In response to Mark Galli’s Christianity Today op-ed calling for President Trump to be removed from office, Peter Leithart at First Things appeals to Romans 13 as one reason to put up with a bad executive. I have heard this in defense of Trump, but I don’t think it is a correct application. First, here is the passage:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
It seems obvious that governing authorities involve more than the president. Congress is an authority, the Judicial branch is an authority. There are state and local authorities. Critically, the Constitution via the Supremacy clause is the law of the land. Paul did not specify a form of government. In our form of government, the authority is the Constitution. Rulers are elected by the people and are considered public servants. Citizens and rulers are subject to the Constitution which is the governing authority.
Thus, it is important for Christians to respect Congress and who God has placed in office there. Many Christian Trump supporters right now are myopically focused on the executive branch. However, I believe they have encouraged President Trump to violate Romans 13 by supporting his resistance to subpoenas and parroting his rhetoric about a witch hunt. I think a case can be made that Trump is in violation of Romans 13 since he will not bring himself under the authority of Congress and the Constitution.
Trump supporters might counter by saying he has a right to go to court to seek a favorable interpretation of the law in his resistance to Congressional oversight. While that is true, it should be noted that he has argued that the president has absolute immunity from investigation and indictment while in office. The president could commit a crime in broad daylight and according to the argument he has advanced, he could not be investigated until he leaves office. This is an extreme position and has not prevailed in any court challenge thus far. The Supreme Court will hear related cases soon.
Trump’s legal strategy aside, my main point is that current Christian Trump supporters must find a way to respect all of the authorities. I think Leithart is clearly wrong to say Christians should put up with bad behavior in our Constitutional form of government when Congressional oversight exists.
In Leithart’s article, I read no argument for why Christians must honor the executive branch more than the legislative branch. Trump Christians have shown a consistent bias on this front. The Constitution gives impeachment power to the House. Trump Christians such as Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, and Robert Jeffress blasted the impeachment procedures as biased and unfair. In fact, the House leaders had the right to conduct the business as their preexisting rules dictated. Giving Congress honor and respect as an authority was not at all what these leaders did. Instead, they left their religious callings and became partisan political players.
Now, Senate Republican leaders are threatening to dishonor the Constitution by making the trial a sham. Christians should insist on a trial which brings forward evidence. Christians should publicly call on the president to obey subpoenas and submit the authority over him — the Constitution. Christians should honor the Constitutional order for the role of the Senate. The Senators take an oath to be impartial. Christian Senators who follow Romans 13 should strive to follow that oath. Christian citizens should call on the Senate to follow their oath and honor them for doing so.
In short, governing authorities involve more than the executive branch. Christians need to support the legitimate work of the legislative branch and insist that the president honor the Constitution. There is no reason to elevate one branch over another in our system since the law of the land isn’t a potentate but the Constitution.
UPDATE: This post at American Creation blog is a nice summary of Calvinist views of Romans 13. Gregg Frazer, Dean of The Master’s University and historian of the founding era wrote to address Calvin’s perspective on political rebellion. In short, without some governmental sanction for resistance (e.g., impeachment), Christians should not rebel. However, impeachment and removal is built in to the Constitution and therefore legitimate. Christians should not appeal to Romans 13 as a reason to oppose impeachment.