphasizes God’s oneness and although Genesis 1 teaches that God made all things, many other religions also teach these articles. Consider also what is missing. Franklin fails to mention the deity of Jesus, the central article of most Christian sects of the day but not of all religions of the day. As Jesus himself says, “flesh and blood hath not revealed [Jesus’ status as Messiah] unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). The article of Jesus’s deity is privately revealed and privately held; it is not universally accessible through ordinary means and therefore not “essential,” to use Franklin’s terminology. But from the Christian’s view, this simply reveals how deceptive Franklin’s terminology is and why his articles resemble pabulum to anyone from a faith with a distinctive tradition. Franklin inverts the religious sectarians’ understanding of what things are “essential.” In Franklin’s dictionary, “essential” articles do not distinguish one religion but rather comprise what all religion holds in common.

By turning Christianity to an outward concern for engagement with and care for the larger community, Franklin’s civic religion attempted to reverse the problem that he had observed among the Presbyterians and Quakers. And Christians today are indeed more public-minded. Our American Christian activism takes all forms – many of them contradictory. Things have been this way at least since the age of devout abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown (famously a Calvinist) on the one hand and churchgoing slaveholders such as Alexander Stephens (who amazingly called race-based slavery the “Cornerstone” of good government) on the other. Then there was the rise a century later of the Jesus movement on the political left and the moral majority and the Quiverfulls on the political right. The types of Christians and Christian-tinged groups with public agendas have proliferated nearly innumerably since.

Yet most of these movements still place private concerns alongside or before public ones. If Christians have lost their contempt for politics and public affairs, they nevertheless go about “doing Good to Man” as they understand it. The question is whether Franklin’s civic religion unintentionally worsens this tendency by making religious adherents more concerned with proselytizing through the medium of politics. Under the conditions that he helped create, sectarians would tend to use politics in order to make not only themselves but others good church members “than good Citizens.”


Franklin’s goal of reaching agreement by bringing the religious community under the authority of the political community – something he considered highly important and highly difficult – could be better accomplished by allowing Christian communities the primacy of their values. In this case, the Pauline view of political authority outlined in Romans 13 can save us from the quandary outlined above. Not wishing to assert Paul’s view on authority, I point to an interpretive consensus consisting of array of Christian authorities on his text.

For within this tradition, varied interpretations of Romans 13 abound. Its main interpretive issues surround verses 1-7:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

“Render therefore to all their dues,” Paul continues. Pay “tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.”

As Ron Cassidy writes, this writing of Paul’s seems to “infuriatingly” provide followers of Christ little guidance on the question of the limits of political authority, especially when weighed against related passages from Scripture, all of them tending toward one of the two incompatible “principles of submission and resistance” (“The Politicization of Paul: Romans 13:1-7 in Recent Discussion,” The Expository Times, May 2010).  The Hebrew midwives of Exodus did not, Cassidy points out, submit to the governing authority when they defied the Egyptian king’s order to kill any males born under their watch, nor did the magi of the book of Matthew, for another instance, follow King Herod’s command to tell them the location of the newborn Jesus.

Is Romans 13 as infuriating as it initially seems for believers seeking guidance? The question dates back to some of the earliest days of the Christian church, when followers of Jesus were rumored to have not only committed acts of dubious moral and legal status such as incest and cannibalism but to have been stirring political insubordination and religious error. This is the context of Justin Martyr’s (100–165) First Apology, a work that sought to clear Christians of these accusations before Roman authorities by demonstrating that obedience is a basic part of the Jesus follower’s disposition. Justin used the issue of taxation, Paul’s focus in Romans 13, as one of his main proofs. He appeals to Jesus’s words in Matthew 22:21: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”  In fact, the verb “apodote” used by Jesus in Matthew 22:22 matched that which Paul uses in Romans 13:7.  By making these allusions to his sacred texts, Justin sought to assure the political powers that in all matters outside of religion, Christians would yield to the rules of the community and act as good – even exemplary – citizens, rendering what was owed. Yet this debt would be paid out of piety, not patriotism.

In the more recent but equally trying times of the years of World War I, Karl Barth also was not bothered by any ambiguity in Paul’s passage. Barth connected Paul’s injunction against political revolution to the “falsity of all human reckoning as such.” He viewed that injunction as a way of “bearing witness to the good” by recognizing that God proclaims “vengeance belongeth unto me.”

“Real revolution,” Barth concluded, “comes from God.” Barth took a view that others would later interpret as an endorsement, or at least as a condoning, of tyranny. His reading, these critics would argue, allows the most egregious and unjust rulers to fulfill their schemes unopposed by the community of the faithful. Barth’s thought was so foreign to his peers in Germany that James G. D. Dunn, in his introduction to the Cambridge Companion to St. Paul, characterizes the publication of Barth’s book length commentary on Romans as the falling of a bomb “in the playground of Europe’s theologians.”

One may wish to discredit Barth’s interpretation of Romans 13 by pointing out his leadership in the Confessing Church and its opposition to the Nazi regime. But even in his actions, Barth merely followed Augustine’s interpretation of Paul. As Augustine asked (inquiring generally about political legitimacy in The City of God, not with explicit reference to Romans 13), “Concerning this life of mortals, which is lived and ended in a few days, what difference does it make whose governance a man who is about to die lives under, so long as those who rule do not compel him to impiety and sin?” Barth could have defended himself against charges of his apparently biblically questionable indifference to bad government by pointing to these qualifiers – so long as those who rule do not compel impiety and sin – that Augustine permitted.

The Reformers’ interpretation tends on the whole in a similar but broader direction. Both Philip Melanchthon and Martin Luther read the relevant portion of Romans 13 as applicable to ecclesiastical authorities at least as much as to civil authorities. Thus Luther, in his commentary, places I Peter 2:13–14 alongside Romans 13:1–7: “Be subject to every kind of human ordinance.” That is, be subject to more than the political ordinances. Still, these representatives of the Reformation present a mostly united front on the latter issue of politics, and they also agree with the foregoing authorities that rebellion against political authority amounts to rebellion against God’s providence.

We can add to this list John Calvin, who writes the following in the final chapter of his Institutes:

The Lord has not only testified that the office of the magistrate is approved by and acceptable to him, but he also sets out its dignity with the most honorable titles and marvelously commends it to us. To mention a few: Since those who serve as magistrates are called “gods,” … let no one think that their being so-called is of slight importance. For it signifies that they have a mandate from God, have been invested with divine authority, and are wholly God’s representatives, in a manner, acting as his vice-regents. This is no subtlety of mine, but Christ’s explanation. “If Scripture,” he says, “called them gods to whom the word of God came (John 10:35).”

In the context of a volatile France where religious dissidents such as him faced persecution, Calvin goes further than other figures in the tradition who, aside from Justin Martyr and thanks partly to Augustine, were already enjoying Christian hegemony. The radicalism of Calvin’s stance is clear in the “honor” and “marvel” that he attributes to political authority and in his assertion that these powers are “wholly” God’s representatives. Calvin does not hedge at all; he accuses those who disagree with him of harboring “a desire to usher in anarchy.” Although he still admits qualifiers and agrees that executives ought to exhibit “great zeal for uprightness, for prudence, gentleness, [and] self-control,” he purposefully takes a hardline stance, knowing that the human tendency, that he derides as a “Christian” tendency (and by which he means that it is a pseudo-Christian one), is to stand athwart claims to political authority and legitimacy.


The political seditiousness among Christians that Calvin sternly warns against is precisely the danger that is common to American Christian readings of Romans 13, and it is precisely what Franklin worried about and sought to correct with his civic religion. Some of this danger is already evident in what Cassidy has to say about the infuriating ambiguity of Romans 13 (although I must, with him, concede Paul’s flightiness), but it also appears in recent interpretations that detect irony in Paul’s writing and that purport to prove that Paul’s verses here actually act, against all appearances, to censure rather than to affirm the legitimacy of political authority. T. L. Carter notably derives his thesis that Paul writes ironically from the rhetorician Quintilian. In other words, Carter turns not to a Christian source but to a Roman one (“The Irony of Romans 1,” Novum Testamentum 46, 2004). Another recent article by Sung U. Lim explores the possibility of a “double-voiced” reading of Romans 13, to similar effect (“A Double-voiced Reading of Romans 13:1–7 in Light of the Imperial Cult,” HTS Theological Studies  71:1, 2015). Although Sheldon Wolin provides evidence in his classic Politics and Vision that the church of the early centuries did craft arguments holding itself higher than political authority and although Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines provides evidence that the Bible is not without its share of oblique communication, these new interpretations of Paul take the argument further by avoiding the political implications of the verses that were accepted by the major theologians of the past – at least prior to the Enlightenment, the political thought of which focused more than any other era on the misuse of political authority.

The tradition’s rather new attitude toward political authority is even more problematic for a democratic regime in which citizens have some responsibility for determining who wields political authority. In this case, there is agency to not only dismiss the “wrong” sort of authority but to ensure what is perceived to be the “right” kind. Hence American Christians, less obedient and less patient than past Christians who enjoyed less security and safety, have recently seen their faith being attacked as never before through governmental policies and through the secularizing force of large corporations, mass marketing, university education and so on.

If I sound like one more piece of machinery operating in a vast conspiracy against the religious right, read on. For Scripture challenges us to ask ourselves how far its words go.

In chapter 13 of Romans, Paul flatly assures us that if we only “do what is good” we will avoid penalty. This seems utterly naïve, and in some cases downright wrong. Paul does not draw the fine distinctions we are accustomed to make between types of rule and sources of legitimacy. He sees no need for what we call political theory. The only relevant fact for him is that “the powers that be are ordained of God.” Any honest observer will see that many more Christians than those who call themselves conservative are guilty of doubting what Paul so clearly saw. And they would surely include some of the most revered names in our political history – a list with partisans of all stripes.

Yet Paul makes no disguised attempt to place Christians under the thumb of government. The difference is that obedience in his case does not serve political expediencies but spiritual ones. It is not about what Christians owe their government so much as it is about what righteousness and holiness require. Paul’s point is that resistance in any form is a hallmark of sin. Remembering this point allows Christians to act as good citizens merely incidentally – for the sake of our life in Christ, not for the sake of the political regime or community.

As a result of our tradition of political disobedience, our leaders themselves have ever so gradually grown accustomed to making a claim almost opposite Paul’s – that they have no special, higher authority or that no spiritual significance is attached to their particular tenure. This modesty is especially evident among those leaders who stand outside of the dominant Protestant tradition. Consider the nation’s first and only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. According to Michael McConnell, Kennedy finally won over non-Catholics, “But we must not overlook the way in which he reduced religious belief to accident of birth, or more specifically, to baptism” (“Is There Still a Catholic Question in America – Reflections on John F. Kennedy’s Speech to the Houston Ministerial Association,” Notre Dame Law Review 86:4, 2011).

A different point could have been made regarding Kennedy’s case: Christians of all kinds should have heeded the longstanding Christian belief in the divine authority of the sovereign – an authority that holds regardless of the executive’s background, “qualifications” or other attributes allegedly relevant to the business of governing. This holds regardless of the old political history in this country that makes us wary of such talk and that makes those who hear such arguments wonder whether John Locke’s arch-nemesis Sir Robert Filmer just stumbled out of a time machine.

Let us explore what current polls point to as the case that gives Christians today pause: the possibility of there being not a Catholic executive but an atheistic one. One could first of all ask what good it does to vote on the basis of religious bona fides or lack thereof, given the weak link between professions and belief. In fact, religious professions in the context of democratic elections should have less currency than almost any, given the benefits to be reaped from pandering to a group that demanded such professions. Ironically, Franklin himself warned against religious tests for public officeholders in a letter addressed to John Calder and dated Aug. 21,  1784. Yet even granting a link between profession and belief, our tradition says that American Christians ought to feel obligated to a secular executive. But as shareholders in that power, one can go further and also ask whether Christians should vote for such a person.

This is difficult to answer, although I will say that insistence on a Christian political authority and dire predictions of what would happen without one betray a fear that God lacks control. When John writes in Revelation 1:5 that Jesus is “the ruler of the kings of the earth,” he never differentiates rulers who do and do not acknowledge the Messiah. He thereby insinuates that Jesus’ rule encompasses non-Christian authorities despite their stubbornness. In this spirit we might again return to Augustine, who said the following:

Nothing, however, could be more felicitous for human affairs than that those living well and endowed with true piety, if they have the knowledge of ruling peoples, might also, by God’s mercy, have the power.

Augustine reformulates Solomon’s wisdom, laid out in Proverbs 29:2: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.” Let us Christians not succumb to our first impulse and take Solomon’s verse or Augustine’s quotation above as evidence that God never sanctions wicked rule, for as Solomon writes elsewhere, there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4; italics mine). Let us Christians recognize the goodness of true Christian rule, which Augustine offers up as a quite rare thing. Let us also recognize that sort of rule as a strange form of mercy, as Augustine characterizes it, and not as something we deserve.

Timothy Haglund lectures in political science at Missouri State University, Springfield.

Image: Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple, by El Greco; National Gallery, London; public domain via Wikimedia Commons