Christian Citizenship


In one of his lesser known books, theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr summarized a central quandary of Christian citizenship. Niebuhr wrote:

"Genuine piety sets up an authority for the individual conscience which prevents the state or the community from becoming an idolatrous end of human existence. Religious faith makes a rigorous affirmation, 'We must obey God, rather than men,' in opposition to every tyranny. But, unfortunately, piety develops its own idolatries by claiming a too simple allegiance between the divine will and human ends." [Reinhold Niebuhr, Pious and Secular America (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958), p. 6.]

Every congregation that has ever argued over whether or not to have an American flag in the sanctuary has wrestled with the problem which Niebuhr outlines. Every young person who has struggled to square Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount with military service - whatever their ultimate decision - has had to find a way through this labyrinth of faith and obligation.

The Heidelberg Catechism teaches us that we are claimed body and soul, in life and in death, by our faithful savior Jesus Christ. This fact, according to Heidelberg, is our "only comfort." But there has never been a time in history when Christians did not live subject also to earthly powers and principalities. And these powers and principalities, we are told in the Bible, are also God's creation, intended for good, for justice, for order and peace, yet subject to the fall as are all other aspects of creation.

We have witnessed occasions when religious faith became handmaiden to and apologist for a state's wickedness, oppression, violence, and even mass murder. We wish we could say that Christianity has proven immune to such historical maladies, but it is simply not the case.

We have also seen times when religious faith has served as a courageous motivation to resist tyranny, dictatorship, imperialism, enslavement, and genocide. We wish we could say that, in such times, the faithful were honored by their fellow citizens as true patriots, but neither is this the case.

Tom Currie once observed, "The truth of the matter is that the idea of God can be made to serve any number of abhorrent causes and none so easily or so well as the ones we value." [Thomas White Currie III, Ambushed by Grace: The Virtues of Useless Faith (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1993), p. 21.] It is almost always true that our highest values (and this includes our love of country), when perverted, can cause the greatest suffering, even as it is true that the highest goods, when distorted, become the lowest sins. So it is that good people, people of faith, can find themselves, and sometimes with the very best of motives, giving their souls to some false deity that promises more than it can deliver, or rendering unto Caesar those things that belong to God. In few places are these perils greater than in the political realm, because the potential there for good is so great.

Fortunately, the moments in history when dire circumstances force the faithful to choose radically between Christ and Caesar are not routine. But the possibility is always there.