Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,
for there is no authority except from God,
and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God…
For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s agents, busy with this very thing.
Pay to all what is due them: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due,
respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
Romans 13:1, 6-7
Inviting Luther to speak to Jeffersonian democracy is a bit perilous. Luther lived in a late medieval feudal society. The privileges and responsibilities of a modern democracy would have been foreign to him, however, many people say, his leadership, and the Protestant Reformation impacted monarchy, and changed the balance of power in the Western world, paving the way for modern democracy.
What does speak extensively on the responsibility of government and government leaders. No guesswork is required.
The Christian ought to be particularly thankful to God for the gift of government,
through which God graciously preserves human life.
—Martín Luther (LW 31:78)
Luther viewed government as a blessing, a gift of God, to bring order and to provide for the common good. Without it, the world would be in chaos because of sin. Government leaders were entrusted with a sacred duty, to care for the well-being of the community, and to seek its welfare. For example, Luther encouraged city councils throughout Germany to support public education. Civic leaders who do not care for education, the poor, and the common good were derelict in their duties.
Since the property, honor, and life of the whole city have been committed to the faithful keeping [of the council and authorities], they would be remiss in their duty before God and [people] if they did not seek its welfare and improvement day and night with all the means at their command.
—Martin Luther, from To the Councilmen in All Germany that They Should Establish and Maintain Christian Schools (LW 45:355)
Citizens had a right and responsibility to demand better government. This concept alone shows Luther’ break from earlier, medieval understanding. One can carefully extrapolate that Luther would insist that Christians have a responsibility to participate in and support the government, seeking leaders who care for and protect people.
It is well known that Luther supported the doctrine of two kingdoms, as did Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Luther reflected Augustine’s understanding of the City of God and the Earthly City. The City of God was a spiritual entity, that the church was called to tend. The earthly city was under the power of sin, and therefore required a temporal authority that should exercise as little power over people as necessary to keep order and avoid chaos.
For Luther, the temporal kingdom, the state, was God’s left hand. The spiritual kingdom, the church, was God’s right hand. These were analogs to his teachings about law and gospel, and to his contention that we are all both sinners and saints. Christians are not to shrink from the kingdom on the left. In fact, they are to share in God’s left hand work of governing. Luther plants the seeds of early democracy in suggesting the church should not be in charge of the government. On the other hand, the church and Christians have a responsibility to participate in government and hold it accountable.
Drawing on Romans 13, Luther says that if the government is God’s servant, then it should not be left to heathens alone. Christians must be involved. Indeed, he hoped that many princes would be devout Christians. If there are needs at the government level, and you are qualified, you should jump in. Luther couldn’t vote, but there seems ample evidence here to suggest that Luther would insist that people participate in government, God’s servant.
Luther expected a good government to give justice to the widow and the orphan. Caring for the poor was a primary responsibility of the government, not some charitable duty of the church alone.
Paul Althaus summarizes Luther well:
In instituting government, God has given it a specific task. It is to protect people committed to its care against exploitation by the brutal selfishness and violence of their fellow citizens. The government does this by making laws and using its power to enforce them. It preserves law and order by using the power of the sword to punish the criminal who breaks them…. ‘It is the function of and honor of worldly government to make people out of wild beasts and to prevent people from becoming wild beasts.’ The government preserves the precious gift of peace. ‘Where peace is, there is half a heaven.’
God gives us government in order to place a tool of responsible service into our hands; this is true no matter how much human injustice may have been at work in the history of human government. All this makes government ‘the most precious treasure and jewel on earth.’ However, secular government still does not have the rank and value of the lordship of Christ for the Christian, and the office of ministry – the relationship between these two is that between eternal and temporal life. Eternal life stands above this temporal life. ‘God preserves the world only so that the gospel can be preached.’ The secular government exists, not least of all, in order to provide a situation in which the gospel can be preached. After the office of preaching, however, secular government is the most useful and most necessary function on earth, the highest worship of God, the highest good. ‘It is the grace of God that gives government to men.’
—Paul Althaus, The Ethics of Martín Luther, pp 114-116
What would our tradition say about the importance of participating in democracy, and specifically about voting?
It seems clear from Luthers doctrine of the two kingdoms and other comments above, that Luther had a very positive view of the importance of government in the Christian’s participation in it.
Who do we leave vulnerable when we don’t vote?
Government has a responsibility to the most vulnerable members of society. In the Hebrew Bible, this frequently means the orphan, the widow, and the alien. What would happen if we believed the government’s primary responsibility, after establishing order, was to care for these three vulnerable groups?
What would it look like if a congregation effectively engaged in democracy and elections? What do you imagine they would do, and what do you imagine would be the outcomes?
Many congregations serve as polling locations. Because no political party is the kingdom of God, we do not support anyone, political party, but call for the common good, regardless of who is in the office. Congregations can encourage people to be involved in local government, and faithful in voting. Someone once said, “you get the government you deserve.” I don’t know if that’s true, or not, but it seems like we need to insist upon and work for the best possible government, for the common good.
What key connections and relationships can Houstonians of faith activate in their communities to get out the vote?
- Invite civic leaders to your house of worship to discuss matters that are important to the well-being of all people.
- Consider becoming a polling location.
- Encourage and facilitate voter registration.
- Educate people about the importance of civic engagement and the dangers of quietism.
- Demonstrating, in word and deed, your own commitment to the most vulnerable populations.
Luther couldn’t vote, but if he could, he would insist on faithful Christians voting, to get the best government possible, so that just laws would be enacted, schools would be funded, roads maintained, and the temporal needs of the most needy met.