“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the one in authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
While we can debate whether America was founded as a Christian nation as we understand the idea today, one thing that is indisputably true is that it was established on ideals found only in the Christian worldview. Whether they were orthodox believers or not, that worldview was the overwhelming framework of the Founders. In a letter to the Massachusetts Militia written almost exactly 223 years ago (Monday is the actual anniversary), John Adams made a famous remark about the character he believed was necessary to sustain our nation into the future. He said this: “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” It seems of late that our culture is engaged in an experiment to test whether Adams’ observation is true. The results are starting to come in, and they aren’t exactly encouraging. Let’s talk today about where we are as a people and what we can do about it.
Toward the end of the apostle Paul’s letter to believers in Rome, He made some observations about governments and how believers should think about the state. His words are often used today by believers engaged in conversations about the role of government as a kind of political football with each side either trying to run with them or punt on them when it suits their purpose. Paul wrote them under the auspices of the Roman Empire which, though not even remotely secular as we understand such a concept today, was nonetheless vastly more antagonistic to the Christian faith than anything we have ever before seen or experienced in this country. Paul himself would later die as a martyr at the hands of the infamous Emperor Nero.
I make that historical point to say this: Paul wrote what he did in these verses right here to believers living in the shadow of a government that was not Christian in even the remotest sense. It vacillated between a tenuous tolerance of them and outright violent persecution. No matter what the worldview of a particular government is, though, this was God’s design for it and the believers’ proper position toward it, all things being equal. Now, certainly governments can and have run afoul of this to the point they need to be overturned for the sake of justice. And this also doesn’t mean believers are to blindly acquiesce to the state’s demanding their allegiance before and above the allegiance we are to give to God Himself. Those are both different debates and ones I am not interested in pursuing this morning.
For most of the history of the world, governments were founded on the ideals of the day and all of them reflected basically the same ideas of governance that all the other nations of the world had at the time. Even when Europe was entirely ruled by various explicitly Christian in confession monarchies, they were still all monarchies which tended to work pretty much like all of the monarchies that came before them. America, however, was different. It was widely recognized at the time to be an experiment in self-governance using a republican (not the modern political party) framework. If it worked, this experiment would be something truly new in the history of the world. That if, though, was a pretty big one. Most of the world watching us were skeptical at best about our odds of success. Our experiment depended on some things being true and remaining so. If they ceased to be true, the system the Founders designed not only wouldn’t work, it would collapse.
While that quote from Adams a minute ago is the most well-known from his letter, a quote without context can be used to all kinds of ends that were not necessarily within the author’s purview. With that in mind, I looked up the letter in the National Archives website. Allow me to set the whole paragraph before you of which the quote is the concluding statement. His words are intriguing to say the least.
While our Country remains untainted with the Principles and manners, which are now producing desolation in so many Parts of the World: while she continues Sincere and incapable of insidious and impious Policy: We shall have the Strongest Reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned Us by Providence. But should the People of America, once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another and towards foreign nations, which assumes the Language of Justice and moderation while it is practicing Iniquity and Extravagance; and displays in the most captivating manner the charming Pictures of Candour frankness & sincerity while it is rioting in rapine and Insolence: this Country will be the most miserable Habitation in the World. Because We have no Government armed with power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It it wholly inadequate to the government of any other.https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-3102
Those are some powerful observations. They are also true observations. A national experiment in self-governance demands one thing above all else: self-governance. If a people are not willing to govern themselves they will have to be governed by someone or something else, namely the State. What Adams rightly recognized, though, is that a people will not govern themselves on their own. We are not possessed of a sufficient nobleness of will to successfully restrain our own inner impulses toward evil of various kinds. At the same time, in this grand political experiment in which Americans are participating, we were not given by our Founders a government possessed of the power to restrain such impulses externally. At least, we were not in the beginning. There of course are governments that have burdened themselves with such powers (the modern Chinese government is perhaps the most notable of these around today), but where the State has taken by force or received by gift the power to externally restrain human behavior, the freedom of that people diminishes with each measure of restraint the State sets in place. In other words, and to put this all more succinctly, freedom requires virtue. This is what Adams was getting at with these words, and they are just as true today as they were when they first came off his quill.
Paul was right that the government is God’s servant to encourage good behavior and discourage bad behavior. But the more people lean toward the good on their own, the less that servant is required to do; the more we are able to pursue our relationship with Him without the interference of this oft capricious intermediary.
Now let’s talk about today. Over the last couple of weeks there have been four things that have happened which demonstrate the wisdom of John Adams and the truth of what he wrote in his letter to the Massachusetts Militia. The first came in the final Virginia gubernatorial debate between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin. Given the national attention given to recent school board meetings in some northern Virginia counties, McAuliffe was asked a question about parental involvement in the educational process. Over the course of his response he made two statements that have gotten much national attention. “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions.” He followed this up by saying, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
The issue in mind here is the national attention given to local school boards establishing curricula for their students dependent to some capacity on Critical Race Theory (CRT). While most folks probably don’t have a good idea what CRT actually teaches and how it would impact their students’ education beyond the popular soundbites, a critical mass of parents know they don’t like or want it. More than that, with many parents across the country becoming a great deal more aware of and involved in the education of their children thanks to Covid, they are decidedly dissatisfied with the mindset of some school boards that the boards know better what their children should learn than they do.
Critical Race Theory is not the only debate that has been roiling school board meetings across the country this fall. A greater parental awareness and involvement in general has brought more attention to the efforts of school boards to operate in a way that is simultaneously fostering an environment most conducive to learning and as Covid-safe as possible. Attempts to navigate this Scylla and Charybdis have in most places meant at the very least some sort of masking mandate. Because of the overwhelmingly partisan nature of our culture today, whether or not, who, and when a mask should be worn has become a political and cultural flashpoint. Unfortunately, many of these flashes are taking place at school board meetings. I can say from observation and experience that many of these flashpoints are decidedly uncivil.
Item number three occurred this past week when Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the FBI would begin getting involved in investigating allegations of parents getting overly vigorous in their opposition to local school board policies. He even went so far as to suggest some parents were using tactics that could be labeled as domestic terrorism. The two specific points of opposition mentioned were parental opposition to CRT and mask and vaccine mandates.
One last thing. My local newspaper yesterday reported that our local school board president surprised his other board members by resigning his position effective immediately at the end of their meeting Tuesday night. The now former board president is someone I count a good friend and someone I know personally to be a good and godly man. He took his duties on the board seriously and agonized over making difficult decisions he nonetheless believed wholeheartedly were the right ones for the sake of the students in our district. His Christian faith directly informed the decisions he made. In particular, he was a supporter of our county’s mask mandate for all students, staff, and visitors. For his position he has been the subject of an unrelenting barrage of ugliness and vitriol. It has come online, in person, by phone, email, and text. He has had threats made against him physically as well. All of this because he would not back off on his support for a policy that a handful of parents in the district resolutely opposed. And if this were an entirely local phenomenon that would still not be a good thing. But this kind of behavior of parents toward school board members is happening in school boards across the nation.
Let’s see if we can start to tie some of these threads together. There are some school boards in much more progressive communities across the country which have educational activists serving on them who genuinely believe they know better than parents what students should be learning. There are teachers in some places who have been taught to think like this as well. These folks arrogantly want parents cut out of the educational process to the fullest extent possible. This thinking results from a cultural and governmental philosophy that does not accord with what our Founders had in mind. There are some, though, like mine, where CRT is not even on the radar and the only issue at hand is whether or not students should wear masks in school. But, whether or not you agree with the teaching of CRT in schools or the wearing of masks in schools or anything else that happens in schools today, how you handle your opposition or agreement matters.
If in support or opposition to something happening in our schools or anywhere else in our nation we unleash “human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion,” then a government that was not armed in its founding with the means of contending with them is going to have to so arm itself. It will do things like announcing the FBI will now begin investigating parents who oppose things their local school board has proposed. Now, that move is one with which I do not personally agree. The politics of it were bad. The optics were bad. Garland the Biden administration are rightly getting skewered over it. But when school board members are being threatened by parents with physical violence and even death threats – even if only very rarely – is it any wonder an administration whose governing philosophy looks for every opportunity it can find to expand the power and reach of the government armed itself with the means of contending with such passions unbridled by morality and religion in this way? As Paul said, the government does not carry the sword for no reason. And again, I think this was a terrible policy decision to make. It badly misunderstands the natural and vital role parents should play in the education of their children above and before anything the government says or does or wants for them. It reduces freedom and puts a needlessly chilling effect on entirely understandable efforts of parents to engage with civilly and ask hard questions to school boards whose educational plans and policies are out of sync with the worldview they are seeking to commend to their children. But when people abandon virtue, the government acts to restrain the unvirtuous behavior that naturally arises. If people respond to the restraints with even more of an abandonment of virtue, the restraints will tighten further. In this way, we develop a crazy cycle in which exactly no one is happy with the state of things.
If that’s where we are as a culture, what should we do about it? What, specifically, should followers of Jesus do about it? Embrace and encourage virtue. If we want to maintain (or perhaps return to) the system of self-governance that has led to more freedom and security and prosperity than any other system of government in the entire history of the world, then we need to make sure we are the kind of people who can do it. Let us practice kindness and generosity with our ideological opponents. Let us assume the best about their motives and beliefs. Let us be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. Let us engage regularly with those with whom we do not agree with a spirit of conviction and civility. Let us aim for both clarity and charity. Let us set aside our wants and desires and preferences for the sake of those around us even if that means we endure some measure of inconvenience or small harm in the short term. Let us make sure we are loving one another as Jesus loved us. And let us pray for those who oppose us. This will be our path back to the kind of freedom we so highly prize. The path we are on will lead only to tyranny of one form or another. That has never been a recipe for human flourishing. And if we do all of this and things don’t improve, we keep right on doing them because such will make us good citizens regardless of the state of our circumstances and that will bring glory to God. The road won’t be easy, but it will be good in the end.