The Bible and Anti-Immigration

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Robert Tsai, a Professor of Law at American University and the author of America’s Forgotten Constitution, discusses the use of the Bible in American immigration debates.  Here is a taste of his piece at Boston Review:

In general, there have been two strategies to combat the use of the anti-immigration Bible. The first is that “church and state” should be separated, not children from parents. That is a catchy slogan, but it is misguided as a strategy.

First, while religious practices in the United States are decentralized, three-quarters of its citizens identify with a Christian faith. Biblical arguments carry great weight.

Second, by asking citizens to bracket religious arguments as we debate the direction of immigration policy, we sap the national conversation of the moral power it needs. Concepts such as dignity, equality, fairness, and family integrity have sacred as well as secular sources.

Laying down one’s weapons unilaterally or complicating things by demanding that opponents disarm is counterproductive. Even if some people backed off religious argumentation (a dubious proposition) we would just be replacing a strict rule-of-law discourse with an equally empty invocation of legal rights without moral content—as if order itself was synonymous with justice.

We can’t really get at the heart of what is at stake unless we are willing to talk openly, and sometimes religiously, about pressing national policies.

The second strategy undertaken by some activists is more promising: engaging directly with strict, nationalistic interpretations of the Bible, as well as those that would put cultural purity or formalism above duties to treat others with respect and kindness regardless of their status in society.

Read the entire piece here.

 

William Livingston’s World

Liberty Hall

Liberty Hall Museum, the home of William Livingston

Today I am in Union, New Jersey working with the History Department at Kean University.  The department just received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund MakeHISTORY@Kean: William Livingston’s World.  It is a three-year project intended to develop  the Kean history curriculum around the concept of a History Lab.  The project incorporates the unique and untapped archival and historical resources of Kean University, Liberty Hall Museum, and the Liberty Hall Academic Center.  Undergraduates will generate a portfolio of original historical research to be shared with a broad public through talks, exhibits, websites, lesson plans, and other genres.

Initially, students will focus their work on the world of William Livingston, a brigadier general during the Revolutionary War, New Jersey’s first popularly elected governor (1776-1790), and signer of the U.S. Constitution.

The project also teaches history majors to think about how their work in the field of history intersects with a variety of career options in business, digital, and STEM to produce graduates who possess the communications and critical thinking skills employers need.

The “William Livingston World” program is already underway.  Students are working on a recreation of the 1772 marriage of Sarah Livingston and John Jay, which occurred in the Great Hall at Liberty Hall (on Kean’s campus).  Check out this video:

I will be talking with faculty and students today as the project’s “Public Humanities Consultant.”  It should be a great day and I am excited to learn more about this project.

Will the Court Evangelicals Break With Trump over Immigration?

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Franklin Graham has called Trump’s policy of separating families at the border “disgraceful.”  Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference opposes the policy.   Most anti-Trump evangelicals, such as Russell Moore, oppose the policy, but with the exception of Graham and Rodriguez, the court evangelicals have still said nothing.

One court evangelical is even in the midst of a fight with the city of Dallas over a billboard advertising his sermon “America is a Christian Nation.”  How oblivious can one get?  There is a significant moral crisis happening on the Mexican-American border and Robert Jeffress is mad because a Dallas billboard company took down his sign announcing that America is a Christian nation.  Christian nation?

If you think that this immigration mess is going to result in the court evangelicals breaking with Donald Trump, don’t hold your breath.  Most court evangelicals do not place immigration very high on their “pro-life” and “family values” radar.  Immigration policy is not a major theme in the political playbook they inherited from the Christian Right of the 1980s.

No matter what Trump decides to do about the border, the court evangelicals will stay with him.

“Fea wonders what period of our history Trump has in mind when he says he wants America to be great ‘again'”

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Here is a taste of a great review of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump from veteran Kansas City Star religion writer Bill Tammeus:

One of the things that has been missing from nearly all of these explanations and analyses has been a deep sense of the history of evangelical Christians in the U.S., starting at or even before the official birth of our nation. John Fea, who teaches American history at Messiah College and who describes himself as an evangelical, has rectified that in his new and enlightening book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. The official publication date is next week, but it can be pre-ordered now.

Fea is aghast and embarrassed by the choice so many of his fellow evangelicals made in the election. But he finds precedents in history for the way they responded not to hope but to fear. And, he asserts, it was fear and nostalgia for an imagined past that never existed that helped to move them into Trump’s camp. Indeed, Fea writes, “it is possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who have failed to overcome fear.”

Read the entire review here.

The Author’s Corner With L.H. Roper

RoperL.H. Roper is Professor of History at the State University of New York at New Paltz.  This interview is based on his recently edited book The Torrid Zone: Caribbean Colonization and Cultural Interaction in the Long Seventeenth Century Caribbean (University of South Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Torrid Zone?

LHR: In 2012, I began a correspondence with Laurie Wood (now at Florida State) in which we lamented both the perennially secondary position the Caribbean occupies in our understanding of ‘colonial America’ and the particular lack of a comparative treatment of the history of the region’s colonization by Europeans.  We decided to do something about this state of affairs and we began recruiting ‘partners in crime’.  Happily, there are a number of young and talented historians who are working on the Caribbean whom we were able to recruit along with several ‘seasoned veterans’.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Torrid Zone?

LHR: The agendas and behavior of Native people had a significant effect on Caribbean history well into the eighteenth century. The Torrid Zone, particularly by virtue of the global extension of the personalities involved in its colonization and their conceptions of society and politics, constituted a fully representative, but not especially distinctive, manifestation of the sensibilities at work in European overseas colonization.

JF: Why do we need to read The Torrid Zone?

LHR: The contributions are filled with insights on the history of the seventeenth-century Caribbean generally and of places such as Jamaica and Suriname particularly.  Since this region constituted the primary target of European interest in the Western Hemisphere at this time, it is impossible to have helpful understanding of the expansion of European interests, including the colonization of North America, or the cultural interactions that this expansion generated—and the effects of these phenomena—without some knowledge of what went on in the Torrid Zone.  The essays also shed helpful light on the networks of merchants and political figures—operating both in the Caribbean and outside of it—who managed European operations in the region and who extended their social and political influence elsewhere.  Readers will learn a good deal about the Native agendas and responses to European activity in the Torrid Zone as well.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LHR: Although I was trained nominally as an American historian, I regard myself primarily as a historian of the expansion of overseas European (particularly English) interests and of the cultural interactions this generated.  While I was in graduate school during the ‘Pleistocene Era’, it dawned on me that the best way to comprehend ‘early American history’ was through a better understanding of the social and political worlds in which overseas traders and colonizers operated, from which colonists (and colonizers) derived their worldviews, and with which colonists (perhaps to a surprising degree) maintained close social, political, and economic associations.  This view has only strengthened over the course of my career.

JF: What is your next project?

LHR: I hope to begin work on two (having just finished two books in the past year).  The first is a further investigation of English involvement in the ‘Guinea trade’ and the other is an examination of the European colonization of the region bounded by the Connecticut and Susquehanna Rivers and Chesapeake Bay between 1636 (the founding of the Connecticut colony) and 1741 (the Treaty of Lancaster).

JF: Thanks, Louis!

“Trump…is the logical conclusion of a conservative evangelicalism that is built on a foundation of sand”

Believe Me 3dThe reviews of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump are starting to appear at a more rapid rate.  Here is a taste of a review by religion blogger Justin DaMetz:

John Fea, professor of history of Messiah College, has been grappling with this same conundrum at his blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Home, since Trump burst onto the national political scene several years ago. Fea himself is a self-described evangelical Christian. Having read his blog daily for almost three years now, I can safely say he is a true moderate in every sense of the word, someone who never seems, in writing at least, to swing too far left or right from his center, but who doggedly sticks to his moral foundation that is rooted in Christianity. On his blog, you will find posts praising Barack Obama for showcasing a singularly Christian attitude during his presidency, side by side with posts condemning abortion in unequivocal terms and pushing back against the kind of secularism embodied by Bernie Sanders and the progressive movement. He always approaches these issues from the dual lenses of his evangelical beliefs, and his knowledge of American history. If you aren’t a regular reader of his blog, well, you should be.

All of that is to say, Fea is uniquely placed to think and write about the phenomena that is American evangelicalism’s rabid support for Donald Trump. And, he has done just that, in his newest book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. In this book, Fea traces the history of American evangelicalism, and the apocalyptic fear it has always carried around, to the current situation it finds itself in, where its numbers are rapidly shrinking and its influence on the cultural conversation has diminished to the point that the need is felt to throw the weight of the movement behind a thrice-married, openly admitted adulterer and reality TV star. Its the kind of move that reeks of death throes and desperation, and that becomes clear in the pages of Believe Me.

Read the entire review here.

Thanks, Justin!

And don’t forget to pre-order your copy of Believe Me or join us at one of many stops on the book tour.

“The Fear Sweepstakes”

Christian CenturyThe Christian Century is running an excerpt from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump titled “How Trump Won the 2016 Fear Sweepstakes.”  It is also the cover story for the July 4, 2016 issue!

Here is a taste:

When the 2016 presidential race began, the evangelical candidates with the best chance to win the GOP nomination were Florida senator Marco Rubio, a Catholic who attended a large Southern Baptist church, and Ted Cruz, the son of a Cuban-born preacher, who rode evangelical support to a Senate seat from Texas. And the evangelical parade of presidential candidates did not stop there. Baptist minster and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Ohio governor John Kasich, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and businesswoman Carly Fiorina all had positions on social issues that made them appealing to evangelical voters.

These candidates understood the political commitments of conservative evangelicals. Some of them would even feel comfortable preaching a sermon in an evangelical church or comforting people using the words of scripture. But what gave them a legitimate shot at the GOP nomination was their ability to engage in the politics of fear. To win the evangelical vote, these political candidates knew that they would have to convince the faithful that the Christian fabric of the country was unraveling, the nation’s evangelical moorings were loosening, and the barbarians were amassing at the borders, ready for a violent takeover.

Read the rest here.

First Baptist Dallas “Christian America” Billboard Comes Down

Jeffress Billboard

Last week we wrote about the billboard in Dallas advertising Robert Jeffress’s upcoming sermon at First Baptist-Dallas: “America is a Christian Nation.”  Read our post here.

The billboard company pulled the signs down.

Here is a taste of Tre Goins-Phillips’s piece at Independent Journal-Review:

Robert Jeffress, a Texas megachurch pastor and one of the Trump administration’s evangelical advisers, is facing criticism over billboards his church erected declaring America a “Christian nation.”

In fact, after a bit of online outrage, including an editorial from The Dallas Morning News, the billboard company contracting with the church, Outfront Media, decided to pull the signs down, describing the declaration — “America Is a Christian Nation” — as “anger provoking,” according to a statement from the church that was obtained by IJR.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, a Democrat, seemed to take issue with the billboards, too. In a statement to the newspaper, Rawlings said he doesn’t mind people “being proud of the Christian tradition in America” but added it’s important for the faith-based community to promote “a city of love versus a city of hate.”

And Metroplex Atheists, a branch of the national group American Atheists, is staging a protest at First Baptist Church to confront Jeffress’ patriotic message.

Read the rest here.

If a baker is allowed to deny services to same-sex couples, then I guess a billboard company can reject a message that they find offensive.

In my opinion, this billboard should come down because it makes a claim based on bad history.  It is fake news.  I wrote a book about this a few years ago and some of these themes will also appear in my latest book:

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Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week:

The University of Chicago no longer wants your SAT or ACT scores

The Republican Party was at prayer last week in Dallas

Is the Southern Baptist Convention changing?

Postcards at the Newberry Library

Trumpism before Trump

An editorial cartoonists is fired

Do parents kill progress?

Is Trump a man of faith?

Imani Perry on Alabama

Women who opposed the “trail of tears”

Absentee fathers on Father’s Day

Evangelicals and #metoo

Springsteen and the “shining city on a hill”

Ruth Graham with more Romans 13 commentary

How fatherhood has changed

Unless of Course You are Stopped at the Border and Your Children are Confiscated…

Gotta love the court evangelicals!  😦

 

There is a Copy of a John R. Rice Book at the Bottom of the Ohio River

bobbedOver at Baptist News Global, Molly T. Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, writes about the time she took a copy of Baptist fundamentalist John R. Rice‘s book Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers and tossed it into the Ohio River.

This piece caught my eye because I spent a lot of time reading Rice’s newspaper, The Sword of the Lord, for my M.A. thesis on separatist fundamentalism.  Those were some long days at the microfilm reader in Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s Rolfing Library.  If I remember correctly, I was working right next to a large bust of evangelical theologian Carl F.H. Henry.  (Hey current TEDS students–is that bust still around?) And thanks to my sometimes online nemesis Darryl G. Hart (some of you on Twitter now him as Old Life) for serving as a reader on that thesis! 🙂

Here is Marshall:

I was a Master of Divinity student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1973 to 1975. As regularly occurred with women students, I had been admitted to the School of Religious Education. Yet, I enrolled in all M.Div. courses because I had some burning theological questions.

I then had to talk my way into the School of Theology with the dean of the RE school. He was not easy to persuade; however, he approved the transfer. I was one of only a handful of women, even though in the early ’70s mainline seminaries were beginning to welcome many women.

One day I was in the library looking for resources to assist in my quest to learn about what the Bible really teaches about the role of women in ministry. I stumbled across the nefarious concoction of an over-achieving fundamentalist, John R. Rice. I was incensed at the title: Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers. Of course, I had experienced gender discrimination all my life as a Southern Baptist – at my home church, in college, in churches I had served as youth minister – but the sheer contempt of this book startled me.

I did what any self-respecting woman called to ministry would do: I flung it into the Ohio River as I crossed the big bridge heading into Indiana. (You recall that throwing things into the river has a venerable history in Louisville; that is where Muhammad Ali tossed his Olympic medals in protest of the racism of America.) I considered it an act of prophetic resistance (of course, I would not sanction destruction of seminary property now).

Read the rest here.

It’s Trump Adviser Stephen Miller, Not the Democrats, Who Want Family Separation at the Mexican Border

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This story is just breaking.

I have no doubt that Miller wrote the press release I blogged about earlier.  How does this square with Trump’s claim that he has nothing to do with the policy of separation families at the border?

And where are most of the court evangelicals?  Why aren’t they speaking out about this with a sense of outrage?  Where is their moral courage?

Trump’s Immigration Policy at the Border is Little More Than an Application of His Favorite Bible Verse (and it’s not Romans 13)

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Am I reading this correctly?

Below is yesterday’s White House Press Release on the administration’s policy of separating immigrant families at the border.  It seems like Trump is justifying separating families at the border because some crimes by illegal immigrants led to the “permanent” separation of families through murders.

I am starting to see why “eye for an eye” is Trump’s favorite Bible verse.  This seems like what one pastor friend recently described to me in an e-mail as “misguided revenge.”

CONGRESSIONAL DEMOCRATS’ FAMILY SEPARATION POLICY: Too many American families have been permanently separated from loved ones lost to illegal alien crime.

  • Open border laws and policies are responsible for the permanent separation of too many American families whose loved ones have been lost to illegal alien crime.
  • President Trump has met with family members whose loved ones have fallen victim to illegal alien crime.
    • Juan Pina was permanently separated from his daughter after she was strangled, raped, and murdered by an illegal alien.
    • Laura Wilkerson was permanently separated from her son, who was brutally murdered by an illegal alien classmate.
    • Jamiel Shaw, Sr. was permanently separated from his son, who was tragically murdered by an illegal alien gang member.
  • Congressional Democrats have repeatedly voted against common sense immigration legislation that would help make our communities safer.
    • In 2017, 174 House Democrats voted against legislation that would have helped ensure aliens associated with a gang are not admitted into the United States and would have empowered officials to more effectively remove those already here.
    • In 2017, 166 House Democrats voted against Kate’s Law, named after Kate Steinle who was killed by a previously deported illegal alien with a lengthy criminal history.
    • In February 2018, Senate Democrats blocked legislation that would have cracked down on dangerous sanctuary cities.

OPEN BORDER POLICIES: American communities have suffered from illegal alien crime and illegal drugs flooding our country due to open border policies and immigration enforcement loopholes. 

  • Drugs have flooded across our porous borders, poisoning our communities, and costing American lives.
    • The Southwest border is a major source of illegal drugs entering the United States.
    • Most heroin entering the United States is produced in Mexico, and production levels there continue to rise.
  • A total of 57,820 known or suspected aliens were in Department of Justice custody at the end of the first quarter of fiscal year 2018, 60 percent of whom were aliens with orders of removal.
  • A 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found nearly 3 million criminal arrest offenses tied to incarcerated criminal aliens, including 25,000 homicide offenses.
  • Transnational gangs, such as MS-13, take advantage of our open borders and the loopholes in our immigration system.
    • MS-13 and other gangs have bolstered their ranks by exploiting the influx of Unaccompanied Alien Children entering the United States.

More From *The Washington Post* on Sessions and Romans 13

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Kyle Swenson has a follow-up piece.  Good to see quotes from the Pietist Schoolman (Chris Gehrz) and Thomas Kidd.

Here is a taste:

Yet the lines have consistently been deployed to check opinions and activity running against the powers that be. As Thomas Kidd wrote on the religion blog Anxious Bench in 2014, Romans 13 was “the most commonly cited biblical text in Revolutionary America.”

The lines were championed by both colonists agitating for rebellion and loyalists. According to Anxious Bench’s Chris Gehrz, a history professor at Bethel University, the latter camp included clergymen such as New York’s Charles Inglis, who cited the scripture as proof that Christians “who really believe in a divine Revelation” should “make no Conscience of dishonouring the King, and rebelling against him” because it would be “knowingly trample on the Law of God.”

Pro-independence advocates, however, often followed the instruction of preacher Jonathan Mayhew, who “insisted that submission was contingent upon a ruler being just,” according to Kidd.

Following the American Revolution, Romans 13 became a frequent topic of sermons as the country debated slavery.

“The second spike you see is in the 1840s and 1850s, when Romans 13 is invoked by defenders of the South or defenders of slavery to ward off abolitionists who believed that slavery is wrong,” John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, told The Post on Thursday. “I mean, this is the same argument that Southern slaveholders and the advocates of a Southern way of life made.”

According to Gehrz, the passage largely disappeared from American pulpits after the Civil War. It did, however, make appearances overseas in the darkest moments of the early 20th century. Romans 13 was reportedly favored by Adolf Hitler and pushed by the Nazis to legitimize their authoritarian rule in 1930s Germany.

Read the entire piece here.  Read the original article here.

Nice work all-around!

*The New York Times* on Jeff Sessions and Romans 13

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It’s been a crazy day.  Last night I was wrapping-up some writing on the Southern Baptist Convention, trying to finish some end-of- the-academic-year paperwork, scheduling some blog posts, and preparing for the Believe Me book tour.

Then Jeff Sessions referenced Romans 13 and The Washington Post asked me for some historical context. I have been answering questions all day.

Here is my contribution to Julia Jacobs’s piece at The New York Times:

Referring to the Bible in political speeches is nothing new, said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush did so liberally, for example. But using Scripture as an enforcement tool for a particular federal policy is more concerning, Dr. Fea said.

“The founding fathers created the criminal justice system to be a largely secular criminal justice system,” he said. “They didn’t have in mind punishing criminals and condemning them using Bible verses.”

And the passage he chose drew considerable criticism. Historians and theologians took to the internet to point out that Romans 13 has been used to defend antiquated or outright contemptible points of view.

Before the nation’s founding, it was frequently used by Loyalists to oppose the American Revolution, Dr. Fea said. And in the 19th century, pro-slavery Southerners often cited the chapter’s opening verses to defend slavery — in particular, adherence to the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the seizure and return of runaway slaves.

Read the entire piece here.

When the Bible Gets Caught-Up in an Immigration Debate

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Check out Sarah Jones’s recent piece at The New Republic on Jeff Sessions and Romans 13, “Who Would Jesus Lock Up.”  The subtitle reads: “Using the Bible to defend the government’s most indefensible policies is a longstanding American tradition.”  Very true.

Here is a taste of Jones’s piece:

But exegesis belongs to the realm of theologians. Sessions’s comments are troublesome not because they misrepresent the Bible or constitute a needlessly religious justification for a secular policy, but because they echo some of the darkest chapters in American history.

As Christian historian John Fea told The Washington Post on Thursday, American southerners frequently cited Romans 13 in defense of the institution of slavery. “[I]n the 1840s and 1850s, when Romans 13 is invoked by defenders of the South or defenders of slavery to ward off abolitionists who believed that slavery is wrong,” he said. “I mean, this is the same argument that Southern slaveholders and the advocates of a Southern way of life made.” Slavery was legal, after all; to question Southern law was to question God.

In fact, early debates over the morality of slavery frequently played out in churches, a practice that continued as war broke out. Abolitionists had no difficulty defending the morality of their position, given the horrors of chattel slavery. Confederates, meanwhile, took up the language of a shared faith and deployed it in the service of propaganda.

Read the entire piece here.

Of course the Bible has also been used in American history to defend what some might call “defensible” positions.  Barack Obama did this all the time.  So did the Founding Fathers.

What strikes me about this whole Sessions controversy over Romans 13 is that the debate taking place online and in the media seems less about whether it is appropriate  to invoke the Bible in public debate in the first place, and more about which Bible verses should be used.

For example, here is Chris Cuomo of CNN.  Cuomo thinks Sessions’s use of Romans 13 is reprehensible. Then he goes ahead and uses his own Bible verses to show why Sessions is wrong:

Here is a piece on my friend, Holy Cross University professor Mathew Schmalz:

So what does the Bible say? College of the Holy Cross scholar and Associate Professor of Religious Studies Mathew Schmalz examined that issue more than a year ago, in an article for The Conversation.

Schmalz said the Bible is unambiguous in affirming the obligation to treat strangers with dignity and respect.

“As Matthew 25 makes clear, the Christians should see everyone as ‘Christ’ in the flesh. Indeed, scholars argue that in the New Testament, ‘stranger’ and ‘neighbor’ are in fact synonymous,” Schmalz wrote. “Thus the Golden Rule, ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ refers not just to people whom you know – your ‘neighbors’ in a conventional sense – but also to people whom you do not know.”

Schmalz, an expert on the papacy and the founding editor of the Journal on Global Catholicism, has published opinion pieces in Newsweek, Salon, the Washington Post, Commonweal Magazine, and The National Catholic Reporter.

“It is true that the application of biblical principles to contemporary matters of policy is less than clear to the many Christians who have taken opposing sides regarding how the United States should deal with immigrants, undocumented workers and refugees,” Schmalz wrote. “However, in my reading of the Bible, the principles regarding welcoming the stranger are broad-reaching and unambiguous.”

The Southern Baptist Convention quotes Leviticus 19:33-34, Jeremiah 7:5-7, Ezekiel 47:22, Zechariah 7:9-10, Matthew 25:35-40, and Hebrews 13:23 in its recent resolution on immigration.

Here are evangelicals from the Evangelical Immigration Roundtable citing the Bible:

So when does the Bible apply to a given policy issue and when does it not?  Maybe I will just go back to being a Catholic (like Mat Schmalz and Chris Cuomo).  Then I don’t have to worry about a thousand different interpretations of the Bible and just follow what the Church teaches on the matter.

Romans 13 and the Patriots

RevisedCheck out Lincoln Mullen‘s recent piece at The Atlantic on the use of Romans 13 in American history.  He correctly notes that Romans 13 was not only used by Loyalists who opposed the American Revolution, but also by patriots who tried to interpret the verse to justify rebellion against George III.

Here is what I wrote on this subject in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

The patriots used phrases such as “passive obedience” and “unlimited submission” to describe this Anglican view of the relationship between Christians and civil authority.  They spend hundreds of pages trying to counter it.  The most outspoken defender of such a patriotic interpretation of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 was Jonathan Mayhew, the minister of Boston’s West Church.  Mayhew was a liberal Congregationalist and forerunner of the Unitarian movement in New England.  He was committed to interpreting the Bible predominantly through the grid of natural law and reason.  His sermon on Romans 13, “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers,” was preached in 1750 on the celebration of the one-hundreth anniversary of the execution of Charles I during the English Civil War.  Despite the fact that Mayhew’s sermon was published a quarter-century prior to the outbreak of revolutionary hostility in Boston, John Adams, reflecting on the causes of the Revolution, wrote in 1818: “If the orators on the fourth of July really wish to investigate the principles and feelings which produced the Revolution, they out to study…Dr. Mayhew’s sermon on passive obedience and non-resistance.

Mayhew began his sermon by affirming that Romans 13 required Christians to be obedient to government, regardless of whether the government was a monarchy, republic, or aristocracy.  But the real issue at hand was the extent to which such “subjection to higher powers” should be practiced.  Mayhew concluded that sometimes resistance to civil authority might be justified.  According to Mayhew, Romans 13 could not be advocating unlimited submission to government because such a practice did not conform either to the true meaning of the passage or to the dictates of reason.  Paul’s primary audience in this passage was those in the first-century Roman church who did not show proper respect to civil authority and were of a “licentious opinion and character.”  Moreover, Romans 13 could not conceivably require submission to all rulers, but only to those rulers who were “good.”  Rulers who “attend continually upon the gratification of their own lust and pride and ambition, to the destruction of the public welfare,” were not worthy of a Christian’s submission.  Mayhew argued, “Rulers have no authority from God to do mischief.”  It is “blasphemy,,” he continued, to “call tyrants and oppressors God’s ministers.”  It follows that when a ruler becomes tyrannical, Christians “are bound to throw off our allegiance to him, and to resist; and that according to the tenor of the apostle’s argument in this passage.”  Perhaps the most ironic think about Mayhew’s argument is the way he managed to transform Romans 13 from a verse teaching submission to authority into a verse justifying the execution of Charles I and, for that matter, all rebellion against tyrannical government.  Charles I, he concluded, had failed to respect the “natural and legal rights of the people,” against the unnatural and illegal encroachments of arbitrary power.”  As a result, resistance was absolutely necessary in order to preserve the nation from “slavery, misery, and ruin.”

For Mayhew, it was “obvious” to any rational person exercising common sense that Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 did not teach submission to a government perceived to be tyrannical.  How could God require his people to live under oppression?  God has promised his people freedom.  But such an interpretation required ministers like Mayhew to move beyond a plain reading of these texts.  In order to turn these passages into revolutionary manifestos, Mayhew needed to interpret them with a strong does of the idea of political philosophers such as John Locke. In his famous Two Treatises on Government (1689), a pamphlet designed to explain why the Glorious Revolution (the removal of English monarch James II from the throne) was justified.  Locke taught that individuals had the right to life, liberty, and property.  His justification of resistance to government had a profound influence on the leaders of the American Revolution, but it ran counter to the teachings of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.  This tension did not stop clergy from interpreting these passages through the grid of Locke’s revolutionary teachings.

Let’s be clear.  Romans 13 teaches that Christians should submit to government,  but it does not seem to require unconditional submission.  It is not an easy verse to apply and we must be very careful about applying it universally.

Were high taxes (Stamp, Townsend, etc.), “no taxation without representation,” the Coercive Acts, or British military presence in the  American colonies (“standing armies”) so atrocious that Christians had a legitimate reason to violate Romans 13?   I don’t think so, but others, like Mayhew, disagree.  (Let’s remember that Romans 13 also tells Christians to pay their taxes).

Is the stripping of children from their families at the Mexican border atrocious enough for Christians to violate Romans 13?  I would say yes.  Of course this entire point is moot because, as far as I understand it, there is no American law requiring ICE officials to take children away from their parents.