Steadfast Citizens — Christians and the Bill of Rights
Christians live in particular nations throughout the world. Each one is different. God works through the authority He established in the various forms of government throughout the world. But it is important to know your own government. That is, it is important to know where God has placed you to live and serve in both kingdoms, in the right hand kingdom (grace, the church), and in the left hand kingdom (the law, the state). One critical document along with the constitution of the United States is the Bill of Rights, which is the collection of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
We often rightly associate the cause of liberty in the United States of America with Thomas Jefferson, but James Madison is the father of the Bill of Rights. Over the course of 1789 to 1791, the Bill of Rights was put forth through the first Congress and adopted through the ratification of three fourths of the states at the time. The Bill of Rights follows in continuity with the precedent of English constitutional law and prior American principles in the Articles of Confederation. The Bill of Rights concerns largely civil liberties as well as the rights and protection of states over against the federal government. Famously, freedom of religion is put forth in the First Amendment which says:
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.
Many of the privileges and enjoyable things we associate with being American citizens come not even so much from the constitution but from its first ten amendments in the Bill of Rights. I would suggest that not only as American citizens, but also as Christians living in America, we ignore or presume the Bill of Rights protections to our peril if we do not remain knowledgeable and on watch in our vocation as citizen or even as a servant of the people in the government as an elected or appointed official.
Humanly speaking, part of the reason that the church in America has been able to help Christians in other parts of the world is because of the freedoms that we enjoy here. The freedoms we enjoy have helped us in terms of speech, travel, and economics. Imagine the kind of Orwellian situation ensuing if the following were no longer being laboriously maintained (Fourth Amendment) for businesses, travelers, churches or families:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
A big part of the reason why we need some kind of government is because people are sinful and harm each other. Government was first shown after the flood in the command to execute capital punishment in the case of murder. Government is to protect life and honor and promote the family according to God’s design in creation (Genesis 9). Businesses and private organizations can do bigger projects for society, so that is not a uniquely qualified rationale for government. But given that we need government because of sin dwelling in people, it is best that government also, which is made up of the same kind of people as the citizenry (fellow sinful descendants of Adam and Eve), have certain limitations and checks and balance to function responsibly and not to overly stifle natural rights or to suppress life and the family. Whether or not the framers of the constitution and Bill of Rights understood that fact of human character clearly, that is partially its effect when understood in its historical context. It limits government, protects natural law, honors common law, and carefully states the law of the constitution, delineating the jurisdiction and enumeration of powers between the three branches (executive, legislative and judicial) and between the states and federal government.
One thing that good old conservative Lutherans who read BJS should keep in mind is that while we are ever-vigilant for the causes of family, marriage, life-ethics, and moral issues at large, the Bill of Rights undergirds the mechanism for maintaining such things and the ability to speak out and act with due process and protection. While in the church we want to know very well the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions and church history, so as citizens we want to know the constitution, Bill of Rights and our history from the original sources. Again, we ignore or presume the Bill of Rights to our peril. Give thanks to our God who has provided this opportunity at this point in history. Empires come and go and in the big view of history, we do not know how long we will enjoy these freedoms. Such books as 1984 by George Orwell , with the foreboding forecast of “Big Brother,” or the eugenics-driven, Darwinian and Malthusian world of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (brother of Julian Huxley), or H.G. Wells’ books like The World Set Free or The Open Conspiracy, give a dystopian view of what could happen if original sin is realized in collaboration by those with the divine trust of governance (whether Fabian Socialist, communist, fascist, technocratic, or some new thing, even what could be democratic on the surface). Often authority can magnify what is corrupt hidden in the will to power within the individual. Hence we most certainly should and must pray for all those in authority often that we may lead quiet and peaceable lives.
This reminds us of why God scattered mankind at the Tower of Babel and divided up the peoples and governments, lest, “nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them” (see Genesis 11:1-9). It is a temptation for many to want to build new and more powerful global Towers of Babel (something to consider even with the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution, or individual sovereignties of nation-states for that matter over against global forms of technocratic governance). And this starts to sound strikingly like the overshadowing beasts (powers or authorities) warned of in Revelation 13. Satan is the prince of this world and he knows his time is short and he finds ways and means to work death, deception and idolatry. Dr. John Stephenson has pointed out (Eschatology: Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, p.73) that Christians need to be ever-prepared and alert to these things as we live in the end times (Hebrews 1:1-2) and the beast of abusive civil authority can arise, even while we faithfully render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and pray for those in authority:
Given that their campaigns of persecution were of sporadic duration and limited scope, such persecutors of old as Decius and Diocletian can hardly be ranked alongside such modern enemies of the church as Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Mao, Castro, and their successors, whose total war against Christendom marks a radical intensification of the eschatological sign of persecution.
May we learn our history as Christians and here as citizens of our country and be good stewards of both. With the Bill of Rights we, in our vocation as citizens, must ask, “What would be the case if this were not in place and defended so as not to be eroded, even in the asserted purpose of safety and security or some other reason?” As we live in a democratic republic and not a pure democracy, we seek to protect those who cannot speak for themselves. As history has proven many times, as soon as people say, “it can’t happen here,” it often does. We close with a quote from James Madison talking about the First Amendment and the protection of religion against the state:
Congress should not establish a religion and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience, or that one sect might obtain a pre-eminence, or two combined together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform (Annals of Congress, Sat Aug 15th, 1789 pages 730 – 731).
Associate Editor’s Note: With this post, Pastor John Frahm III joins our regular writers here at BJS, focusing on our God-given vocation of being a citizen in the United States. For those who consider this topic too political, we would ask that you consider your role as a citizen and whether that is ultimately theological.
Rev. John A. Frahm is pastor of Gloria Christi Lutheran Church in Greeley, Colorado, where he has served since 2006. He has previously served parishes in the Midwest. He is a 1998 graduate of Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada and was ordained by Dr. Ray Hartwig in 1998. He was editor of the former website Reformation Today, and has published articles in The Bride of Christ, Logia, and The Lutheran Witness magazines and is a charter member of The Augustana Ministerium. He has also been a guest on Issues Etc. In college years, he was active in Lutheran campus ministry activities and was the first president of Region 4 of Lutheran Student Fellowship, helping to organize the first LSF national gathering for college students. Pastor Frahm was born in Arlington Heights, Illinois and was raised in southern Minnesota. He is married to Jennifer, a Michigan native, whom he met while on vicarage in Michigan. Jennifer currently works as an instructional designer at a college in Greeley. He and Jennifer are the proud parents of Wyatt, who was stillborn and called home to heaven, at nearly full term in 2008. They look forward to seeing him again in heaven and they look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Pastor Frahm believes our biblical, confessional, and liturgical heritage is an asset to be boldly and forthrightly applied and used for the mission of the church.