How Evangelicals Misread the Bible on Law Enforcement

How Evangelicals Misread the Bible on Law Enforcement September 30, 2020

I’ve always found evangelicals’ insistence on obedience to laws a bit curious. After all, laws are not always good! There are bad laws—including laws that should be broken. It’s also odd that a group that is so insistent on the claim that it’s being persecuted—the most persecuted—would be simultaneously so insistent on obedience to laws.

This isn’t just an evangelical thing, of course. It’s a conservatives thing. It’s why Trump tweets “LAW AND ORDER” every so often. You see it in a lot of places. Here’s an example of this phenomenon, by Fox News contributor Andrew Lawrence:

Ms. Charlotte’s response calls the very premise of these statements into question, and is completely on point—Jesus was, indeed, murdered by law enforcement. You know, the very same kind of law enforcement that Lawrence claims universally comprised of “ministers of God sent to punish evildoers.” The idea that police and soldiers are de facto agents of good is utterly at odds with, well, absolutely everything in our history books. And our religious books!

I should note that I’m primarily talking about the sort of conservative white evangelicals who align themselves with—and have sold their souls to—the Republican Party. These conservative white evangelicals typically base their insistence that obedience to governments and laws is obedience to God on this passage, in Romans 13:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

I’ve often felt that evangelicals completely misread this passage, and another tweet I noticed lays clear why:

This feels obvious, the moment it is read.

My old pastor, when I was a child, used to say that every verse in the Bible should be analyzed on multiple levels. One of those levels? What did the verse mean to the people it was written to at the time. Another level, of course, is what the verse should mean to us today. But it seems to me that that level is dependent on the former. What a verse might mean to us today would seem naturally dependent on what it meant to those it was written to. You can’t take something out of its context and have any hope of understanding what it means.

It’s funny, because evangelicals tend to also talk about the importance of understanding the “original intent” of the Constitution. They argue that only the intent of those that wrote it—what they intended it to mean, in the context of the time it was written—matters. And yet, they take passages like Romans 13 completely out of that context.

It shouldn’t be that hard to understand that a passage intended for people in an upstart minority religion living under a government that was oppressive and not in any way representative or accountable to the people might not apply in the same way to people living in very different circumstances under a very different form of government.

But of course, even here evangelicals are selective. The New Testament says nothing about starting a movement to change existing laws—it only references obeying laws—but evangelicals have no problem at all with trying to change laws. They do it all the time—take their attempts to ban abortion, for instance, or their efforts to ban pornography.

So, then, why have evangelicals have made obedience to existing laws such a big part of their rhetoric? Here I would note two things.

First, in practice, evangelicals actually have no problem disobeying laws that they disagree with. Take, for example, their disregard for laws mandating no-protest-zone buffers around abortion clinics. They save their insistence on obeying the laws—and on the divine authority of law enforcement—for their opponents.

Second, remember, as I’ve noted before, that which verses evangelicals choose to emphasize—and how they choose to interpret them—is frequently guided by their politics. Taking this into account, it looks to me as though a substantial portion of evangelicals’ emphasis on law and order is due to their flirtation with fascism.

Conservative evangelicals argue that they’re operating on the Bible, and the Bible alone. This is nonsense. Bible verses are reinterpreted or willfully misunderstood at leisure. Religion is merely a gloss on political expedience. In this case, fascism.

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