Subject to the Governing Authorities

Christians argue with each other about the meaning and relevance of Paul’s exhortation to believers to be subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-2). Obviously a tiny religious minority who revered a man executed as a criminal by the authorities had no leverage to secure its own benefit and liberty in an empire ruled by a pitiless emperor. As Paul saw it, the best chance for the early Christians to survive was to submit to the ruling authorities in all ways without resistance. The reason was simple: this authority had been established by God, so bucking civil authority was bucking God. The fact that civil authority was exploitive and oppressive was not important. Obedience was what was important.

Now, however, Christians in the U.S. live in a polity constituted by free democratic elections where all alike participate on equal footing in the political processes. At least, that’s what we’re told and that’s what we believe. Unlike monarchy where the economic wealth flows from the bottom to the top and the top rules autocratically, in a democracy the economic wealth is retained by those who produce it and the powers and authority of the government are only those granted to it by the people. At least, that’s what we’re told and that’s what we believe.

We like to think that our governmental system is a protection against the oppression and tyranny of our rulers. After all, we can throw the bums out every two, four or six years. On the other hand, we are not too good at brokering the different interests scattered across a wide array of racial, ethnic, religious, social and economic groups, at least, if elections in recent years are any indication. A political majority emerges, claiming a mandate or the “will of the American people” as their warrant, and soon they coalesce around agenda that is perceived by the minority as unjust, discriminatory and oppressive. Laws enacted under the political powers of one faction are targets for dismantling when another faction obtains power. Each faction accuses the other of playing the stooge for large and powerful groups with vested interests and lots of money. The consequence is that very little gets done that needs doing, and “we the people” are made to endure a different kind of oppressive political leadership.

I must say that, looking back over the last thirty years of politics in this country, I am rather amused that the Federalist writers actually believed that multiple interests and classes of citizens would actually protect individual liberty and secure the rights of a minority from the abuses of the majority. For example, James Madison wrote in The Federalist No. 51 that “if a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.” The best way to secure civil rights for all was to have a free republic where interests were diverse. Madison contended: “Whilst all authority in [the republic] will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.” At least, that’s what he believed, then. Coalitions of diverse—and sometimes competing—interests would assure that the rights of the minority would be protected.

Actually, Madison went on to observe that a country where the majority ruled was equally at risk of exercising political tyranny over the minority. Something of that flavor is evident in the stew of our political juices at the moment; recent political majorities of elected officials—and voters—have tyrannized political minorities. For Madison, this scenario was clearly the absence of justice, a result that betrayed his sense of the purpose of both government and the larger society. He noted: “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be pursued, until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit. In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign, as in a state of nature where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger.” If we take Madison as a guide, it becomes plausible to suggest that our current political morass is a kind of anarchy in which the weak, the “least” among us, experience the rule of the strong and powerful as a kind of violence.

If Madison was wrong and it happens that our the diversity of interests and our system of government lend themselves to this kind of marginalizing of the minority, if rule by the majority is perceived and experienced as unjust, is it even possible to look to our system of government to correct this? Or is the problem the people elected to serve in legislative and executive capacities? Would we be better or worse off if we had elected officials who were more rather than less amenable to protecting the rights and interests of social and economic minorities?

Or, is the problem the citizens, the voters, the ones whose beliefs, attitudes and values conspire to move them to act in certain ways and make particular choices in social, economic, religious and political spheres? Are “we the people” the problem, we who are the source and authority in our civil polity, whose freedom and capacity to pursue our own needs and interests is the proper object of governmental action? We who are Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Independents, Tea Partiers, Socialists, Communists, America Firsters, or whatever, are we the problem?

I think so. And it’s not because we each adhere to a different political philosophy or agenda, though that’s part of it. And it’s not even because we each pursue our own self-interests and the economic well-being we hope will result from that pursuit, though that too is part of it. We as citizens, both voting and non-voting, are the problem because we are subject—as Paul wanted Christians to be—to the governing authorities. Or as Pogo said, “We have met the enemy … and he is us.”

Christians in Paul’s day were a “minority interest” in a political system in which they had no rights except those accorded by the emperor, and of these there was precious little. As Gerhard Lenski has pointed out in his book Human Societies, in a traditional agrarian society such as the Roman Empire, the function of government was fundamentally to maintain law and order, defend the empire against its enemies, tax its citizens, and support the established religions. The “system of government” in those days was structured in ways that assured the flow of wealth from the masses of peasants who worked the land into the coffers of the rich and powerful landowners and political authorities. Sixty to seventy percent of the wealth generated by agricultural production and taxation effectively belonged to the two percent of the population that constituted the ruling and governing class. These were the ones who levied the taxes whose amounts impoverished large numbers of citizens. This class was the one to which Paul exhorted subjection to governing authorities, including the payment of taxes (Romans 13:6-7).

Now, however, in our civil democracy, we look to government to do much more than was done in Paul’s day. Lenski notes that in addition to maintaining law and order and providing for national security and defense, government in industrial and post-industrial societies has responsibility for—or involvement in—public education, regulation of commerce and industry, health care, direction of the economy, human and social services, administering social security, housing, public services, scientific and technological research, transportation, and communication (363-64). All of these are highly contested areas for government involvement in our current polity. But as Lenski notes: “The greater activity of government is closely linked with its increasing democratization. As the masses of common people gain a voice in government, they demand services seldom provided them in agrarian societies. They want, among other things, educational opportunities, recreational facilities, assistance when they are old or sick or unemployed, protection against dishonest merchants, and many other things. As the government expands to provide these services, democratic tendencies are further strengthened. An educated and economically secure population usually participates more intelligently and effectively in the democratic process, and is much less likely to be attracted to totalitarian programs, than an illiterate and economically insecure population” (365).

We are the problem because we have demanded and established a liberal democratic government, and subjected ourselves to it. What were we thinking? We are the problem because the protection of our diverse and competing interests has resulted in interminable political conflict in which the concerns of majorities overpower the concerns of minorities. What are we doing? “We the people” are the ultimate origin and source of the sovereignty of our government, and we have both engendered and capitulated to institutionalizing the cacophony of voices in the public sphere. In short, we have only ourselves to blame because we have given in, committed more to our own sense of well-being than to the common good, to self-interest and group-interest than to public interest.

Paul and the early Christians could only submit to the governing authorities; they could not change them. We, on the other hand, can both submit to, or change, these authorities because, unlike the emperor, “we the people” are sovereign here, and the government to which we are subject is one that we assemble and supervise. Can we do this in ways that bring about a greater realization of “liberty and justice for all”?

I have my doubts, but that is the subject of the next post in a couple of weeks.

Add new comment

Full HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Subscribe to CRS Main Feed