The Problem in 1992 and 2020
“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal man who cannot save.” 146:3
I had been up much of the night watching presidential election returns in November 1992. Third party candidate Ross Perot, along with a moderate Republican, coupled with a charismatic “New Democrat” candidate all worked to reward President William Clinton with his first of two terms. As a pastor, however, I was most stunned when I arrived at our church’s Wednesday night prayer meeting the following day. The saints could hardly pray—certainly could not be joyful always. They were shocked, despondent, defeated, and fairly clueless. Following eight years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency—often considered a Golden age by some—and four years under President George H. W. Bush, our evangelical church was crushed, despondent, and rudderless.
For years, they had marched in pro-life events, sent postcards to representatives, worked phone banks, and distributed Voters Guides from various religious groups. And after 12 years of GOP rule, few of their values had been adopted, except in abstract ways, and the gains seemed flimsy. Within days, by executive orders policies like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were instituted and the lifting of abortion curbs were razed. In view of such shifting political sands, many Christians would ask: “Where did we go wrong?” “Is our country hopelessly doomed?” and “Can America survive a liberal?”
My questions, however, were more immediate. Seizing the moment for reflection, I needed to ask, “What has the church been doing that has led us to be so reactive to one election?” and “What have we done right or wrong?” and “How should we disciple to avoid the defeatism so palpable in that prayer room that night?” “How, in short, could we be more faithful?”
One has to wonder if there are not some aids from our past. For example, consider the political maturity of some citizens in the 1770s. Typical statements by James Madison, Patrick Henry, and other founding fathers of America reveal how stable and informed their political thinking was. Consider, for example, not only that Madison’s statement below was written for public consumption (in the popular press), but moreover its sensitivity toward the Christian teaching about human sinfulness.
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. (The Federalist (#51) Papers; interestingly, John Calvin wrote almost verbatim two centuries earlier in his commentary on Galatians.)
This kind and depth of thinking epitomized the fruition of previous centuries’ application of Scripture to the nature and role of government. The U. S. constitution has discernible traces of the ideas from Protestant Reformers—from Calvin, Beza, Knox, Althusius and others—more theologians than many realize. It is almost as if the teachings of those theologians had so saturated culture that even the common man understood and embraced that world view. Consequently, some go so far as to allude to Calvin as the ideological Father of the American Republic.
A Reformation theology of the state formed much of the intellectual matrix prior to the American founding; it shows. Should we hope to get back to that pinnacle, or progress beyond that point, we must grasp anew the underlying theology of the state.
One is tempted to ask in Reaganesque fashion, “Are you better off now than you were 4(000) years ago?” Have modern governments really improved over ancient systems of government? Under modern governments, some citizens receive more benefits, and there have definitely been technological improvements in information systems. However, if all things are considered, can one conclude with certainty that citizens are more free, less hindered by the interests of politicians, more moral, and more able to pursue godly interests with stability than in the past? Or have some governments actually been de-evolutionary, regressive overall rather than progressive?
It may be time, regardless of which leaders are elected next week, to review what God says about governments and governors. There’s quite a bit on this topic in his Word. Chiefly, we should recall the perspective revealed to us from these verses.
Isaiah 40:23-24 tells us that God, who sits enthroned above earth, “brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.”
Psalm 20:7 cautions, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. A companion verse states, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal man who cannot save.” (Ps. 146:3)
John 18:36 might be reviewed this week, where Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
Keeping our eyes on the true Sovereign will always be right.