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With all the kerfuffle over Romans 13 in the news these past weeks, I wondered whether a Christian political theorist might bring some perspective to this political moment. So I contacted my colleague Micah J. Watson, and I’m delighted to report that he agreed to an interview.
Micah is Associate Professor of Political Science at Calvin College. His research interests include political philosophy, politics and religion, politics and literature, ethics and public policy, and constitutional jurisprudence. For more on Micah, visit his Calvin webpage.
Here we go!
DR: What forces and factors do you see bringing us to a point where a U.S. attorney general and a press secretary quoted Scripture to defend a presidential policy that many Christian groups found appalling?
MW: As long as there have been politics, there have been political leaders appealing to divine sanction for their decisions. Sometimes political leaders will make this appeal cynically—religion as merely a useful tool. But often enough the appeal to religion is sincere. I have no reason to think that Attorney General Sessions wasn’t sincere in his appeal to Romans 13. The most charitable read of his statement is that he’s defending the overall legitimacy of American immigration law. Such a reading, however, seems strained (to put it mildly) given the deterrence element that has been linked to the entirely discretionary choice to separate children from parents. Moreover, sincerity doesn’t make his understanding or use correct. Lincoln noted in his majestic Second Inaugural that Americans in the North and the South “both read the same Bible and pray to the same God,” yet they could not both have been correct in how they understood the lessons of scripture to apply to the issues of their day. The same is true for our controversies. Determining how to uphold the goods of order and safety and the rule of law when they seem to be in tension with the goods of compassion and family integrity and basic human decency is a tremendously difficult challenge. My own view is that political officials should be very cautious about appearing to claim the imprimatur of God’s word for their particular, and contestable, policy decisions.
DR: What does it mean to obey the law in a government system in which the people are ultimately responsible for what those laws are?
MW: This is the key issue. I wrote about this and Romans 13 in a little article a couple of years ago.
About Romans 13 in particular, here’s what I wrote:
For 2,000 years Christians have wrestled with what it means to submit to political authority, keeping in mind Peter and the other apostles’ claim that when faced with a choice, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). For most of Christian history believers faced this question from the bottom of a political hierarchy, subjects to kings and rulers who operated from the top down. With this understanding, luminaries such as Calvin and Luther taught their followers that resistance to even a wicked ruler violates biblical teaching.
The advent of constitutional democracy, then, complicates things for the contemporary believer. For when we apply Romans 13 to our own political situation, it’s not simply a matter of submitting to an external political authority. As citizens in a constitutional democracy, “we the people” are the authority, even if the practice has never quite lived up to the theory. Thus we’re in a curious position relative to most of Christian history. We are called to yield to authority, yet we also wield authority. To complicate matters even further, we share that authority with nonbelievers whose conception of the earthly good life will overlap with ours in some ways, and sharply diverge in others.
DR: How might we respond to interpretations of Romans 13 that boil down to the idea that whatever is, is right (in terms of governing authority), and therefore must be obeyed?
MW: We must read Scripture as a whole and not take individual passages in isolation. Reading Romans 13 as a blank check for government action betrays a view of politics that does not comport with the holistic witness of Scripture. It is much more in line with Machiavelli or with Socrates’s antagonist in The Republic, Thrasymachus, who argued that “justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.”
The Bible does indeed teach that government authority has its place, not only in Romans 13 but in 1 Peter 2 and 1 Timothy 2. When Pilate asserts his political authority over Jesus, Jesus does not contradict him but notes his kingdom is of a different kind. When confronted with a trick question about paying taxes, Jesus tells us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. So it’s clear that government has a legitimate role to play in our lives.
But that’s a far cry from the notion that whatever the government does is somehow right, or God’s will, or irresistible. Daniel rightly disobeys the political edict that he must bow down to the king. The Hebrew midwives are blessed by God for disobeying Pharaoh. Rahab is heralded as an example of faith in both Hebrews 11 and the book of James for her disobedience to the political authorities in Jericho. Throughout the Old Testament, rulers and authorities are exhorted to do what is right for the poor and marginalized.
And of course, as I mentioned before, in the New Testament we have a passage that must be kept in mind as a companion passage to Romans 13. When Peter and the other apostles are confronted by the authorities and ordered to stop preaching the gospel, Peter responds in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men!”
There is no simple blueprint or rule that we can apply in all times and cases to get this exactly right. It is our ongoing task as Christians who are first citizens of God’s kingdom and only secondly citizens of earthly kingdoms to live so as to give government its proper respect without seeing it as completely corrupt or evil on the one hand (as if God hasn’t ordained it) or treating it as completely infallible on the other (as if God has made government his representative on earth).
Finally, even if we did take Romans 13 to mean we must obey political authority, our political system puts us, the citizens, in the ultimate (earthly) position of authority. Our city councilors, state governors, federal senators and congresspeople, and even presidents are called “public servants” for a reason. They work for us. The notion that we owe a blanket obedience to whatever has been decided by government contradicts not only the biblical witness but also our particularly American political tradition. It’s pretty hard to square an “obey government authority no matter what” with the heritage of those early rebels we now call the “founding fathers.”
DR: Beyond our duty to vote, can forms of resistance and protest be a proper expression of submission? Must submission be construed as quiescence?
MW: I think other forms of resistance and protest are consistent with submission to the governing authorities. In one sense, if we take seriously what our own political tradition holds, then we are supposed to voice our concerns and petitions to the government. That’s the model set forth by the Declaration of Independence and protected in the First Amendment. If our own political tradition values the role of citizens voicing their concerns and priorities, then when we do so we are fulfilling our duties as American citizens, not undermining the government. The key thing to remember is that in our system the government is of We the People’s making, not the other way around. So we should be nervous any time Christians or others characterize opposition to laws, policies, or decisions as somehow disobeying God’s call to submit to governing authorities.
That doesn’t mean we are absolved from protesting and resisting well. We are called to love our enemies, so how much more should we love our fellow citizens with whom we have political disagreements? Christians should be trying very hard (because it is very hard) to find ways to resist or protect actions we believe to be unjust without demonizing those with whom we disagree.
DR: What are some ways you manage discussions with people who disagree with you?
MW: I think one question we should all wrestle with when we encounter friends, or family, or fellow citizens who have sided with a politician we find terrible, or a position we find unthinkable, is “What is the good thing that motivates this person’s position?” And is there a way to address that good thing, or fear of losing that good thing, that can also address the justice concerns that I have?
There may not be, but sometimes we are so dismayed that so-and-so sides with “her,” or with “him,” or thinks A, B, or C, that our first instinct is to write them off as crazy or wicked. This is particularly hard when we share the same faith! I understand the temptation, and wish I could say I’ve been immune from it. But as hard as it is, we must resist that tendency and look for ways to voice our concerns and stand for our convictions about justice while finding ways to love our neighbors whose political views and choices we find mystifying if not infuriating.
DR: What insights might the Reformed tradition offer to help navigate interpretations of Romans 13?
MW: In general, our Reformed tradition encourages us to look to the whole of Scripture to help us understand the particulars. We also inherit, famously, a strong view of human depravity, one that applies to those in power as much as or more than it does to “regular” people. We now have centuries of Reformed thought about biblical interpretation, government, citizenship, the requirements of justice, etc. We have a treasure trove of resources to draw upon, though of course the authors of our tradition will not always agree with each other and may not speak directly to our particular issues.
One resource I would point to for thinking about government’s role and the challenges of national identity, security, and pluralism is Matthew Kaemingk’s Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear. Kaemingk’s book doesn’t exegete Romans 13, but it does present a reading of Abraham Kuyper’s understanding of how Christians should think about pluralism and politics. Not everyone will agree with the book’s conclusions, but Kaemingk models wonderfully how to interact with a giant of our Reformed tradition and bring those insights to bear on a particularly thorny and pressing contemporary challenge.
DR: Thank you so much for taking the time to address readers of The Twelve!
Micah is currently working on a book with two other political theorists, Bryan McGraw of Wheaton and Jesse Covington of Westmont College. The book is tentatively titled The Moralist’s Dilemma and is intended to condense and interpret, for an audience of Protestant churchgoers, the “renaissance” in recent Christian theological and philosophical reflection on politics. The hope is to offer broadly evangelical readers fresh guidance for navigating politics in a pluralist democracy.