Culture,  Politics

God and Government

“we are obedient to a power that is not only higher than the current government, but a power that was the basis of our government” (Mike Huckabee)
Tony Blair was most forceful on this point: I don’t do God, he said. Lately, western governments have followed suit. Talking about God and government is just too messy. For a start, there are too many divinities and they all say slightly different things. And then there are militant atheists for whom the mention of anything that has a whiff of divinity is likely to get you trolled and it certainly diminishes your chances of getting their vote.

So what’s a god to do? Sit by and hope the politicians come running back some day?

It turns out that separating God and government (and notice I’m not saying religion and government) is rather like trying to split an atom – fiendishly difficult and even if you manage it the world blows up. The point is: God and government don’t get stuck together or pulled apart on our whim. Even when governments make pompous “no god-talk on my watch” pronouncements, God is not off somewhere feeling useless and left out.

So the following are two thoughts on the matter neither of which rely on a particular political or ethical theory. The first is an epistemological point, how God’s nature, will and intentions for creation ground sufficient human knowledge for the crafting of laws. The second is a metaphysical point about God’s control of human history. 

This relief portrait of Moses is above the door
of the House Chamber in the Capitol Building.
Moses reminds us of the basis of law – not man, but God. 
#1 God is the grounds for law.

Law is a set of rules that govern a particular people’s behavior. Government is responsible for writing and enforcing the law.

There are some who conflate culture with legislation. On their view, law is merely a tool for cultural progression. Laws don’t reflect anything very law-like at all. Instead law is how the majority (or the loudest) create, transform or shape cultures.

In contrast, God is not a culture nor is he part of human culture, though, in Christ, he dwelt among us.  God is an external standard by which all that is good is judged. By his nature, will and the way he designed the world human beings are able to know and establish good government. God is morally perfect by nature, his will is impeccable and, since he designed us, he knows what our proper functions are, how we work best.

First, his nature is morally praiseworthy. Unlike human beings, God’s moral nature is perfect. He is entirely without defect. Law should ultimately be grounded in moral perfection. They should accord what is good with who God is and not who we are.

But we are not God so we can’t merely copy him. We need to know not only what God is like but what he wants. So, the second ground for law is God’s will. God’s revelation of his will is determinative of our duty. God isn’t silent. And, if he has spoken and we can understand, then we have, at least in part, a set of rules set down for us by the one who is perfect and who designed us. When people talk about Judeo-Christian values undergirding the law, that is what is often meant – God’s prescribed will for his creation. It’s why the depiction of Moses hangs over the entrance to the House Chamber. Now, which laws apply today and how they apply is a discussion for another day, but, at the very least, we can craft laws based on what God wants for human beings.

Now you might think that’s good for all you theists, but what about those of us who don’t believe in all that? Why do we have to live under some theocratic kingdom? Well, the simple answer is: you don’t and neither do we believers. There is no reason to think that laws that take seriously the will of God would entail anything like a theocracy. To see why, just hang on a minute. I’ll tell you in the next section.

Meanwhile, consider this: Even if you don’t believe in God,  his existence makes it possible to craft laws that accord with how the world is. This is because God designed the world to work in a certain way. It has to do with proper function. For something to have a proper function is for it to have a privileged purpose, a purpose for which it is designed. A carrot’s privileged function is for animals to eat even though it can function as a snowman’s nose. The same with you. You have been made to work best in a certain way, you have proper functions. Making good law entails recognizing what those privileged functions are and protecting them. You don’t have to protect them all, but the main ones like family, freedom of religion, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness work better because they better accord with our privileged functions. We are designed to be in, commit to, work for, live with, love, and cherish our families. Likewise, we are designed to worship, to pursue happiness, to work, raise children and alike.

The design factor is important for law in situations where there are many people are resistant to the Bible. Though the Bible expounds both the nature of God and his will for human beings, the fact that we are designed means we can know some of  his will merely through experience and observations of how things work. Paul tells us that sins have consequences that can be born in the body (Rom 1). One of the paradoxes of naturalism is that if true it would afford no proper function to anything. But because it is false naturalists have to live inconsistently: they have to function somewhat according to how they were designed. Even though naturalists have no grounds for proper function, they nonetheless live in a designed world and somewhat according to how it was intended to function.

God designed us and knows how we should work. Law often goes against our will. We want something else. But God’s law is given to us not only because it prescribes what we ought to do, but describes who we ought to be. We are his creatures and we know what his creatures are like not by self-examination, but by looking in the mirror of the word. God knows what is best for his creatures. Therefore, the best life we can live is one that accords with God’s law and his design for us.

#2 God is the determiner of history

Though it might not feel like it in an electoral cycle like this one, God is ultimately in control. I take it that control means he is in control of who occupies power, organizes materials, and guarantees the outcome of human action.

First, Governments don’t get to power despite God’s best efforts. Instead God determines national boundaries and duration (Acts 17:26). Even though many people think we have autonomy, it is God who is the ultimate appointer of officials. Not a single person who gained power got there despite God’s best efforts. This means that not even the worst of tyrants got to power without God’s say so. Why God places some men in power it is hard to say, but it means that Governments are never outside of the control of God. This does not make God evil since you and I are never outside of the control of God and we, let’s face it, have perpetrated our own evils. It does, however, mean that governments and, ostensibly, politics are not gods. We should not turn to them as if they were divine.
In our contemporary culture politics often wrongly takes the place of theology.

On a side note, the abandonment of the study of history is a mistake. Our ignorance of history will open the door to a repetition of it. We have all but abandoned history as a recognizable discipline. In its place we study cultural identity and its formation. We study fiends with impartial objectivety and heroes with suspicion that we have been conned, that they are really tyrants with good PR.

Second, God is the ultimate organizer of materials. The present crisis in the West is partly a material crisis, a combination of guilt for having more than anyone else and lack of gratitude to the One who gives it to us. Governments often play God in this arena; they think that re-organizing material things will solve spiritual problems. It is no coincidence that the decline in theistic belief in the West is somewhat proportionate to the growth in the belief that it is the role of governments to manage materials. As one rejects the providence of God one will vote in the providence of the state.

Finally, if God was not in control of history there would be no way to guarantee that following God’s law would work out best. An obvious example is the proper function of governments themselves. The idea of our age that we operate independently of God, that governments are autonomous, is a myth. God is the restrainer of evil and government is one of his means for doing so. Government restrains evil with punitive measures, punishing criminals. It even functions that way when it is wicked. Paul wrote the following under the evil reign of a despot called Nero. He writes it in full confidence that governments, even Nero’s, are used against evil:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing.Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Romans 13:1–7).

What has God to do with Government? Everything. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.