In a recent post here, Dr. David Alan Black wrote, “The humility of Christ doesn’t grant us permission on this Fourth to call out our fellow Christians for feeling patriotic or to harp about a revolution in 1776 that was probably at odds with Paul’s teaching about submission to civil authority in Romans 13.” In a post that I otherwise agreed with, I found myself wondering if my patriotism and attitude toward the American Revolution were wrong?
When I read Dr. Black’s article, I was editing an article in which I had written about why “I believe that humility, dialogue, and a tolerance for those who disagree, working in a framework that stresses unity rather than division are so important,” and it is in this spirit that I offer up what admittedly may be a rationalization on my part, but is a defense of my views on these two questions.
The question of patriotism is for me the easiest. We all are many things. I am a husband, father, manager, engineer, and author, just to name a few, and in the last few years have been blessed to add grandfather to that list. I do not see any reason patriot cannot also be on this list. For me the issue is not so much a matter of being, or not being, a patriot, but where in your list of labels patriot exists, if it exists at all. In my list of identifying labels the first and most important is Christian. In fact, for me, patriot, while it is there, comes much further down the list.
This is important because if patriot comes at the top of the list, then nothing can challenge it, and it becomes my country right or wrong-type of patriotism, a patriotism that, historically, has been so problematic.
My patriotism is also not a matter of reflex, habit, or just because I grew up in America. In fact, today, the cultural norm is the opposite. Today it is much cooler to be a “citizen of the world.” To be a patriot is frequently difficult as the cultural messages are far more likely to stress the flaws and short comings of the country than the good that it has done. Even one of the leading historians read in schools said in an interview that it would have been better if the country had never existed. Not surprisingly then, one of the key political questions, is whether the country will even remain as it was founded, or should it change to be something significantly different. In many respects, it is the same question faced in the revolution.
Was the revolution wrong? Did it violate “Paul’s teaching about submission to civil authority in Romans 13?” This is nowhere near as easy a question as that of patriotism. On the one hand, if Paul could say what he said in the context of Caesar and Rome, wouldn’t it apply even more so against King George and England? Is Paul’s teaching a universal one that applies in all cases and every situation? Was Bonhoeffer wrong not to submit to Hitler’s government?
These are not easy questions, and in one sense I am tempted to be comforted by the fact that I do need to directly answer them. If the revolution was wrong, the fault lies with those responsible. Today the civil authority I am under is the United States, independent of how it came to be. But, in another sense I do need to answer these questions, and while I do not see this as in any means clear cut, there are several factors that cause me to question how Paul’s teaching really applies in this situation.
The first is that the American revolution was truly unique in many ways, and not just in its success. In fact, I believe it is these differences that led to its success and kept it from falling into the disasters of so many other revolutions most notably the French Revolution and the reign of terror that followed.
While truly out of vogue today, one of these distinctive aspects was the Christian underpinnings of the revolution. While the revolution itself was far from a religious movement, as I detail in my book, Preserving Democracy, the intellectual roots come out of the Great Awakening. While downplayed by the now prevailing secularism, those in the revolution saw God’s hand behind many of the “coincidences” that allowed the revolution to succeed and that even some modern historians have labeled miraculous, though not accepting the theistic implications of the term. (For some examples from a theistic perspective, see The American Miracle, by Michael Medved).
But none of this goes to the heart of Paul’s teaching. Still, even here, there is a unique difference and this difference can be seen in the question faced by those alive at the time: to which civil authority should they submit? When the colonies were settled, they were, for the most part, left to themselves. The thirteen colonies set up governments to rule themselves and these governments were the civil authority under which the colonist lived.
This only started to change following the Seven Years War, as the King began to try and impose his will on the colonies. The civil authorities of the colonies attempted to seek accommodation with the King and it was only when that failed did they declare independence. Independence was not declared by a group of individuals seeking to overthrow the government. It was an act of “the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, [done], in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies.”
This was a situation that did not, and could not, exist in Paul’s Rome. The key question was, must a people who had until then governed themselves, submit to King who had up to that point ignored them. Does the fundamental authority of government exist with the people, or does it reside with whomever happens to be the current King? This was not even a question in Paul’s time, where rulership was based, not on the authority of the people, but on raw power and who had it.
For the colonists, the fundamental authority rested with the people and those who voted to declare Independence were acting as duly empowered representatives of that civil authority, a civil authority that had existed long before the then current dispute with King. Thus, in a very real sense, the “revolutionary” in this situation, i.e., the one who was trying to overthrow the status quo, was not the colonists, but the King.
Ultimately the question of the American Revolution is: does political power derive from the people, or does might make right, and whoever has the power gets to do whatever they want. This is not just an abstract and merely historical question. It is a question that is still with us now more than ever and I do not think Paul’s teaching precludes me from taking a stance on this question.
Elgin Hushbeck, Jr., Engineer, teacher, Christian apologist, and author of Preserving Democracy, What is Wrong with Social Justice?, A Short Critique of Climate Change, Christianity and Secularism, and Evidence for the Bible.