We imagine that the Bible does not address Christians in a democracy because democracy was invented by America. Not so. Athens was a democracy (of sorts) going back to 507 BC. However, it only lasted until about 460 BC.
Rome itself was a republic, governed by a Senate, until Julius became Caesar. By the time of Jesus, Octavius (Augustus Caesar and adopted son of Julius) had established himself as absolute ruler of the Empire, and yet the Senate continued to meet and make laws — subject to the Caesar’s approval. That is, the Senate was a sham.
Before the American Revolution, various experiments in democracy may be found, including England’s Parliament and its House of Commons. Like Rome, however, the king or queen had ultimate authority, and yet in England the Parliament was given considerable power. In fact, it can be fairly argued that the United States rebelled to gain their rights as British citizens — insisting that living on the other side of the Atlantic did not deprive them of rights under the British Magna Carta, Constitution, and Bill of Rights (not to be confused with the American documents of the same names).
The American Revolution led to the US Constitution, which led to such prosperity and freedom that the US was likely the wealthiest nation in the world per capita by the end of the 18th Century. Christian Americans thought they might live to see the Millennium established, things were so good — unless you were a slave. And the “unless” part soon brought an end to such optimism.
In response to the success of the so-called American Experiment, republics were established in Latin America, France, and many other places — but many of these efforts must be judged failures. The French Revolution made atheism the official religion of France and blood filled the streets of Paris. In Latin America, the land and government was largely controlled by aristocrats, and little wealth or freedom made its way to the people. Rather, the nations revolted to serve domestic oppressors rather than foreign oppressors.
But over the years, some democratic experiments did in fact succeed, and today, we imagine democracy to be the ideal form of government — or the least undesirable. And perhaps it is, although we’ve been at it long enough to know that democracy isn’t quite the blessed state that the reign of Jesus will be. I mean, there will be no Department of Motor Vehicles or IRS in heaven.
Now, looking back to First Century Rome, it’s easy to see why the apostles didn’t bother to leave us a handbook on how to vote or run for office. The Roman republic had become a sham by NT times, and the Caesar ruled as an absolute monarch. In fact, Rome had the usual features of a military, totalitarian state — brutal suppression of revolt, government spies scattered among the people, soldiers garrisoned throughout the Empire to protect the Empire from internal rebellion, and taxes. Lots of taxes.
On the other hand, the Romans were smart despots. They granted just enough rights and citizenship to just enough people to pacify most of the populace — other than the Jews, who insisted on being ruled by a king descended from David.
So it’s easy to see how the early church thought of itself as a nation within a nation, a people in exile, alien residents, and sojourners among the Roman pagans. In fact, like the Jews, the early Christians operated much like a nation in exile. The Christians in a given city were governed by elders, just as the Jewish towns and cities were governed by elders. The Christians tried their own disputes (1 Cor 6) and exercised their own system of punishment (1 Cor 5; Matt 18).
And while they did not have a system of taxation, their free will offerings provided retirement benefits for widows (1 Tim 5), and it seems likely that many of their leaders were supported by donations. And when one Christian community, such as Jerusalem, suffered in poverty (we don’t know why), the other communities pitched in to provide financial support. They didn’t lobby the Roman Senate for relief. They were nation unto themselves, even though they also had to pay Roman taxes.
In the Fourth Century, Christianity became officially recognized under Constantine, who was also the first Christian emperor. By the end of the century, citizenship and many other rights as Romans was tied to being a Christian, making Christianity the official religion of Rome. Paganism was systematically suppressed and soon disappeared. Judaism was also suppressed, often brutally, and yet Judaism remains with us today.
When the Christians went from exile to the throne of the Empire, countless difficult questions arose as to how to govern as a society designed to be resident aliens. Well, the first thing they did was take over the pagan temples and turn them into churches. They were tired of meeting in homes — surely because their wives were tired of having clean every single week for over 300 years!
The story is beautifully told in Defending Constantine, an excellent and fascinating read. That’s a great story, but for now it’s enough to note that the church went not just from exile to freedom but to power. In Constantine, the church had the full power of the Roman state at its beck and call. Its clergymen were soon paid out of state taxes. Its decrees were often backed by the Roman army.
This led, of course, to the rise of the nominal Christian. After all, if you wanted a government job or other government benefit, you had to be baptized.
As a result, the church found itself not only in power, but able to control the culture, the arts, literally, everything. And while the church’s political power waxed and waned over the centuries, until the Reformation, the Pope was more or less the king of kings, lord of lords, over Western Europe.
The Reformation led to all sorts of changes, but Christianity continued to dominate the culture — although the shape of Christianity and its relationship to the government changed greatly in many places.
The US Constitution changed all this with the enactment of the First Amendment — formally separating church from the federal government. The federal government was prohibited from establishing a religion, that is, declaring a religion the official religion of the nation — contrary to 1400 years of European history. Most states followed suit, so that the American churches had to survive based on their members’ freewill offerings. The result was a much more robust Christianity in the former colonies than in Europe — because of less governmental support.
Ironically enough, less state support meant a stronger church, because churches that could only survive with government subsidies in Europe died in America — making room for stronger forms of the faith.
Contrary to many a sermon, the US was largely unchurched at the time of the American Revolution. Bradley Wright explains,
Two sociologists, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, gathered these historical data, and they used them to calculate Americans’ religious adherence at ten points in time–1776,1850,1860,1870, 1890,1906, 1916, 1926,1952, and 1980. … As shown, actually very few Americans were church members during the Revolutionary era–less than 1 in 5.
The big change happened with the Second Great Awakening, in the early 1800s, the time of Charles Finney and revival meetings. During this time, adherence rates jumped to about one-third. In the late 1800s, they jumped again, to almost half of the population, and they have steadily risen to the present when almost two-thirds of the nation adheres to a religion.
Bradley R.E. Wright. Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media (Kindle Locations 397-401). Kindle Edition.
We were not by any stretch a “Christian nation.” Church membership did not hit half the population until well after the Civil War. We were, in fact, highly secular and under the influence of French skeptics, such as Rousseau and Voltaire, as well as English Enlightenment philosophers such as Hobbes. The same Thomas Paine who campaigned for the American Revolution campaigned for the atheistic French Revolution.
The Second Great Awakening revival movement of the early 1800s produced the Restoration Movement, along with many other indigenous American denominations. And it swept millions into active Christianity — producing not only countless churches but many humanitarian reforms, such as abolitionism, humane prison and insane asylums, the founding of hundreds of colleges and private schools (before public education was even imagined in most places), hospitals, missionary societies, Bible printing societies, etc.
This is why men such as Alexander Campbell felt they might be living at the dawn of the Millennium. Democracy, cheap land, and a laissez faire economic system produced great wealth, men and women were being converted in vast numbers, and the church was actively changing society for the better in very visible ways. If only slavery weren’t such a problem …
The Civil War turned most Christian thinkers into pessimists. The loss of life, amputations, and brutality was overwhelming. And re-inventing a society without slavery was no easy matter. And yet there soon arose yet another Great Awakening, especially in the North. Billy Sunday and Dwight Moody preached to vast numbers — crowds literally in the thousands without electronic PA systems! And Ira Sankey’s hymns revolutionized worship.
The Sunday school movement began at this time. The original idea was to was educate immigrant and other poor children who had to work 6 days a week. They’d go to church on Sunday, where they were taught to read and write. But immigrants were coming from Europe so fast that the churches couldn’t keep up, and the need for a literate population was apparent.
Therefore, the nation was swept by laws requiring a free public education for children — pushed by the churches as a humanitarian measure. After all, not only would the children be educated, they’d be freed from cruel labor conditions in the factories and mills.
This was part of the so-called Social Gospel movement, in which gospel principles were used to improve the quality of life. Prohibition is another example. And like Prohibition, public education had unintended consequences. The Social Gospel movement subtly shifted from the churches to the government, from freewill offerings to taxes, from voluntary participation to governmental coercion.
Soon, the Social Gospel left the gospel behind (the First Amendment applies to governments, not churches) and it became politicized and secular. Churches largely abandoned such ambitious projects, preferring to vote for social reform rather than doing social reform in the name of Jesus and out of their own pockets.
Many important changes resulted — child labor laws, the Fair Labor Standards Act, Women’s Suffrage, and countless other reforms that improved working conditions and enhanced American’s quality of life — all thanks, not to God, but your preferred political party.
And so we’ve come full circle. The church is once again in exile, people look to the government as their savior, and the church has been nearly completely co-opted by the government. In fact, as often as not, it is Christians who resist needed social change — such as the end of racial discrimination — and it’s the politicians who provide it over the protests of many of Christian voters.