JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–The June 26 ruling declaring the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional sent shockwaves of outrage across the nation. The ruling written by Judge Alfred T. Goodwin for a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals created a torrent of overwhelmingly negative response resounding from the nation’s capital as the president and virtually the entire U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives eagerly proclaimed their anger and opposition to the ruling.
So controversial was the ruling that one day after he handed down the decision Judge Goodwin stayed enforcement of his own decision and asked for a review by the entire Ninth Circuit. Judge Goodwin’s decision found that the phrase “under God” inserted by an act of Congress in 1954 violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment.
The irony was not lost on commentators that this asinine decision by the most liberal appeals court in the nation was handed down a week before Americans would celebrate the founding of our nation; nor was the infamy of the ruling missed in light of the fact that America is currently at war.
As the Ninth Circuit is the most regularly overturned circuit in the land, there’s little doubt that the Supreme Court will reverse this ruling if the entire circuit doesn’t do it first.
The ruling of Judge Goodwin — as outrageous as it is — provides a rare opportunity for patriotic unity in America, eclipsed recently only by the tragedy of Sept. 11. For Christians, however, there is even greater reason for reflection on the meaning of patriotism and citizenship. Unlike our unbelieving relatives, friends and neighbors, our civic obligations should be based not solely in the value of a manmade statement of allegiance — as necessary and valuable as it is — but founded instead on the mandate for citizenship found in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
The witness of Scripture is that Christians are citizens simultaneously of two realms — the earthly nation of our birth (or naturalization) and the heavenly realm of the kingdom of God. Although we owe ultimate allegiance to God’s kingdom, there are nevertheless serious obligations of earthly citizenship for Christians who seek to live in accordance with biblical standards.
Although many passages of Scripture can be appealed to, the apostle Paul in Romans 13:1-7 provides the Bible’s most succinct treatment of the meaning of Christian citizenship. Paul’s message to first-century believers who lived in the seat of the Roman Empire — the all-encompassing political entity of its day — was that the Christians should be the best citizens. Although two millennia old, Paul’s message is as valid today for American Christians as it was for Christians who lived under a pagan, totalitarian dictatorship in Rome.
Paul exhorted believers in Rome to “submit to the governing authorities” because they were established by God and are agents — they’re even called “ministers” — of God’s purpose and order (vv. 1-2). The biblical model of government does not allow Christian support for anarchy (no rule). Paul doesn’t address when Christians have an obligation to disobey government (when government seeks to take the place of God and requires Christians to act contrary to biblical principles or prevents us from obeying God; see Acts 4:18-20, 5:29; Daniel 3:18 and Daniel 6). But the standard operating procedure for Christians is willing submission to government.
In verses 3-4, Paul provides two natural reasons Christians should submit to government: the promise of commendation (reward) and the promise of condemnation (punishment). When we do the right thing, we will be commended, and when we do wrong, we will be punished. There is also a supernatural reason Christians must submit: the Christian conscience (v. 5). A conscience regenerated by the work of the Holy Spirit knows that worse than violating man’s laws, resisting governing authorities is a violation against God himself — a sin.
Although it seems at times in our society today that evildoers are rewarded and righteous folks are persecuted, don’t forget that Paul’s exhortation of submission was written to Christians living under a totalitarian government. Therefore, American Christians who still enjoy the blessings of liberty have no less of an obligation to submit to our government.
Finally, Paul illustrates two ways Christians can demonstrate their submission and good citizenship (vv. 6-7): financial loyalty (paying our taxes) and attitudinal loyalty (paying honor to our nation and governing authorities — patriotism).
This Independence Day (and every day) let’s remember our biblical obligation to be the best citizens of our nation, knowing that such patriotism is motivated by our heavenly citizenship. As such, let us pray that God will bring a reformation in our land, starting with a heaven-sent revival in our churches.
Smith is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness newsjournal.