The Bible talks about one single man who disobeyed God on one single occasion. And then God took it out on his entire nation.
Joshua led the Hebrews around Jericho over and over until God caused its walls to crumble. While the city was being conquered, a man named Achan plundered some valuables and hid them, a direct violation of God’s explicit instruction before the encounter. So, when the Hebrews later went to battle against a tiny town called Ai, God caused them to lose badly.
Achan disobeyed God, but God punished everyone.
Christians, including this one, struggle to articulate the role of the state in our predominantly Christian nation. It is tempting to dismiss this question as merely academic. But the conclusions we reach have real consequences. They affect not just our nation, but Christianity itself. Further, the incomplete, sloppy reasoning that I find so prevalent on this issue makes the majority of our nation vulnerable to manipulation by people who quite capably quote scriptures, but who have an interest neither in the heart of God nor the nation as a whole, but only their disguised narrow interest.
Should we be teaching creationism in public schools? Should states give vouchers for religious education? Should “In God We Trust” be printed on our currency? Should homosexual marriage be banned? Should homosexual activity be banned? And is Mike Huckabee correct in attributing the shooting in Sandy Hook to an absence of God in public schools?
As I explain below, understanding the role of the nation-state is no more complicated than understanding how God’s “Old Covenant” with his people differs from his “New Covenant.” God’s modern covenant exists between himself and individuals. But it wasn’t always this way: the Old Covenant (also called the “Law of Moses”), existed such that the actions of one would plainly bring consequences to everyone. It was a collective covenant. Read for yourself:
So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul — then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you. — Deuteronomy 11
When you actually read the Law of Moses, it’s no wonder that the Hebrews were punished collectively for Achan’s actions. God was simply enforcing the plain language of the Law. Other parts of the Law made it clear that continual disobedience would lead to invasion and utter destruction (see Deuteronomy 28). So when King Solomon broke the law by worshipping foreign gods in exchange for several hundred wives (always a poor idea), his united kingdom split, allowing Assyria to march in and butcher the Northern Kingdom, Israel, and later Babylon conquered the Southern Kingdom, Judah.
Today, you will find this same paradigm—that God blesses and curses nations based on their righteousness—front and center in the political thought of much of the “religious right”. Not that it’s completely new. The promised land language was borrowed by America’s founders and even used to justify rebellion against England.
America to many is the modern day Jerusalem.
But the idea of the theocratic nation-state that we associate with the Old Testament actually ended nearly five-hundred years before Jesus instituted the modern covenant. When Babylon conquered Judah, the world would not see another Jewish nation-state until the end of World War II* (and today’s is only nominally Jewish). But much more important than the loss of the Jewish territorial sovereignty was the end of the old covenant.
Notice the difference in the collective nature of the old covenant with today’s covenant:
Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call. — Acts 2
Today’s covenant is actually many covenants — it is a separate covenant with every individual person. So if I break the covenant, the consequences are mine, not yours. That is not to say other people aren’t affected by my choices — they most certainly are. But my violation of the new covenant doesn’t affect whether other individuals receive forgiveness of sins. That is the difference in our era and Achan’s era.
Achan lived under one covenant; we live under another.
You will also notice that, compared with today, the former covenant was distinctively temporal. The subject matter of the former covenant was limited to physical and temporary things: grain, wine, safety, prosperity, etc. Today’s covenant concerns things that are eternal: Heaven and Hell.
So what does this have to do with America?
Because in Moses’s time, the covenant impacted the Hebrews collectively, the government had only one logical role: to enforce the law of Moses — the source from which prosperity and calamity befell the entire nation. But such a government is of little help with the covenant of today. (1) We aren’t saved by following a law; (2) we aren’t sent to Hell by the actions of others; (3) we have the Holy Spirit — God himself in our physical bodies; (4) the subject matter of the new covenant is spiritual, not physical. Based on that alone, it would seem implicit then that government would have a different role today, given the nature of the present covenant between God and his people. But God’s role for government is not a conclusion we have to reason our way to. It’s written in the Bible plainly:
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2
Peace and quiet.
Not to teach creationism in public schools (or the ten commandments). Not to keep people from purchasing alcohol on Sundays. Not to protect our country from Islam.
Peace and quiet.
This is a bit of a nebulous phrase, (and I’ll talk about it more below) but it’s also a limited one and God is very intentional about this. Read Romans 13. God instituted governments. Paul describes the one who gives their full time to governing as “God’s servant for your good”. This probably sounds like a nice statement, but it is a HUGE statement. To understand its gravity, let’s talk about Emperor Nero, who was in power when Paul wrote all this stuff. Nero, “God’s servant”, was hardly the moral leader of the Roman Empire. Nero had an incestuous relationship with his mother; he killed his mother (after failing to kill her on several occasions); he had sex with young boys; he killed his pregnant wife by kicking her; he killed his step-son by drowning him; it’s debated whether he burned Rome to the ground, but, whether he did or not, he blamed the Christians for it and would wrap Christians in the skins of dead wild animals to be eaten by living wild animals. He also hung Christians on crosses and lit them on fire.
God’s servant for your good.
You cannot read Paul’s statement in its context and conclude that God had any interest in using the machinery of government to indoctrinate the masses. The important thing was that the world had stability (peace and quiet), because, in addition to a stable world obviously being a better world in which to live, it turns out that stability is much more conducive to the spread of Christianity than a world of chaos. I believe it is no coincidence that the most stable government the world had ever seen at the time (Rome) coincided with the beginning of the church. The spreading of the gospel is greatly helped by infrastructure and literacy — things not maintained well in chaos. There was little from the Dark Ages of Europe to harmonize with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What exactly does Paul mean by “peaceful and quiet”? This is really the question for the politician, not necessarily the Christian. So the Bible doesn’t just come out and answer it. But while the Bible doesn’t answer it, history overwhelmingly does.
Stability increases when people are basically free and autonomous; when national security is provided for; when contracts are enforced; when currency values are fairly stable and predictable; when people are literate and educated; when property is protected; when crime is punished (Paul would say “by the sword”—so much for libertarians); when those accused of crimes can defend themselves; when inequality, which will never be eliminated, is nevertheless kept at tolerable levels; when expression is unconstrained; when public health is maintained; when infrastructure is build to support commerce; when regulations are implemented to further the free market by preventing monopoly, natural-resource eradication, unfair trade practices — things that cause the free market to destroy itself; when the public treasury is kept solvent and public credit trustworthy; when people are allowed to disagree and yell at each other.
When people can register a blog on the internet and write long articles late at night that no one with any happy life will ever read.
Notwithstanding the unceasing noise from the people who love to hate government, modern governments overall are spectacular at furthering these things. What they are not good at is getting people into Heaven. Again, people don’t get to Heaven by following a checklist of rules. We get to Heaven because we are forgiven from the many times we don’t follow “the rules”. We get to Heaven, despite the inseparable connection between sin and death, because Jesus conquered death by dying himself for our sins. We are expected then, and the Holy Spirit (God) empowers us, to transform our lives in gratitude for that grace (Romans 2:4), but it is not the transformation itself that saves us. It is accepting God’s grace.
And no government can make us do that.
If one could, I think the only logical conclusion would be to oppose the First Amendment. Freedom of religion could only be viewed as patently Satanic. But, being that government is terrible at getting people to Heaven, and given that government has proven wonderful at corrupting and distorting Christianity all the way from Constantine to the present day, governments should stay out of the Christian-industrial complex. This was the opinion of Roger Williams, my greatest theological hero. Williams was the founder of what is today Rhode Island. He was an advocate for Native American rights as well as one of the first abolitionists. He knew many languages and was educated in the law.
Williams was the first to use the phrase “wall of separation” between church and state. People usually attribute this to Thomas Jefferson, but Jefferson was quoting Williams. And there was no ambiguity in what Williams meant by those words. Williams once wrote: “Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God.” The marriage of church and state creates a weak religion, yet one obsessed with power. Today, we call this paranoia and it is on full display when “Christians” advocate for laws protecting the country from Muslims, homosexuals, scientists or anyone else who might grow to more than 2% of the country. We see it every December when Fox News fights the imaginary “War on Christmas.” Rather than following Jesus’s example of grace and vulnerability to others, we become defensive. This is the corruption Williams warned about. It is incompatible with the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. It is utterly weak and feckless.
I boil the sum of my thought on church and state to one maxim and I hope for it to catch on: Governments should enact no law that lacks justification outside of religious authority.
This doesn’t mean for a second that laws must be against religion; they are merely not grounded in religion. For example, while I believe there is no secular justification for denying gay couples the right to marry and thus I support the legalization of gay marriage, I think there is plenty of secular justification to protect the life of an unborn child and I believe abortion is the single-most pressing civil rights issue of our time. My belief that the government should protect the unborn is not based on Biblical dogma of any kind. It is based on the secular reasoning that, while a woman indeed has a right to direct her own body, that right yields to the right of the unborn child to its life.
Christian principles and secular laws do not necessarily have to clash.
During the first century of the church, when infanticide was prevalent (and not illegal) the Christians would take and adopt those unwanted children. The Holy Spirit was working through these Christians. I caution others who oppose abortion that if we once again empower our state governments to criminalize the abortion of children when the life of the mother is not in danger, we are going to have a huge number of unwanted children on our hands. This will mean Christians will have to step up. It will also mean gay couples will have to adopt. And it will mean government subsidies will almost certainly have to increase to make it possible for more people to adopt. All three of these I’m sure are making my Christian readers uncomfortable.
But remember, America is not Jerusalem.
*Update: A reader posted a comment with a correction that I must add here. Above I stated that there was not a Jewish state from the time of the Babylonia captivity until 1948. When I wrote that, I overlooked the Maccabean Revolt in 167 B.C. which did lead to a sovereign Jewish nation in Palestine for a century.