In the last blog I asked how those who exercise their political responsibilities out of Christian commitment could share those responsibilities with non-Christians. The answer, if not simple, is itself profoundly Christian.
One can start at many different places in the Bible to understand how people of different religions can share in a common human obligation to exercise sovereignty. I would suggest we start with Romans 1:18 – 20, which nicely encompasses the possibilities and problems of a religiously plural, democratic, society. “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
Paul makes these observations as a preliminary to his argument that God’s judgment on humanity is just, and indeed inevitable, because God has always made God’s self known. It is an argument well attested in the Christian scripture. The original command of God was given to Adam and Eve, and renewed with Noah and the covenant God made with all humanity through Noah.
The rest of Paul’s argument in these early chapters of Romans is that because humans failed to give God the glory due their creator their minds became darkened and both their religion and ethics became corrupt. Only through Christ, Paul will assert, is the mind renewed.
So for Paul it appears that humans are vested with both enormous moral responsibility, and are burdened through their own failure to acknowledge their creator with an inability to exercise it well unless their minds are renewed by Christ.
One interpretation of Paul is to assert that Jews, because they possess the revelation of God’s law, and Christians because they inherit that law and possess transformed minds, are alone capable of ethical action in the political sphere. We see this argument creeping into our American political discourse as politicians attack Muslims, or atheists, or “secular humanists” or indeed anyone who isn’t part of the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition is incapable of being trusted with leadership or indeed even citizenship.
But this isn’t what the Bible teaches, nor indeed does it conform to common observation of our fellow humans. Throughout the Bible we find that God expects righteousness from all humans, and that in fact righteous individuals come from many different nations, not just Israel with whom God has a covenant, nor just the Christians whose minds are renewed by Christ. And most of us see daily examples of human decency and profound insights into the truth about the universe that come from those outside the circle of Christianity.
There is a theological reasons for this. The Bible never regards humans as having completely lost their rational capabilities. All humans can observe the social and natural worlds and behave reasonably within them to achieve what is good for both themselves and their neighbors. And that world, as Paul observes, continues to bear witness to the God who created it, and God’s will for God’s creatures within this world. It is possible, in other words, to have a natural theology, an understanding of God and God’s purposes arising from the observation of our natural and social worlds. And this even with an imperfect understanding of God.
Two things about the possibility of a natural theology are critical for living in a religiously plural nation. First, it is based on observations that every single human can make. There is nothing hidden or secret about the natural and social orders within which we live, and the ways they have evolved. Secondly, (and Paul is clear on this when he discusses the ruling authorities in Romans 13) knowledge of what is good for society is equally public. Indeed, according to Paul the judgments of even non-Christian rulers, and the laws they enforce, must be honored by Christians as reflecting God’s will for human societies and their flourishing.
In our modern democracy this means that humans from every different culture and religion can work together on problems of how to build a decent, wholesome society. They do not need access to some particular revelation, or to be members of a particular religious community. A religiously plural democracy is possible, as the US founding fathers of the United States well understood. It remains for many of our Christian politicians to embrace it.