How does a pluralistic, constitutional democracy ‘Kiss the Son’? Getting Beyond the Abstract

In a couple posts last week (here and here) I wrote about the authority of Scripture over the state while pointing out the degree of flexibility and care required in determining how and to what extent it should enforce the moral law of God. Even Scripture, I argued in the second post, drawing from Calvin (read my quotation from Calvin in the comments if you haven’t had a chance), teaches that civil law must often tolerate forms of sin and injustice that are nevertheless condemned by God.

But if one important distinction we need to keep in mind is the distinction between the moral law and the civil law, another important point we need to remember is that in different political and constitutional circumstances different sorts of civil practice or law are required. Not only are there many different types of government, ranging from monarchy, to aristocracy, to democracy, but there are different levels of religious homogeneity, ranging from the uniformity of medieval Christendom to the significant diversity of communist China, with the pluralism of the United States falling somewhere in between.

To keep things simple here I want simply to compare a situation in which a Christian nation has a Christian king to a pluralistic democracy in which all political power is delegated and all political offices are normed by written law (i.e., the United States). Because the fact is, it’s one thing to declare in the abstract what government should do on any particular matter; it is another thing to propose a particular government action in the concrete circumstances in which we live, and given the need to persuade our fellow citizens – most of whom are not practicing Christians – that this action should be taken.

For instance, most Christians agree that Psalm 2 requires kings and magistrates to recognize Christ’s lordship over them, and to ensure that they rule consistent with that lordship. And in a country in which the people are Christian and there is a king it is not hard to see how this text should be applied. The king of 14th Century France had the full power and authorization to confess Christ’s lordship over the kingdom of France, and no one would have expected anything else from him. Given the widespread acceptance of the authority of Scripture, it would make sense for the various magisterial authorities of such a country to ground their laws in the general civil laws of Scripture, as far as was possible under the circumstances.

But in the 21st Century United States things are somewhat different. We don’t have a king and our head of state does not have the discretion in matters of religion that a medieval Christian king would have had. Americans are no longer even culturally united in the Christian faith, and the American government is the shared possession of a people that spans many different types of Christianity, let alone different religions.

In that context it is perfectly legitimate for presidents like George W. Bush and Barack Obama personally to profess the lordship of Christ, and in their own ways each of these men has done just that. At the same time, given that the power of office is delegated by the written law of the constitution, and given that the president is obligated to represent the whole American people, it is not appropriate for the president to declare that the United States is under the lordship of Christ, and that it should use its coercive power consistent with that lordship. The reason for this is not that it is not true. It is that the president has no power under our constitution to make such a declaration.

But, you might say, if God commands it shouldn’t we do it regardless of what the constitution says? Not if you believe in the basic principles of the rule of law and of delegated authority. To be sure, we are always to obey God rather than men, and we are never to do something that is inherently sinful. But as I have pointed out, Presidents Bush and Obama are perfectly free to testify to their subservience to Christ, and both have done so in their own way. But neither has the authority to use their office to do this.

Of course, at a more basic level I think we all understand this intuitively. God requires that all people worship him. And that commandment extends to the kings of the earth as well as to anyone else. So President Obama ought personally to be in church on Sundays, worshiping God. But that doesn’t mean he has the right to use his office to require all Americans to be in church on Sundays. There is a difference between what God requires of us in his moral law, and what civil governments have the authority to enforce.

This is not simply a minor point. The entire American system of government depends on the existence of various kinds of government with different jurisdictions – local, state, and federal. It presupposes that each particular government is itself divided into legislative, executive, and judicial branches, with each branch being obligated to perform its own task and not the tasks of the other branches. It may be the case that a particular thief ought to be locked up and put in prison, but Congressman Paul Ryan does not have the authority to gather his congressional staff and lock up that thief; he has to leave that task to various state or local authorities. It may be the case that the most recent tax law passed by Congress is foolish, but the Supreme Court does not have the authority to overturn it on those grounds. It may be the case that America’s immigration laws are unjust, but President Obama still has to enforce them.

In short, all authority in a constitutional federal republic like the United States is delegated, and just because something is good to do doesn’t mean just anyone should do it, or just because something is bad to do doesn’t mean just anyone should stop it. Laws need to be passed by the proper representative authorities, and those authorities need to be elected by the people. And while the people may be morally obligated to choose a certain quality of representatives who will pass a certain set of ideal laws, the reality is that everyone disagrees about how this ought to happen. And if I cannot persuade enough people to support the sorts of laws that I believe are the best laws, I have to accept that. I can and should keep working to try to persuade, or to justify my own views, but I also have to submit myself to the process that exists, and the right of my fellow citizens, even those who are not Christians, to follow their own consciences. They may be wrong in what they decide to do, but that doesn’t mean I have the right to coerce them to do something different. I have to submit to the authorities that exist.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on August 15, 2012, in Barack Obama, Law, Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on How does a pluralistic, constitutional democracy ‘Kiss the Son’? Getting Beyond the Abstract.

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