Search SBL
 









SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Are U.S. Politicians God's Servants?: Romans 13:1-7 and Political Rhetoric

This project on the 2004 presidential election and religiously-affiliated commentary ended up being more complex than I had anticipated. Specifically, I wanted to see if Christian supporters of President George W. Bush justified their choice based on the argument of Rom 13: 1-7. I assumed that I would find what I was seeking, a clear endorsement of President Bush.

The cliché about those who assume, however, applies to me because the information I found on the subject is inconclusive. While Roman Catholic periodicals leaned toward Bush, it was not a distinctive lean; in other words, the perceived virtues and vices of both Bush and Kerry were presented with a considerable amount of equity. In contrast, the evangelical / fundamentalist Protestant side, the side often assumed to be blind Bush supporters, said absolutely nothing on the subject. In all likelihood, the debate about the President took place before the 2000 election, so those who supported the President then had no reason not to support him in 2004. For his evangelical / fundamentalist Protestant constituents, George W. Bush is a man of their faith and values; there is no reason not to give him their vote.

Where does Rom 13:1-7 fit into all of this? The answer is that it does not. For Roman Catholics, who were divided over whether to support the pro-life Bush or the pro-choice Kerry, Church teaching about life issues proved to be more persuasive (or unpersuasive) than Paul. Since the Protestant side had no debate, my question about Rom 13 proved to be moot. So, on some level, this paper is about how to construct an argument with the information you have and not necessarily the information you want. Additionally, as an African-American scholar teaching in a so-called "red state" at a Roman Catholic women's college, I hope that this paper may serve both as a magnifying glass for me, enabling me to see my chosen terrain more clearly, and a telescope for readers, providing them with a glimpse of the context that allowed what for many seemed unthinkable, a second Bush term.

Let me begin with Rom 13:1-7 and why it found no place in Christian debate regarding the 2004 election. My thesis is simple enough: the first-century text does not fit twenty-first century political discourse, even in religious circles.

I found two exceptions to this general rule. First, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) alluded to the passage when discussing the possibility of having to vote in favor of a declaration of war: "I come from an Anabaptist background, which espouses non-resistance. The Book of Romans, however, clearly states that although individual Christians have a responsibility for peace, it is the job of government to punish the evildoers."[1] Second, Terry Eastland, an evangelical Presbyterian who publishes the conservative periodical Weekly Standard,[2] used Rom 13 in his definition of civil government:

Simply stated, civil government is an institution ordained by God for ruling and maintaining order (see Romans 13). It is (just as ministers and parents are) a means of common grace; that is, it exists for the benefit of all humanity so that things might be a bit or maybe even a whole lot better than they otherwise would be. Generally speaking, a Christian must not ignore but must acknowledge the civil authority and render unto it what it is owed.[3]



This obligation to support government remains, however, no matter what political party is in power.[4]

Eastland's conclusion may explain why Rom 13 finds no place in partisan political Discourse. Romans 13:1 reads as follows: "Let every soul be subject to the prevailing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the [authorities] that are have been appointed by God." According to Paul, "the one who sets oneself against" the authority opposes God (Rom 13:2). Such opposition can be internal as well as external, and both forms are bad.[5] I suggest that in today's politicized yet still democratic context, no Christian, no matter how she or he interprets the Bible, would be willing to take this literally. Otherwise, there would be no debates about anything. American Christians have a long history of opposing authority, ranging from civil disobedience against unjust laws to voting out of office incumbents from all three branches of government. If they believed that such incumbents truly were appointed by God, then this country's democratic process would grind to a halt.

Paul assumes that all actions taken by those in power are connected to God's will (Rom 13:3-5).[6] When Paul asks for obedience to authorities in Rom 13, he makes the request within a Christian context for the purposes of self-interest. Such obedience "would result in their well-being and ensure their ongoing existence as Christian communities in Rome."[7] In other words, the text was socially expedient at the time. Whether it should be now depends on whether the text serves any contemporary interest. The answer appears to be no because even if supporters of the dominant party think its leaders are God's servants, they apparently are wise enough to know that in a two-party system, the roles inevitably will switch.

Expediency, however, is a relative term. For example, in the days of apartheid, South African scholars such as A. Boesak argued that Rom 13 need not function solely as a prop for any existing status quo. Instead, the text claims that we should insist that our leaders are righteous, just as God is righteous.[8] Such righteousness "is also the criterion for distinguishing a good government from a bad one: namely, that it knows the difference between good and evil."[9] What are the criteria for distinguishing between a good and a bad administration? As we will see when we examine Roman Catholic discourse, there is no consensus, even among Christians of the same denomination, about the defining characteristics of a good or bad political course of action.

This lack of consensus makes the claims of Rom 13 difficult for anyone to utilize today. In a paper given at SBL seven years ago, M. Stubbs explains why. She argues that "while Rom 13:1 describes the unspoken / unwritten values that underpin Roman social life ... this perceived relationship is but an illusion, an ideological construction of the community's perception of their relationship to the governing authority."[10] Therefore, Paul is saying only what the Romans, who are in power unilaterally, would expect to hear, not necessarily what the Christians believe about political authority. Paul is stating a fact in Rom 13 and not outlining a code of conduct.[11] Stubbs "[proposes] that Rom 13:1-7 functions as the public transcript [12] of the subjection and Paul's mentioning it reminds the Christians at Rome to acknowledge it as the ideological system in which they live because by not recognizing the system, they are not only subjected by it, but they also subject themselves to it."[13] For her, the hidden transcript, or what oppressed people say to themselves in private, is Rom 13:8-10, which says that all people owe is love.[14] While such speaking in code may have been necessary for first century Christians, who were trying to avoid persecution, it is not necessary in the United States, where Christians in general and some Christians in particular have been in control from the country's earliest days. Contemporary Christians do not use Rom 13 to justify their political behavior because they do not need it.

In the case of Roman Catholics, who in the last election had to decide how much support to give to one of their own, Senator John Kerry, the numbers split almost down the center. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, fifty-two percent of Roman Catholic voters supported President Bush.[15] This slim majority may be a result of the intense debate that occurred in Roman Catholic periodicals in the months leading up to the election, which offers a glimpse of the turmoil that many of their readers may have experienced. On 30 April 2004, the National Catholic Reporter's feature editorial, "Politics, Piety, and the Catholic Vote," recognized the complexity inherent in a choice for president. Stating that "personal piety and religious observance are not prerequisites of national leadership,"[16] the editorial acknowledged that some Roman Catholics insisted that abortion was the most important election issue; because Senator Kerry is pro-choice, true Catholics cannot vote for him and must therefore give their support to the pro-life President Bush. Instead of challenging the importance of abortion head-on, the editorial challenged the President's claim to be pro-life, noting that abortion did not seem to be a priority in his legislative agenda. Additionally, President Bush's policy on stem-cell research does not fall in line with Church teaching, and his welfare position "could well force more low-income women to abort their babies." The editorial suggests that the President is using his pro-life position for political purposes only.

This editorial presents the debate in Roman Catholic communities in a nutshell. Those for whom abortion was the premier issue usually supported Bush; those for whom "pro-life" was not defined solely by abortion showed a willingness to support Kerry. A case in point is a 4 June 2004 article in Commonweal by Sidney Callahan, titled "A Pro-life Case Against Bush: It's about more than abortion." Although Callahan herself is opposed to abortion, she argues that President Bush's decision to wage unilateral, pre-emptive war may be anti-life and thus negate any anti-abortion legislation he supports. Additionally, she accuses the President of hubris, challenging the self-confidence that he claims his Christian faith gives him: "The president does not seem to recognize that conscience is not divine dictation, or the direct voice of God, but rather God's voice 'echoing' in his depths (the Catechism). Individual conscience can be in error because it is a complex human capacity requiring reason and emotion. Moral decisions must be continually informed through dialogue and consultation with others."[17] It should be noted that Callahan's support of Kerry is not enthusiastic. "Meanwhile, the Democratic Party and John Kerry will remain rigidly and dogmatically pro-abortion. In this sad dilemma I think the Catholic pro-life agenda of peace and social justice for all is best served by a vote for Kerry and the Democrats."[18]

By September, with the election only two months away, four leading Roman Catholic periodicals ran articles about it. We return to the National Catholic Reporter. On 3 September, Rosemary Radford Reuther wrote "The Case Against George W. Bush," and she was not as hesitant as Callahan had been three months earlier. Reuther insisted that the president was actually anti-life in five ways - he is pro-rich, anti-environment, bellicose, slow to protect human rights, and in bed with "the most reactionary forces of Christian fundamentalism and the Catholic right" regarding sexual health issues.[19]

Over two weeks in September, the newspaper National Catholic Register ran two articles about the upcoming election. The first article asked, "Can Catholics Vote for Pro-Abortion Candidates?" The question responds to the claims of Father Andrew Greeley, who interpreted a statement by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) to suggest that Roman Catholic voters are not confined to one issue when making a decision. Therefore, as long as they do not vote for Kerry precisely because he is pro-choice, they can vote for him. In response, three American bishops stated that Greeley missed the cardinal's point.[20] Cardinal Ratzinger's July 2004 memo gave priests the right to deny the Eucharist to politicians supporting the "grave sins of abortion and euthanasia."[21] However, the paragraph in dispute concludes as follows:

When a Catholic does not share a candidate's stand in favor of abortion and /or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.[22]



The bishops argue that the memo changes nothing. If "life issues" such as abortion and euthanasia trump all other issues, then the status quo remains in effect.

The meaning of "proportionate reasons," which allow voters to pick the lesser of two evils, may be in dispute, but voters may not say that other evils outweigh abortion, according to some authorities on Roman Catholic theology. They argue that abortion is in a class by itself.[23]

As a type of follow-up to this, the Register printed an article in its next issue, titled "Bush vs. Kerry: The Conscience Issues." Following Catholic Answers, which names "'5 Non-Negotiable Issues' for Catholic voters," the article judges both men on their stands on abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning, and homosexual marriage.[24] In all five issues, the pro-choice, pro-stem cell research, pro-cloning, pro-gay marriage Senator Kerry is found wanting. Who should Roman Catholics support, then, particularly because the rationales behind these non-negotiable issues all come from papal encyclicals and council documents?

If the National Catholic Register settles the issue definitively for its readers, Commonweal stirs the pot with its 24 September article by Jo McGowan. In contrast to Callahan's guarded support of Senator Kerry, McGowan calls him "our erring brother."[25] She concurs with Cardinal Ratzinger's memo giving priests the right to refuse the Eucharist to pro-choice politicians. If Jesus is pro-life, then McGowan's position seems airtight. But she then quotes Matt 18:15-17 as Jesus' response to the wayward Kerry:

"If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others with you: the evidence of two or three witnesses is necessary to sustain any charge. If he still refuses to listen, report it to the community." But then, as he did so often, Jesus spoiled it all with his last line: "And if he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a pagan or a tax collector."[26]



As McGowan writes: "Since tax collectors and pagans were his special favorites, people he would go out of his way to meet and have dinner with, it's better to forget his advice altogether." Her conclusions, even if tongue-in-cheek, are troubling. Jesus is pro-life because her imagination sees him as such, but she does not want her pro-life Jesus trying to persuade Kerry to change, even though Jesus' words in the gospel of Matthew suggest he might be willing to do that.

Finally, the magazine America presented articles on both sides of the presidential debate in its 27 September issue.[27] George Weigel's article, "A Catholic Votes for George W. Bush," argues that President Bush is more of a Roman Catholic than Senator Kerry. Because the President is pro-life, it makes sense to support him. While Weigel admits that the Republican Party and Roman Catholics are not a natural fit, he concludes:

Republicans now have a real chance to fashion a long-term governing majority, built in part on the 'new ecumenism' of Catholics and evangelical Protestants. Catholic social doctrine — including those priority life issues — could become an even more important factor in shaping the political philosophy of that new majority than it already is in a Bush White House.[28]



In contrast, James R. Kelly explains why "A Catholic Votes for John Kerry." Like Callahan, his vote is a reluctant one, but, unlike Callahan, he focuses solely on abortion, explaining why he thinks a Kerry administration would actually "reduce the number of abortions."[29] Kelly suggests that if one is pro-life, one can still vote for Kerry: "The Gospel of Life reminds us that Catholic social thought cannot describe the legal killing of a developing human being as moral progress, but there is nothing in authoritative Church teaching that requires a Catholic public official to support the recriminalization of all abortion."[30]

Excluding the April National Catholic Reporter editorial, opinions in these major publications leaned in favor of President Bush 4-3; two of the three articles supporting Kerry were not whole-hearted. If the Roman Catholic vote was as close as the Pew survey claims, then that is a testament to the ability of both sides to present their arguments and Roman Catholic voters to sort through them.

Writing in 2004, but before the nomination of Senator Kerry, former New York governor Mario Cuomo argued that "Catholics who also hold political office have an additional responsibility. They have to try to create conditions under which all citizens are reasonably free to act according to their own religious beliefs, even when those acts conflict with Roman Catholic dogma regarding divorce, birth control, abortion, stem cell research, and even the existence of God."[31] In a critique, Robert P. George countered that the problem with Cuomo's argument is that it would open the door to an acceptance of public bad acts by others even as you privately reject them.[32] The debatable question of what it means to be Catholic may explain why Kerry did not win the Catholic vote, but it may also explain why he did not lose it by much.

No such complexity existed in fundamentalist / evangelical Protestant circles, at least none that its journals such as Christianity Today and World were willing to document. As S. Mansfield explained, "he [George W. Bush] believed in action. He just needed to know in which direction to act. Once his faith began to point the way, the gap between thought and action narrowed."[33]

By the mid-1980s, "most conservative Protestants were convinced that a strict pro-life position was both God's word and the traditional Christian position."[34] This was in spite of the fact that when the Roe v. Wade decision came down in January 1973, evangelical Protestants did not oppose it right away. The equation of born-again Christianity with an anti-abortion position was a construct that marginalized other voices in evangelical and fundamentalist circles and ended up being the main catalyst for the cultural and political activity of Christians who accepted that construct — hence G. Weigel's call a generation later for a potential alliance between these Protestants and Roman Catholics, who had an already established tradition within which to oppose the decision.[35]

Where do African Americans fit into this godly alliance? And what does any of this have to do with African American biblical hermeneutics? I suggest that how African Americans and Caucasian members of the religious right view both Scripture and politics are incompatible. In this paper, I will focus on the former; namely, Scripture.

How you read the Bible, or at least what texts you value, should influence your opinion of the Religious Right. Traditionally, African Americans have looked for a God who is a liberator, a God who sets captives free and protects those who cannot protect themselves. Texts such as the Exodus narrative, Isa 61 (which Luke makes the foundation of Jesus' first sermon), and Mic 6:8 fit well within such a theology. When leaders of the Religious Right interpret Scripture, the prophetic call for social equity or even the Sermon on the Mount do not receive similar emphasis. Instead, I found Jerry Falwell's home church using Prov 31 as a proof text for a Christian beauty pageant and Falwell himself re-enacting the story of the fall of Jericho as a fundraising tool for his university.[36] In November 1996, James Dobson argued against tolerance by quoting Rom 12:9; according to him, the text claims that Christians are supposed to hate evil, if not necessarily evil people. He concludes, "Tolerance is not the greatest good in all contexts as it's being taught in the world of political correctness today."[37] While this may sound like the clarion call for morality that African American Christians should support, the danger is that if things like combating racism through an acceptance of diversity smack too much of tolerance or political correctness, today's religious friends could become tomorrow's political enemies.

If I sound concerned, it is because I am. If politics does make strange bedfellows, then it is important to recognize that at its core the Religious Right is a political movement and that one's view of God and justice should determine with whom one chooses to share a bed. Debates about the infallibility of the Bible notwithstanding, African Americans have always had a canon within a canon; this explains why slaves liked the Exodus narrative and not the New Testament household codes. This willingness to give some texts more weight than others should apply to any analysis of those who claim to speak for God. As R. Boston argues, "It always comes down to this: The Bible tells me so. Yet even among Religious Right organizations and conservative denominations, the Bible says different things. Passages are interpreted in different ways. Passages that seem obtuse or inconvenient are ignored .... So, in a nutshell, it isn't 'the Bible tells me so' at all. It's 'some guy said the Bible tells me so'."[38] In effect, I am pleading with African American Christians to continue to discriminate, to look past the language, and to remember that "thus you will know them by their fruits" (Matt 7:20).

I recognize, however, that I am asking for a lot. As conservative Republicans begin to make overtures to our communities, a call to action based on religious language may be difficult to resist. W. J. Moses concludes his book, Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms, with the following quotation, which serves as a fitting conclusion for this paper: "The paradox of African-American history is that much of our social progress has been driven by the same narrow-minded, self-righteous Protestantism that has so often worked against us. The problem for the future is to discover whether or not a social reform movement can function outside the hotbed of Protestant evangelism that, for better and for worse, has been its environment for over 200 years."[39] If Moses is right, then it becomes even more pressing for African Americans to engage in critical hermeneutics of Scripture and those who use it, lest we unwittingly find ourselves co-opted by a movement that may say the right things but have a definition of social reform that does more harm to us than good.

Stacy Davis, Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana

End Notes

[1] Mark Souder, "A Conservative Christian's View on Public Life," in One Electorate Under God? A Dialogue on Religion and American Politics (ed. E. J. Dionne, Jr., Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Kayla M. Drogosz; Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2004), 19-25.

[2] E. J. Dionne Jr., Jean Bethke Elshtain, Drogosz, Kayla M., ed., A Dialogue on Religion and American Politics (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2004).

[3] Terry Eastland, The Weekly Standard 2004: 89.

[4] Eastland, The Weekly Standard 2004: 90.

[5] Jan Botha, Subject to Whose Authority? Multiple Readings of Romans 13 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994), 47.

[6] Botha, Subject to Whose Authority?, 174.

[7] Botha, Subject to Whose Authority?, 210.

[8] Allan A. Boesak, "What Belongs to Caesar? Once Again Romans 13," in When Prayer Makes News (ed. Allan A. Boesak and Charles Villa-Vicencio; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 144.

[9]Boesak, "What Belongs to Caesar?," 150.

[10] Monya A. Stubbs, "Subjection, Reflection, Resistance: A 3-D Process of Empowerment in Romans 13 and the Free-Market Economy," in Society of Biblical Literature 1999 Seminar Papers (Atlanta: SBL, 1999), 384-85.

[11] Stubbs, "Subjection, Reflection, Resistance," 384.

[12] A public transcript is the manner in which an oppressed group behaves in front of the dominating group (Stubbs, "Subjection, Reflection, Resistance," 391).

[13]Stubbs, "Subjection, Reflection, Resistance," 394.

[14] Stubbs, "Subjection, Reflection, Resistance," 394-95.

[15] Dold, R. Bruce, "Bush Country," Notre Dame Magazine (Spring 2005): 25-28.

[16] "Politics, Piety, and the Catholic Vote," National Catholic Reporter (30 April 2004): 14.

[17] Sidney Callahan, "A Pro-life Case Against Bush: It's about more than abortion," Commonweal (4 June 2004): 15

[18] Callahan, "A Pro-life Case Against Bush," 18.

[19] Rosemary Radford Ruther, "The Case Against George W. Bush," National Catholic Reporter (3 September 2004): 20.

[20] Ellen Rossini, "Can Catholics Vote for Pro-Abortion Candidates?," National Catholic Register 80, 35 (5-11 September 2004): 2.

[21] Quoted in Rossini, "Can Catholics Vote for Pro-Abortion Candidates?," 14.

[22] Quoted in Rossini, "Can Catholics Vote for Pro-Abortion Candidates?," 14.

[23] Rossini, "Can Catholics Vote for Pro-Abortion Candidates?," 14.

[24] "Bush vs. Kerry: The Conscience Issues," Register 80, 36 (12-18 September 2004): 8.

[25] Jo McGowan, "Kerry, Our Erring Brother: The Need for Quality Control," Commonweal 131, 16 (24 September 2004): 7.

[26] McGowan, "Kerry, Our Erring Brother," 7.

[27] Under the editorial leadership of Father Thomas Reese, this Jesuit magazine enjoyed a reputation for presenting "all sides of various issues. In many ways, the back-and-forth was reflective of the magazine's name and the country that prides itself on robust, respectful debate" ("Ousting of editor viewed as ominous," Christian Century 122, 11 [31 May 2005]: 15).

[28] George Weigel, "A Catholic Votes for George W. Bush," America 191, 8 (27 September 2004): 15.

[29] James R. Kelly, "A Catholic Votes for John Kerry," America 191, 8 (27 September 2004), 13.

[30] Kelly, "A Catholic Votes for John Kerry," 17.

[31] Mario Cuomo, "In the American Catholic Tradition of Realism," in One Electorate Under God? A Dialogue on Religion and American Politics (ed. E. J. Dionne, Jr., Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Kayla M. Drogosz; Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2004), 13-18.

[32] Cuomo, "In the American Catholic Tradition of Realism."

[33] Stephen Mansfield, The Faith of George W. Bush (New York: Tarcher / Penguin, 2003), 73.

[34] Susan Friend Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000) 190.

[35]Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell, 194

[36] Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell, 107-8.

[37] Robert Boston, Close Encounters with the Religious Right: Journeys into the Twilight Zone of Religion and Politics (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2000), 178.

[38] Boston, Close Encounters, 128-29.

[39] Jeremiah Moses Wilson, Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth, rev. ed. (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1993), 238.

Comments on this article? email: forum@sbl-site.org

Citation: Stacy Davis, " Are U.S. Politicians God's Servants?: Romans 13:1-7 and Political Rhetoric," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=489

 
JOIN SBL   |  DONATE TO SBL   |  CONTACT SBL   |  BIBLE ODYSSEY   |  REVIEW OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE   |  SBL TWITTER   |  BIBLE ODYSSEY TWITTER   |  PRIVACY POLICY

© 2019, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.