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Government Under God
By David Feddes
Dr. Pepper decided to make patriotic pop cans for American consumers. The soft drink company printed the American Pledge of Allegiance on millions of cans—but not quite the whole pledge. Two words were dropped. The missing words were “under God.” Instead of saying “… one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” the Dr. Pepper version says “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” When someone called Dr. Pepper/Seven Up Inc. to ask why “under God” was dropped, a company official told her there wasn’t enough space on the can. They couldn’t find room for God.
Why was God considered dispensable? If there wasn’t enough space for the whole pledge, someone mused, why not drop “indivisible” and keep “under God”? To tell the truth, I’m not eager to get God’s name on pop cans—I don’t believe in using a patriotic pledge to sell soft drinks, and I certainly don’t believe in using God’s name to sell soft drinks—but I still think it’s revealing that a big corporation thinks that the least important thing about a nation is being under God.
America’s founders had a very different opinion. Consider the Pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower. Their agreement to govern themselves, the Mayflower Compact, was the first written constitution in the American colonies. They wrote that they came to America “for the glory of God, and the advancement of the Christian faith.”
Eventually Americans declared independence from England, but they didn’t declare independence from God. Patrick Henry made the famous declaration, “Give me liberty or give me death!” but he also said something else that doesn’t make it onto pop cans or into school textbooks. Patrick Henry said, “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ! For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.”
Samuel Adams, another founder of the American republic, spoke of human rights and said, “These may be best understood by reading and carefully studying the institutes of [Jesus] the great Law Giver and Head of the Christian Church, which are to be found clearly written and promulgated in the New Testament.”
Even Thomas Jefferson, one of the least Christian men among America’s founders, regarded Jesus as an extraordinary person and saw the Bible as a source of great wisdom. In writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson didn’t just say that people have rights but that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Jefferson also said, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis—a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”
George Washington, the first president of the United States, spoke of justice, mercy, love, humility, and peace as “the Characteristics of [Christ] the Divine Author of our blessed religion” and said that without humbly imitating his example, “we can never hope to be a happy nation.” In his farewell address, Washington warned, “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
John Adams, the second president and a major contributor to the United States Constitution, said, “Our Constitution was written for a moral and religious people, and it is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” His son, John Quincy Adams, also served as president and said, “The Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission on earth [and] laid the corner stone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity.”
President Andrew Jackson called the Bible “the rock on which our Republic rests.” In 1892, a Supreme Court document went so far as to say, “This is a Christian nation.” I could offer many other quotes, but you get the picture. Belief in God, Jesus Christ, and the Bible was not a minor footnote but the major source of wisdom for the founders and early leaders of the United States.
Earl Warren served as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court in the 1950s and 1960s, when courts and schools became more secular and said less and less about America’s Christian heritage. But even Chief Justice Warren once said
I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book [the Bible] and the spirit of the Savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses… I believe the entire Bill of Rights came into being because of the knowledge our forefathers had of the Bible and their belief in it: freedom of belief, of expression, of assembly, of petition, the dignity of the individual, the sanctity of the home, equal justice under law, and the reservation of powers to the people.
Today if a nominee for the Supreme Court credited Christ and the Bible for improving law and government, the nomination might be rejected. If a public school teacher taught such things, their position might be in jeopardy. It’s now politically correct to pretend that freedom depends on removing faith from public life. But that’s false. The truth is, the influence of Jesus Christ and the concept of government under God have nurtured liberty and justice in the United States, in Canada, and in other countries with a Christian heritage. Many people don’t know this—their schools never told them—but we need to know the truth. If we don’t know how a free, well-ordered society got that way, we won’t know when it is slipping away until it’s too late.
It’s hard to deny that the best countries to live in are generally those where many citizens are Christians and where systems of government were formed under the influence of Christian principles. I’m not saying that the United States or Canada or any other nation with a Christian heritage has always lived up to Christian principles or is the Lord’s favorite. No nation or government has a special claim to being God’s people on earth; only the church of Christ is set apart in that way. But the reign of Christ extends beyond the church, and the blessings of Christ are felt in many other spheres of life. A nation whose government is “under God” and seeks to uphold God-given rights and to honor God-given responsibilities will enjoy more blessings than one that is godless or that serves another god besides the God revealed in Christ. Pop cans, teachers, lawyers, and judges can pretend it’s not so, but facts are facts. Christ is the fountain of freedom.
Fountain of Freedom
Jesus lived on earth at a time when his homeland of Israel was under the heel of the Roman Empire. Roman emperors claimed divine powers; the Caesars honored no law higher than themselves. Some people once asked Jesus whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus asked for a coin. On one side of the coin was a portrait of Caesar; on the other side was an inscription calling Caesar divine. Jesus looked at the coin and said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Paying taxes to government for certain services is one thing; worshiping government as a god is quite another.
Only one person has divine authority on earth, and that person is Jesus Christ, not any ruler or government. After Jesus rose from the dead, he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). His first followers honored Christ’s supreme authority. An early Christian hymn recorded in the Bible says, “At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow” (Philippians 2:10). The earliest Christian statement of faith was, “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9). That was a sharp contrast to the Roman claim, “Caesar is Lord.” Many Christians died for refusing to call Caesar Lord and refusing to burn incense to Caesar. All must bow to Jesus as Lord, so no human may bow to another mere human as Lord. This is good news for human freedom and bad news for tyrants.
The supreme authority of Christ puts a limit on all merely human authority. When Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” he went on to tell his followers to make disciples of all nations. Their mission efforts upset authority figures who didn’t want Christianity to spread. The authorities threatened the Christians and ordered them to stop preaching, but the Christians replied, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29) If government orders clashed with God’s commands, they had to disobey government and obey God. Still today, some rulers try to control churches and try to stop Christians from urging others to follow Christ, but whenever government contradicts God, the Christian response is, “We must obey God rather than men!” God’s law is above man’s law.
Christ’s followers are not anti-government, but they believe in government under God, not government as God. The apostles of Christ told Christians to submit to government and to pay the proper taxes, not because rulers are gods but because rulers are God’s servants for restraining crime and encouraging a better society (Romans 13:1-7). In the Bible, the apostles of Christ told Christians to pray to God for their rulers (1 Timothy 2:1-2) but never to pray to their rulers as gods. In this Christian view, rulers are not masters of the universe but servants responsible to God for the good of the people. Rulers are not gods but men who need prayers and God’s help to do a decent job. Government has a limited, temporary purpose, so respect that limited purpose but don’t put too much faith in government. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
Jesus put limits on the authority of government, and he also redefined the purpose of power. Jesus said, “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11). Christ himself set the pattern. He held ultimate authority but was willing to do the hardest, humblest jobs to serve others. He went so far as to wash his disciples’ dirty feet, a lowly job for servants and slaves. Then he said, “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash each other’s feet” (John 13:13-14). Now if the supreme ruler of the universe used his power and authority to serve people, if the greatest of people is a servant, then the Christian pattern for rulers is to be public servants for the good of their people, not proud tyrants who exalt themselves at the expense of their people.
Jesus set a pattern where no ruler is too important to be a servant, and he also set a pattern in which every person matters. Jesus cherished individuals that others didn’t care about. Jesus showed God’s care for every person, not just for the rich and powerful. He said that he would take it personally if anyone harmed or neglected the last and the least of humanity. Christ’s insistence that every last person counts has had an enormous long-term impact in government and recognition of human rights. Veteran journalist Malcolm Muggeridge said, “We must not forget that our human rights are derived from the Christian faith. In Christian terms every single human being, whoever he or she may be, sick or well, clever or foolish, beautiful or ugly, every human being is loved by his Creator.”
The overall biblical vision of a great society, revealed by Christ and his prophets and apostles, is not a vision of big government or impressive monuments. The pagan, humanistic empires measured greatness by territory conquered and buildings erected. The countless soldiers and civilians who died in these conquests didn’t matter. The many slaves it took to build the pyramids and pagan temples didn’t matter. In the pagan vision, people mattered less that conquest and pomp and splendor. But the biblical vision is not of imperial splendor but of free people working hard and minding their own business (1 Thessalonians 4:11). According to Scripture, God’s reign is seen where weapons of war are changed into farm implements, where every man sits in the shade of his own tree without fear, free to enjoy family and property (see Micah 4:2-5).
Jesus is the fountain of freedom. From Christ we learn that grand government goals do not outweigh dignity and opportunity for each person. Every person matters. Human rights come from God, not government. Rulers are servants, not gods. Every ruler will ultimately bow before Christ and answer to him. These principles are vital for good government and healthy society, and these principles have influenced the world for the better.
Saying No to Emperors
Faith in Christ as Lord enabled early Christians to be good citizens while rejecting every government claim to absolute authority. Jesus’ first followers didn’t seek any special privileges from government, and they didn’t count on government to impose Christianity on others. They simply wanted to be free to worship God and serve the Lord Jesus without being persecuted.
Later, persecution of Christians ended and some emperors became part of the church themselves. However, emperors were still tempted to see themselves as above the law, answerable to nobody. They were also tempted to use their governing powers beyond their legitimate sphere, interfering in the affairs of the church. But those who believe in the supreme authority of Christ know that no government official can order the church what to believe and no government official is above the law.
One hero of history who insisted on government under God was Ambrose, bishop of Milan in Italy. On one occasion, the government ordered Ambrose to turn a church building over to Arian leaders, false teachers who did not believe in Christ as God and did not believe in the Holy Trinity. Ambrose refused to let the Arian heretics take over the church building, so the emperor’s soldiers surrounded the church. Ambrose was told that “the Emperor was exercising his rights since everything was under his power.” Ambrose answered that “those things which are God’s are not subject to imperial power.” Ambrose and his congregation barricaded themselves in the church for more than a week, praying and singing hymns. Finally the emperor backed down, and the church remained faithful to the Trinity.
Ambrose insisted that government cannot dictate doctrine to the church, and he also insisted that no ruler is a law to himself. This led to a confrontation with another emperor, Theodosius, who often attended his church.
A mob of people in the city of Thessalonica killed a Roman officer. When the emperor heard this, he was furious and ordered his troops to start killing people throughout Thessalonica. More than seven thousand men, women, and children were killed to avenge the death of that one man, with no regard for whether they were guilty or innocent.
The next Sunday, Emperor Theodosius went to church, expecting to receive Holy Communion. But Ambrose stopped him at the door and would not even let the emperor enter his church. “How will you lift up in prayer the hands still dripping with the blood of the murdered? How can such hands receive the body and blood of the Lord? Get away and do not heap crime upon crime.” The emperor was shocked and offended. He was the emperor; his word was law. He could do as he pleased. How dare anyone talk to him like that? “The Church of God,” he complained, “is open to slaves and beggars. To me it is closed.” At last he humbled himself and repented. He grieved for his sin and said, “Ambrose is the first man who told me the truth.” The brave bishop had reminded the emperor (who could have killed him on the spot) that even the most powerful ruler on earth must answer to the God of heaven.
No ruler is above the law, and no government has authority to dictate matters of faith to the church. These principles have made a huge, positive difference around the world.
Separation of Powers
Christians and churches have made far too many errors in political matters over the centuries, but where they have been faithful to Christ and the principles of God’s Word, they have done much good. Christ is indeed a world changer. When Christians have asserted the final authority of Christ, limited government to its own proper sphere, and based human rights and responsibilities in God’s authority, not man’s, the influence of Christ has been a blessing in the political realm.
Christianity has helped to limit government to its proper place, and Christians also contributed to having separate branches of government: judicial, legislative, and executive. When some Christians read in the Bible, “For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver; the Lord is our king; it is he who will save us” (Isaiah 33:22), they reasoned that only Christ can be trusted with authority to be the supreme judge, lawgiver, and king. No sinful human could be trusted with judicial, legislative, and executive powers at the same time. It would be better to separate those powers into different branches of government, as checks and balances to lessen the likelihood of too much power being concentrated in any one person or group of people. Followers of Christ were so aware of human sinfulness and so committed to Christ’s supremacy that they didn’t trust anyone but Christ to hold all the powers of government and be judge, lawgiver, and king at the same time.
No system of human government is perfect, not even systems that have been most influenced by Christian principles. Only when Christ returns will the nations be governed perfectly. In the meantime, though, there’s no denying Christianity’s important part in making governments and political structures better.
Some think the key to freedom is to secularize, to base government on atheism or agnosticism. That’s what the leaders of the French Revolution thought. They were anti-Christian and came up with a whole new calendar based on the beginning of the Revolution rather than the birth of Christ. Just a few years earlier, Americans had claimed freedom but on a very different basis. The founding fathers of the United States, whatever their faults, were men who insisted on government under God and who professed the authority of Christ and the Bible. Most of these founding fathers were horrified by the anti-Christian principles of the French Revolution. What did the French Revolution produce? A bloody reign of terror, followed by the military dictatorship of Napoleon. What did American independence produce? A society which upheld freedom and opportunity for more and more people.
Societies based on non-Christian religions have placed few limits on political power. Societies based on atheism often promise freedom but end up with dictatorship. Without God, there is no power higher than the power of the state, and the state has final authority in every sphere of life. Secularism produced the French Revolution, communist dictatorships, and Nazi bloodbaths.
Clement of Alexandria said it well centuries ago: “Does it not seem monstrous that you—human beings who are God’s own handiwork—should be subjected to another master, and even worse, serve a tyrant instead of God, the true king?” Christ the world changer is no friend of tyranny. Freedom is best served by government under God.
- James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?
Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization
Vincent Carroll & David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.