Mike Pence, “Orientation to Authority,” and Public Uses of Romans 13

Follow the chain of command without exception. Submit yourselves, as the saying goes, to the authorities that have been placed above you. Trust your superiors, trust your orders, and you’ll serve and lead well.

That was one of Vice President Mike Pence’s exhortations to the 2017 graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy last Friday. Now, we might debate the wisdom of this advice. After all, those officers will serve under a Commander-in-Chief who, as a presidential candidate, talked openly of giving military orders that many experts said would be illegal.

But this is a blog on Christianity and history, not law. As a Christian and a historian, I was most interested in the middle sentence from the paragraph quoted above. Why should these officers adopt Pence’s idea of “orientation to authority”? Because, “as the saying goes,” they should submit to the authorities placed over them.

As most of you already know, the “saying” is actually scripture. Not a direct quotation, but Pence’s paraphrase of one or two passages from the New Testament:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Rom 13:1-2, NRSV)

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. (1 Pet 2:13-14, NIV)

As I wrote at my own blog, I’m not sure we should “act as if the New Testament has any kind of authority over the religiously plural officer corps that protects a democratic republic that separates church and state.” But Pence is hardly the first prominent American to make such public use of these Christian scriptures — though what they mean has been hotly contested since even before the Republic won its independence.

Noll, In the Beginning Was the WordFor example, those verses appear multiple times in Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783. Let me note just three such instances:

• In his 1744 pamphlet on The Essential Rights and Properties of Protestants, clergyman-legislator Elisha Williams called Romans 13:1 a “text often wrecked and tortured by such wits as were disposed to serve the designs of arbitrary power.” He insisted that the “[civil and religious authorities’] power is a limited one; and therefore the obedience is a limited obedience.” For Williams, Paul’s admonition to the Romans had to be read in conversation with New Testament texts on individual freedom (e.g., Matt 23:8, 2 Cor 3:17).

• Likewise, the Unitarian preacher Jonathan Mayhew marked the 100th anniversary of the execution of Charles I by preaching “a lengthy expository sermon to argue that the thirteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans did not require colonists to passively obey the dictates of Parliament.”

• But in 1780, the New York clergyman Charles Inglis appealed to Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 (among other texts) in a sermon “reversing Mayhew’s judgments.” Later the first Anglican bishop of Nova Scotia (where many Loyalists fled in 1783), Inglis could scarcely believe that Bible-believing Christians could support the American Revolution:

But that professing Christians, who really believe in a divine Revelation, and acknowledge its Authority—that they should be the Dupes of such Men—that they should make no Conscience of dishonouring the King, and rebelling against him—that they should knowingly trample on the Law of God, and act as if no such Law existed—that instead of obeying this Law, they should be Trumpeters of Sedition and Rebellion: This is astonishing indeed.

“But instead of avoiding Romans 13 and I Peter 2,” noted Tommy Kidd in a 2014 Anxious Bench post, “Patriot pastors (to their credit) took them on frequently and directly. They usually replied to Loyalist critics that the command to submit was never unconditional – just as it is not unconditional in marriage, in church, or in any other social setting.”

Moving into the 19th and early 20th centuries… I was also curious to see how such texts figured in Lincoln Mullen’s America’s Public Bible project (introduced here by John), which indexes over 866,000 biblical quotations from newspapers published between 1837 and 1922 and digitized by the Library of Congress as Chronicling America. (That collection now ranges from 1789 to 1924.) 1 Peter 2:13-14 did not occur often enough to be included in America’s Public Bible, but here’s a chart of the frequency for Romans 13:1 and 2:

Screen shot of frequency of Romans 13:1 and 13:2 in America's Public Bible
Used by permission of Lincoln Mullen

Though not unusual, neither verse cracks Lincoln’s top 10 decade lists. Even at its peak of popularity in the early 1840s, Romans 13:2 still appears only half as often as the single most popular verse for that time period (Luke 18:16, which generally is 5-20 times as common in the corpus as the two verses from Romans 13).

Not surprisingly, when Romans 13 did enter American public discourse at this time, it was usually as part of the national debate over slavery. In 1839, for example, a Congregationalist minister named William Mitchell quoted that passage in support of his argument that “Civil government, however corrupt, is an institution of God.” Orson S. Murray, the abolitionist editor of The Vermont Telegraph, was appalled:

No matter then how corrupt the government—from the corrupt, hypocritical republic that establishes by law and holds in existence a most abhorrent and diabolical system of robbery, and lust, and murder, down through all the grades of aristocracy and monarchy, originating in, or originating—as a large proportion of them do—popery, Mahomedanism, and idolatry, in all their degrading, dehumanizing, man-destroying, God-dishonoring forms—all, all these corrupt and corrupting institutions are the workmanship of an all-wise, and holy, and just God!!! The consummate absurdity—not to say the involved shocking impiety and blasphemy—of deliberately and intelligently holding to such sentiments, lies out on the face of the declaration. To expose them, it needs no argument or comment. I would not be understood as denouncing, outright, friend Mitchell, as a blasphemer. I am altogether willing to attribute the monstrous heresy to ‘blindness of mind’—the habit of taking upon trust long received opinions—rather than to perverseness of heart.

"Caution!! Colored people of Boston" - 1851 poster warning about slave catchers masquerading as police officers
1851 poster – Wikimedia/public domain

But in 1855 the editor of Richmond’s Daily Dispatch asked why Northern preachers would advocate strict obedience to a temperance law while disdaining the Fugitive Slave Act:

The human law must accord with the Divine Law in order to render obedience a duty! They do not condescend to inform us who is to be the judge of that accordance. They dare not. Well knowing that the right of private judgment is one of the most valued rights of Protestantism, they are aware that their doctrine translated into plain English amounts to this: that if any and every man in the community chooses to consider any law unscriptural, it is their duty to disobey it—a principle which, if carried into practice, would of course lead at once to rebellion and anarchy….

The true doctrine on this subject is set forth in the words of Inspiration itself:— “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. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.”

Romans 13 continued to appear in American newspapers after the Civil War (e.g., it was one of the texts read at the official service for Pres. James Garfield after his 1881 death), but it virtually disappears from the Chronicling America as the database enters the 20th century. I’ve done a bit of digging at the American Rhetoric database and found only one speech that even indirectly alludes to these scriptures: Woodrow Wilson’ request for a declaration of war on Germany in 1917, in which that Presbyterian elder argued that Americans could fight “for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments.”

My sense is that Pence is unusual among American politicians of recent generations in revisiting such hotly contested rhetorical territory. But if you’re aware of other late 20th/early 21st century public uses of Romans 13:1-2 or 1 Peter 2:13-14, please share them in the comments section!

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