In the wake of Obama’s election, it’s predicable that some well-meaning bloggers are quoting the usual Pauline and Petrine prooftexts about a Christian’s duty to Caesar, and using that appeal to admonish Christian Americans to do the same in reference to Obama. A few caveats are in order:
1. I don’t deny that these passages are applicable to our own situation. But at the risk of stating the obvious, application involves recontextualization. This is not the Roman Empire. You can’t simply transfer statements about imperial Rome to a republican democracy without making the necessary adjustments. We have a system of popular sovereignty. Our elected leaders are public servants. They serve at the pleasure of the electorate.
Now, that’s not to deny that, having elected them, we have a duty to obey them (within the limits of their lawful authority).
2. It’s not at all clear to me that Obama won fair and square. He won in large part because he vastly outspent the McCain campaign on advertising, voter registration, and a get-out-the vote machine.
And it was possible for him to finance all that through record campaign contributions. Problem is: a high percentage of his war chest involved untraceable donations. Much of this may well have been illegal, whether involving foreign donations or contributions which exceeded the campaign finance limits:
And not only is there the problem of where he got his money, there’s the further problem of where it went. It went to fraudulent organizations like ACORN:
Finally, there’s the nagging question of whether he even meets the Constitutional requirements for citizenship:
Therefore, I have reason to question the legitimacy of his election.
3. Now, that’s not a hill I’m going to die on. Even if he’s not the de jure president, he’s going to be the de facto president. Even if there were good grounds to void the election results, I can’t imagine the political establishment would allow that to happen. So the fix is in.
And, as far as historical analogies are concerned, many Roman emperors were illegitimate. They assumed office through bribery, treachery, or assassination. And they ruled over masses of people whom they conquered by brute force. So you can be a de facto ruler even if you’re not the de jure ruler.
But when bloggers assure me that Obama is my president, and dictate the attitude I’m supposed to adopt, the legitimacy of his claim to be the duly elected president is germane to my attitude.
4. Which brings me to the next point. We need to distinguish between actions and attitudes.
Even if you think that Obama is illegitimate, it would be futile to form the equivalent of the French Resistance. We have to make peace with providence. The world is full of injustices we can do nothing to change. So we need to pick our battles. No point beating our brains out against a brick wall.
5. There’s a one-sided quality to the prooftexting. What about the Johannine verses? Peter and Paul aren’t the only NT writers who discuss the relationship between church and state. We also have the Book of Revelation.
And there we find a scathing indictment of imperial Rome. What is John’s attitude to the imperial authority? It doesn’t strike me as respectful. He doesn’t honor the imperial cult. Quite the contrary.
At the same time, John is not fomenting a Christian insurrection. So this illustrates the difference between actions and attitudes.
6. How should we pray for our leaders? For example, the imprecatory Psalms are prayers.
For me, the answer is pretty straightforward. We can pray conditional, open-ended prayers. On the one hand, we can pray that God give our rulers wisdom. On the other hand, we can also pray that God dethrone unjust rulers.
These are not incompatible prayers. A Christian can pray for both If one outcome doesn’t eventuate, then the other.