There is nothing like a presidential election year to stir up the emotion and conversation of the American people. The political banter of the 2016 campaign has already been running for over a year with the largest Republican field in history and an interesting mix of Democratic candidates. We are certainly seeing some of the most vocal personalities to ever emerge (i.e. Donald Trump). Americans love getting caught up in politics because we know (arguably) our votes matter and shape the future.
Many American Christian leaders recognize their influence and have turned to the Bible to find support to persuade their followers in their voting and action. A common perspective has been to view America as a new Israel founded in covenant with God. The favorite theme verse of this camp is II Chronicles 7:14, “If my people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (NASB) As powerful and important as this verse is, these words were given to the nation of Israel that was placed in a covenant relationship with God at his initiative. God called Abraham and gave him a promise of physical descendants he would use to bless the world. Although there was always a provision for those not of Abraham’s lineage to become proselytes, the nation of Israel existed because of God’s initiative and was, in essence, a theocracy, in which every citizen was bound to obey God.
America was completely different in its founding. Rather than a divine intervention into the life of one man and his descendants, a diverse group of people came together to create a nation. Although most founders were devout Christians, our nation was established with the Third Article of the Bill of Rights reading, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.“ Though the practice of faith was given freedom, it was to be wholly separate from the government. The very nature of the founding and structure of our nation our completely differed from the Old Testament Kingdom of Israel.
Therefore, we must be careful when seek to apply both the promises and commands to Israel as a nation we find in those books to our nation today.
Yet this does not mean there is no biblical guidance on how to conduct ourselves in the political realm as American Christians. We can find this counsel in two places in the Bible. In one passage we can see how God dealt with other nations in the Old Testament. The other passage is about how the scriptures commanded the New Testament Christians to act towards a government which opposed them and in which they had no voice.
Major portions of the Old Testament prophetic books are devoted to messages for nations other than Israel. Nahum only addressed the Assyrians of Nineveh, and Obadiah spoke to the people of Edom. Isaiah 13-23 provide messages to many of the nations surrounding Israel. Although most of these were warnings of coming judgment, God also gave promises and hope. For example, Isaiah 19:20b-21 contains this promise to Egypt, “When they cry out to the Lord because of their oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and he will rescue them. So, the Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the Lord.” Even the well-known story of Jonah shows God’s warning to the non-Israelite people of Nineveh and his gracious lifting of the judgment in response to their repentance. They were not a people who had any type of direct religious connection with Yahweh, but he responded to them in accordance with their behavior and reaction to his word.
America may not be in the covenant with God as a nation that Israel was, but our actions may garner his favor or opposition.
As individual Christians, we turn to the New Testament to see how our lives can interact with the government. Of course, First Century Christians did not have the privilege of the voice in the government that we enjoy, and they formed a tiny fraction of the population of the Roman Empire. Yet, they were told to pray for those in government leadership (I Timothy 2:1-2) and obey their laws and commands (Romans 13:1-7) I Peter, in 2:12-16, 3:13-16 & 4:15-16, goes into great depth to call Christians to maintain godly behavior in line with the law of the land and governmental leaders even in the face of persecution. The ultimate outcome was to “silence the ignorance of foolish men,” and believers would have the opportunity to “give an account for the hope that is in [them].”
Early Christians were to make an impact on others by how obedient they were to their government even when it opposed them. Even Pliny the Younger, the governor of the Roman province of Pontus and Bithynia who was the first ruler to record his efforts in persecuting Christians, wrote in 111 AD that their behavior was excellent and lawful. “I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.” (Letters 10.96-97) Sustained good behavior over the next two centuries eventually won over the government that once opposed the Christian faith.
Many mourn the loss of Christian influence in our nation today, but we are blessed to still have a voice. How we live as individuals can have an impact on others around us. The influence we possess in our democracy through our votes can have an even bigger impact. God has blessed America. Having Christians who live out their faith, obey their government, and do what they can to influence moral and godly law can facilitate more blessing in the years to come.