On July 4th I began pondering American democracy (our Republic)—I suppose it is appropriate to ponder our fragile experiment in democracy on Independence Day. An experiment in democracy, lasting just a short 343 years, is fragile by definition because its success depends on an educated electorate1 that regularly participates in the democratic process, which includes voting in elections and monitoring of elected officials.2
The Bible offers little positive guidance on a democratic government, and what little it says about governmental rule actually presents a problem for readers. Only two extensive descriptions of a political state are to be found in the New Testament, and both of them present contradictory views on that state (the Roman Empire), which was the dominant political power in the New Testament world (from about 31 BCE [ascension of Augustus] to 410 CE [the sack of Rome by the Visigoths]).
The author of Revelation (chapters 13, 17-18) portrays the Roman Empire in ghastly terms as the evil Empire of the Antichrist (Rev12:1-17). Paul on the other hand has a surprisingly naïve view of the governing authorities (Rom 13:1-7). His view is that the governing authorities of the Empire are “appointed by God” (13:1-2), and anyone who resists them will incur judgment (13:2). Oddly he makes no distinction between types of governments—apparently even repressive, ruthless, and autocratic governments are likewise appointed by God. Rulers are God’s servants “for your good” (13:3-4), he writes. Thus, one must be subject to them or else suffer God’s wrath (13:5). He concludes this short section directing that taxes must be paid and that citizens of the state should give respect and honor to the authorities, for they are “ministers of God” (13:6-7).
Both writers are clearly mistaken in their views. The Roman domination of the Mediterranean basin while difficult for the Roman Provinces nevertheless provided them with the pax romana (Roman Peace); it provided the provinces with “security and safety made possible travel, trade, and renewed economic development and prosperity.”3 So Roman governance under the Empire was not as terrible as John had imagined it. Paul’s view on the other hand is simply uninformed. That all governing authorities are appointed by God could not possibly be true—if we assume that God has a conscience. In any case, Paul’s views about the Empire clearly conflict with our democratic system of which we find no trace in the New Testament.
It seems fairly clear (at least to me) that Mr. Trump was not “appointed by God” (but then neither was Mr. Obama). Mr Trump was appointed by the Electoral College after he lost the popular vote of the country. His administration (and that of Mr. Obama as well) is plagued by gridlock. That is because governance in a representative democracy (a republic) is often messy and inefficient; it is all too frequently partisan, rather than bipartisan. A democratic form of government should probably be avoided except for the fact that all other forms of government are worse.
The Bible offers no specific advice about government. Except that here and there the Bible’s ethical ideas might be inculcated into government. For specific ideas about how government should function we are left to our own imaginations. It is more than disconcerting to see Mr. Trump employ in his presidency ideas and values different from the positive ethical ideas of the Bible (or even conventional American values) , and nevertheless still receive strong evangelical support.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1National Center for Education: In 2016-17 85% of Americans had graduated High School; 21% had a Bachelor’s degree; 9.3% had a Master’s Degree; less than 2% held a Doctorate.
2In the 2016 Presidential election 58.1% of the voting-eligible population voted: https://guides.libraries.psu.edu/post-election-2016/voter-turnout
3E. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (3rd ed.; Eerdmans, 2003), p. 29.