Whenever I see a headline like this, two thoughts come to my mind. The first is, “what a rotten job we have done educating the electorate.” My second thought is, “what a rotten job we have done educating our parishioners.” Republican institutions and values are extraordinarily fragile things — just ask the Athenians or Romans or Genoese or Venetians. Always and everywhere they have rested on res publica, the wealth we hold in common; or, as several of our states have it, they rest on commonwealth. Whenever and wherever wealth becomes bunched at the top of the income hierarchy, then and there republican institutions cease to operate and republican values are abandoned.
Which is why it is so fundamentally damaging and dangerous to teach U.S. history as a story about being fair or good. These are good things. But that is not, fundamentally, what U.S. history is about. Rather it is about institutions and processes that we have reason to believe will “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” (“Preamble,” U.S. Constitution). Failing in this task by, for example, depleting the wealth we hold in common or by cynically reserving that wealth only for those few at the top of the income hierarchy will — guaranteed — establish injustice, domestic turmoil, endanger our shores, undermine our general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for no one. “General welfare” therefore is not a matter of being fair or good. It is a matter of national survival as a republic.
But we have also failed our parishioners, specially when we behave as though Christians can be indifferent to the political and policy choices that face our communities. I think of Paul’s words to the church at Corinth in this regard; words that would never, ever have been written did our present political and social agnosticism prevail:
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are. 1 Cor. 1:26-28
Imagine a preacher saying such nasty things about the wise, powerful, and noble members of her congregation or community. “Well, pastor, if that is how you feel, I am taking my tithe down the street! Imagine the nerve!”
Or I think of Paul’s counsel in his letter to the church at Rome telling the Christians there to pay their taxes; taxes to the profligate and dissipated Emperor Nero; taxes used not only to provision Rome’s occupying forces all around the Mediterranean, but to support temple prostitution in Nero’s personal temple franchise.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Rom. 13:1-7
Clearly Paul is not counseling Christians to only obey Christian politicians. He is not even telling them to only obey good people; although it is worth noting that Paul calls the secular — no, the Pagan! — leaders of Rome both “God’s servants” and “good.” Imagine that!
Why is Paul not demanding that the Christians in Rome overthrow Nero and establish a Christian nation? Could it be that this would fly in the face of everything Jesus did and taught, including his submission to Roman courts and incarceration?
Yet we continue for the most part to play it safe from our pulpits, fearful that we might offend this or that individual or group. Government is good! Even secular government, Pagan government, is good! Pay your taxes! Amen!