Who’s the Boss? Understanding Romans 13 in Light of the American Political System
When Harry Truman was president, he had a carved slogan on his desk. “The buck stops here,” it read, indicating that the ultimate question of responsibility rested on the one sitting at that desk. And for most of recorded history, the question of where the buck stops -- governmentally speaking -- has been easily ascertained: the authority rested on a monarch of some sort, one who literally embodied the state and the government in one person, a hereditary power that was more or less not questionable.
And when the Apostle Paul wrote Romans 13, the question of earthly authority was not ambiguous: the Roman Caesar was the one who held that authority, though he delegated it to lesser persons throughout his Mediterranean empire. That such authority ultimately rested in the Caesar is plain from Paul’s appeal to Caesar in Jerusalem, an appeal that landed him in Rome, and to his ultimate death in Rome.
But ultimate authority is not quite so easily determined in America. And the question of how Romans 13 (verses 1-7) and I Peter 2 (verses 13-17) are to be applied to our situation requires careful thought.
We have to start with presuppositions, and the first is that God has spoken in His word, and we are to obey that word from Him, even when such obedience seems difficult or uncomfortable. God has spoken to us through the instrumentality of the Apostles Paul and Peter in the passages mentioned above. We are to hear them, heed them, and wisely understand how they are to be applied in our situation.
Lutheran Christians also come to this question with our understanding of where earthly authority comes from. It is not something derived from some human compact, some earthly agreement about how to rule ourselves. Rather, human government rises from the commandment (Exodus 20.12) in which we are commanded: Honor thy father and thy mother. Luther expounds this commandment in the following way:
We should fear and love God that we may not despise nor anger our parents and masters, but give them honor, serve, obey, and hold them in love and esteem.
In other words, anarchy (no government, a theoretical system in which there is no governmental authority) is not a possibility in Christian political thought. (In reality, anarchy never happens, anywhere, despite the romantic longings of some people who view their government as oppressive. Nothing would more quickly change a theoretical anarchist’s mind than to have 3 days of his vision in action. Most anarchists (and neo-anarchists, many calling themselves libertarian) think of the world in a visionary sense, one in which good people work together to make things happen. But St. Paul notes that the law is given for the lawbreaker (see I Timothy I.9: “that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient”) and the world is inhabited by sinners, not some theoretically good people).
But in America, we are faced with a multitude of governing authorities, all of them legitimate, all of them holding power, all of them needing obedience. And how do we sort this out?
The most common problem (and the one that prompted this paper) is the error of equating the “king” (in I Peter 2) and “rulers” (in Romans 13) with the American president.
In the American system -- Constitutionally speaking, which is the only rule that ultimately is important, the president is a relatively weak official. The president presides over the executive branch, and is fairly hamstrung in his governance. The only time presidents get much real power is during wartime, when they can often count on a compliant congress (which holds the purse strings) and a judiciary which will go along with their wishes. (It is enlightening to note that the presidents we popularly view as the best ones are often those who presided during wartime: note Washington (president after the revolution), Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt. John Kennedy is viewed by many as a great president, though it is hard to tell how much of that perceived greatness is related to his death). But the president has limited, circumscribed powers, and these are guarded jealously. The idea that the president has unlimited, almost “kingly” powers is shown to be in error by the president’s being subject to impeachment and conviction for bad conduct. This was shown in my lifetime by the near-impeachment of President Nixon (1974) and the impeachment (but not conviction) of President Clinton in 1998.
Words are important, too, on this matter. While -- for example -- we will speak of the “government” of Margaret Thatcher in the UK (1979 - 1991) it would be incorrect to speak of the “government of Ronald Reagan.” We speak, rather, of the administration of, say, Reagan. The American president administers the executive branch, but he does not govern the nation, at least not in that sense.
Style can confuse, as well. American presidents, many of whom have spent years or decades in seeking to become president (we are told, for example, that Bill Clinton was wanting to be president from at least age 15) often want to have recognition, pomp, and to be treated as royalty. This accounts for the semi-regal style that accompanies some presidents. But style is not substance. And the playing of Hail to the Chief does not somehow make the current president a king.
Because while Caesar could make rulings and orders, and have them carried out without question, such is not true for the president. (Most of us are happy with this when we don’t like the president, and disagree with his policies, and are dismayed when we do like the president, and agree with him). A president can issue orders, make nominations, and declare war … and the congress must approve. Even the president’s own cabinet must be approved by the senate.
And that’s not the end. Because the president can, say, propose legislation, have it approved by congress … and still face a battle in the judiciary, in which federal judges can block a president’s wishes. And ultimately, the Supreme Court can totally block a president’s wishes.
So where does the ultimate power lie in the American system? The answer, I would argue, comes from examining the oath taken by American presidents as they come into office. A similar oath is taken by members of Congress, judges, and other such officials, and it is an oath uphold the Constitution of the United States. The president -- and all federal government officials -- are bound by, and have their duties given by the American Constitution. More importantly, such officeholders operate under the power and command of the Constitution. This must be remembered in all of our thinking about how to deal with the government in our country.
I would further argue that, in American, the ultimate Romans 13 authority, power, and honor go to the US Constitution.
That’s right, to a piece of paper. Not of course, to any piece of paper, but to a document which the American people have bound themselves to be governed by. One which tells us the way our nation is to be governed, one which limits the powers of governmental officials (including presidents), and one which is relatively unchangeable.
(Not completely unchangeable, of course: the Constitution can be amended, and has been. But not easily. Government officials, on the other hand can be changed quickly, and often are).
So where does Romans 13 obedience go in America? Our ultimate obedience goes to that piece of paper, that document, that Constitution. Not because it is sacred, not because it is without error, and not because it cannot err, but because it is the place, the locus of authority in our country, the place where, ultimately, the buck stops, because all of those officials -- presidents, congressmen, senators, judges, all of them -- swear an oath to uphold that document. And that makes us different. Different because we have a document that can be easily read and verified, one accessible to any literate American, one that allows any American to call elected officials on the carpet when they overstep the bounds of that document. And one that allows Christian Americans to -- in good conscience -- vote out offending officeholders, and in cases of extremity, allows Christian congressmen to impeach and Christian senators to convict officeholders, thereby removing them from office.
Some principles here, not necessarily in order of importance:
1. While the Constitution is the locus of authority, and the continuing authority (officeholders come and go, it perseveres), individuals elected or appointed to offices deserve a delegated honor and obedience as ones who are there to safeguard the Constitution. Romans 13 speaks of kings and all who are in authority. “Kings” here would -- in our country -- mean the American Constitution. But “all who are in authority” would certainly include the officeholders operating under that “king.”
2. Whether they safeguard the Constitution well is not your immediate concern, as far as giving them that honor. God has placed them in that office; you honor their position vis-à-vis the continuing “kingly authority,” the Constitution.
3. Voting against a president (or anyone else holding Romans 13 power) is not a sin. Nor is it a sin to actively seek to remove an officeholder from their position. In such actions, you are simply exercising one of the prerogatives given you in the Constitution. On the other hand, it is always prudent to remember that this person does hold power from God’s hand. A proper show of respect is good. However, Americans are always eager to see their presidents manifest a fountain of wisdom. While we might hope for wise officeholders, it’s usually not something we are going to get. Seek wisdom elsewhere.
4. The most important thing you can do -- more important than voting, more important than haranguing your representatives, or the White House, more important than manning the phones in the next campaign -- is to pray for elected officials. Pray for the president, for your representatives, judges, governors, whomever you know to have been given that delegated authority from the Constitution. Pray as individuals, families, but most important, pray with your congregation in the Divine Service. If your pastor is not praying for these individuals during the prayers, speak to him about your concerns. Point out that such prayers are commanded (I Timothy 2.1-2: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men;
For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.”) and ask him to include them in the prayers.
5. American Christians (and all Americans) should know the Constitution. Contrary to the efforts of some (especially many fashion themselves as Constitutional lawyers), it is not difficult to understand, and it is not obscure. Know what it says. It is the basis under which you are governed.
God’s word is clear: we owe honor, obedience, and respect to the earthly authorities placed over us in the governments under which we live. In America, that authority is ultimately a document, the American Constitution. We are to honor, respect, and obey what is contained therein. The President is not a king, nor anything like a king. Nor are any other earthly, elected officials. Insofar as they uphold the Constitution, they deserve a derived honor, respect, and obedience. But they are underlings, elected servants of the real government, the real authority, that Constitution under which we Americans live.