Government & Politics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Religion News

America v. Romans 13

Jonathan Mayhew

In 1750, a young Massachusetts pastor named Jonathan Mayhew gave a sermon titled “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers,” which interpreted the 13th chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans so as to enable his fellow colonials to rebel against the British Crown.

The apostle enters upon his subject thus—“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers; for there is no power but of God; the powers that be, are ordained of God.” Here he urges the duty of obedience from this topic of argument, that civil rulers, as they are supposed to fulfill the pleasure of God, are the ordinance of God. But how is this an argument for obedience to such rulers as do not perform the pleasure of God, by doing good; but the pleasure of the devil, by doing evil; and such are not, therefore, God’s ministers, but the devil’s!

Whatever Paul might have made of this take on his cautionary advice to the small community of Jesus followers in Rome, the sermon, published in Boston and then in London, would later be called the opening volley of the American Revolution.

It also helped establish a pattern of resistance to perceived injustice by religious Americans—some of it legal, some of it not so much.

Pride of place should go to resistance to racial oppression, which featured anti-slavery societies, included abolitionist activities ranging from the Underground Railroad to armed revolts by the enslaved and by John Brown, and eventually extended to the civil rights movement (viz. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”) and Black Lives Matter.

Throughout American history, the religiously motivated have been on the front lines of many struggles against the policies of the civil authorities, urging prohibition of alcohol, opposing wars, supporting women’s equality, working for the rights of labor. And then there’s the Christian right, now entering its fifth decade as a force in American politics, whose resistance to abortions rights and gay rights continues apace.

None of this conforms to Romans 13. Rather, under a Constitution ordained and established by “We the People,” religion has served—for better or worse, depending on which side you’re on—as a higher authority by which citizens of the United States take it upon themselves to pass judgment on the civil authorities.

You’d think Attorney General Sessions would have been aware of this before he cited Paul’s injunction, telling opponents of the Trump Administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their families at the border “to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”

As for the opponents, it’s hard not to see them embracing Jonathan Mayhew’s view of our contemporary civil authorities as not performing “the pleasure of God, by doing good; but the pleasure of the devil, by doing evil; and such are not, therefore, God’s ministers, but the devil’s!”

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • President Trump got 26% of all eligible voters, as did Mrs. Clinton. 48% of all eligible voters did not bother to vote.

    One would think that President Trump’s strategy would be to promote the interests of his 26%, without alarming or antagonizing the lethargic 48% The forced separation policy seems to be doing just the opposite of this strategy.

    Evidently, President Trump and his administration got their civic lessons from the Keystone Kops.

  • When a pastor first spouted his opinion that Christians should vote for Trump because he was sent by God, I asked the question the minister should have considered, but didn’t. What was Trump sent by God to do? Could Trump have been sent to test Christians? To see if they really understood Jesus message or if they simply gave lip-service to their Christianity? OR were they the ones that considered the “Once saved always saved” doctrine as a “get out of jail free card”–allowing them to do whatever they wanted. OR were they the ones that use the Bible to justify and sanctify their bias and prejudice and white nationalism? Trump could have been sent by God (IF there is a God) to test Christians and by supporting Trump they failed God’s test, throwing their support behind the Devil (IF that is there is one),

  • It takes a generation to change a society and as difficult as theses separations are, it may well be the children that end up teaching their parents that they need to conform to the rule of law for the betterment of all.

    Every previous administration has failed the emigrant by looking the other way. Problems seldom go away by looking the other way.

  • Paul said a lot of things. Inspired by who the church folks were allowing to have influence over them and the kind of reasoning they were willing to listen to he wrote the 11th and 12th chapters of 2nd Corinthians. I don’t think Paul is the kind of guy Sessions would have quoted back in the day.

  • Your paragraph is too convoluted there, Susan. Let’s simplify it: “Trump was sent by God to give American Christians four years to prepare themselves for the de-facto loss of their constitutional religious freedoms after the Democrats retake the White House.”

    Everything else, I don’t know.

  • He currently appears to be heading for reelection, which seems to indicate he knows more about how to get things done in politics than you do.

  • My paragraph was too complicated for you? That doesn’t say very much about your intelligence level. The Democrats will have a real mess to cleanup when they take back control, predicting our freedoms is just one part of the mess. Restoring out standing among our allies and other nations is another. Trump has done more damage to this nation than any other president in our history.

  • Goshes.

    The Bible says clearly to obey the civil authorities.

    Good Christians like the masturbaker and Kimmie “fourth time is the charm” Davis……waaaaaaaaaaah. I don’t have to be no stinkin’ laws.

  • The fact of the matter is …the Bible should never be an authority for immigration or any kind of law. Secular ideas and our own ethical guidelines provide a much more appropriate path to justice and morality.

    The Bible is incoherent and immoral in both the horrific Old Testament and the New Testament — Jesus, if real, was often a ranting whiner, not to mention an illiterate apocalyptist. These old books are incoherent, and poorly written. Trying to put todays’ issues into the context of Leviticus, Romans or whatever is itself immoral.

    Solve immigration, LGBT rights, poverty, etc…without these idiotic old holy books. Humanity has cognitive and ethical capacities to far better deal with 21st century issues….the Bible can’t even deal with 1st century issues.

  • No, he’s saying your paragraph was convoluted.

    I wouldn’t count your “take back control” until it hatches.

  • What freedoms have you or any American Christians have lost?

    None whatsoever.

    You mistake privilege and power for entitlement and freedoms.

    Trump has no use for freedom, civil liberties, morality or even the structures of democratic government. Neither do his supporters. They want special privilege to attack others, pure and simple. Their support for concentration camps for children (still going on and family separation is still permitted) shows unambiguously how morally repugnant their platforms really are.

    “Pro life and family values” means locking children up and attacking families. Could they be more Orwellian?

  • So you will forgo attacking abortion rights and civil liberties of others and demand the separation of church and state. After all those are clear cut laws from civil.authorities.

    Sorry Sparky, but you know as well as I do that there is no obligation in a free society to blindly and ignorantly follow legal authorities for its own sake. You also know that legal is not synonymous with right and moral. That is what separates us from Nazis.

    But of course this is invoked in actions you support, so you do not want criticism or discussion.

    “Blind adherence to authority for thee but not for me” is the motto of the day here

  • “The Democrats will have a real mess to clean up…”

    Fully agree.

    The Presidential bedroom no doubt needs to be fumigated, sheets burned, and bedding disposed of at the landfill. Doorknobs need a wipe-down along with other hard surfaces. Carpets need thorough cleaning (if not replacing).

    And, of course, let’s not forget EXORCISM!!!


  • “Every previous administration has failed the emigrant by looking the other way. Problems seldom go away by looking the other way.”

    Fully agree.

    We are inheriting the problems created by earlier administrations that propped up dictatorships in order to “fight Communism.” In such climates fostered by wealthy U.S. interests supporting “Banana republics”, the good ol’ USA ignored human rights and human development. We overturned democratically elected governments, murdered missionaries, and supported imprisonment (or worse) of local leaders trying to promote human rights and human development.

    So now we are inheriting the mess created by earlier presidential administrations.

    We created this migration of desperate people.

    “We have met the enemy, and he is us” (Pogo).

  • What took you so long? Slow internet in Argentina? I get the connection to the Godzilla suit now. Hitler posing as Godzilla makes sense. So, he lives after all.

  • There will be a need for lots of air fresheners to remove the stench from the air.