…because of conscience.

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Sunday— 9:30 AM Sunday School, 10:15 AM fellowship, 10:30 AM Worship Service

Nov. 06

Our 16th Century Reformation forebear, John Calvin, called those who hold political office “magistrates” and under the influence of Romans 13, Calvin had this to say about political office: “The Lord has not only testified that the office of magistrate is approved by and acceptable to him, but he also sets out its dignity with the most honorable titles and marvelously commends it to us…Accordingly, no one ought to doubt that civil authority is a calling, not only holy and lawful before God, but also the most sacred and by far the most honorable of all callings in the whole life of mortal men.” (Institutes IV. xx. 4)

John Calvin, as he often does, gives us reason to pause and consider. And let us pause and consider this. Calvin insists that politics is a calling from God. He considers political offices holy, lawful before God, sacred, and Calvin considers those who hold political office to occupy “by far the most honorable of callings in the whole life of mortal [humanity].” Calvin did not use such language to describe the office of pastor! Again let me repeat the adjectives Calvin uses to describe political office and those who hold political office: a calling from God, holy, lawful before God, sacred, the most honorable of callings. Does this describe our sense of political office today and those politicians who seek to hold civil authority?

I don’t think so. We are a few days away from one of the most contentious presidential elections in generations. We have been intrigued by sensationalism; we have been captured by accusation; we have been distracted by emotionalism; we have been disturbed by the shear tone and tenor of these past several months. Is it possible that we could even muster Calvin’s words – calling from God, holy, lawful before God, sacred, most honorable – to describe the scene that has transpired before our eyes these past several, brutal weeks of the campaigns for the highest office of this land?

We should not be surprised by what we are experiencing before us in the presidential campaign. Politics is a brutal business in this country and has been since the retirement from public office of George Washington in March of 1797. Washington was universally revered by everyone, or at least, few dared take on the almost mythic hero Washington with any public seriousness. But right under Washington’s aura during his two-term presidency, the two party system in our country was brewing and taking shape in political figures and in newspapers and pamphlets sympathetic to partisan political thoughts. As you may recall federalists wanted a strong central federal government and were best embodied early on in the likes John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Others desired a more decentralized federal government and more checks and balances against a strong federal system. Thomas Jefferson early embodied this political ideology.

Public accusations and innuendos about character were atrocious in the presidential election of 1796 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to replace George Washington. Adams won the presidency, but during the election Adams was vilified in newspapers and pamphlets that Thomas Jefferson had a hand in promoting. In looking back over the rough and tumble arena of presidential politics, John Adams’s wife, Abigail, wrote this letter to her husband’s successor to the presidency, Thomas Jefferson, on August 18, 1804:

“In no country has calumny falsehood, and revileing stalked abroad more licentiously, than in this. No political Character has been secure from its attacks, no reputation so fair, as not to be wounded by it, until truth and falsehood lie in one undistinguished heap…Party spirit is blind malevolent uncandid, ungenerous, unjust and unforgiving. It is equally so under federal as under democratic Banners…” (The Adams-Jefferson Letters, ed. Lester Cappon, page 276-277).

Does Abigail Adams’s honest assessment of the American political scene of her day still ring true today? Of course it does. Polarizing politics and uncivil discourse have tainted our views of politics and politicians alike. The approval rating of Congress is below 20% - one of the lowest ratings in our country’s history. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have two of the lowest approval ratings of any presidential candidates in decades.

A democracy thrives on the public exchange of reasoned and reasonable discourse on issues and ideologies. A democracy thrives on hearty and open debate over matters and subjects before it. A democracy thrives on compromise and cooperation in governing amid a multitude of ideas and ideologies. But we have somehow lost civil discourse in this country’s political and social arena. We have misplaced reason and reasonableness in our politics; we have abandoned respectful debate; we have jettisoned compromise and cooperation in governing.

Is it any wonder that in the lack of civil, reasoned discourse our political rhetoric has sunk to the level of character assassination, the politics of suspicion and distrust, the monologue of us against them? The oppositional/cooperative model our democracy most needs in order to thrive in a two party system has been replaced by an oppositional/obstructionist governing model that simply feeds on itself in a never ending circle of tit for tat, retribution, retaliation between the dominant parties.

Calvin’s words about political office and office holders – called by God, holy, sacred, most honorable – they just don’t seem to characterize our American experience of politics and government – or do they? Abigail Adams in that same letter to Thomas Jefferson I quoted above, after lamenting the deplorable condition of American politics in her day, went on to note this: “…yet upon both sides are Characters, who possess honest views, and act from honorable motives, who disdain to be led blindfold, and who tho entertaining different opinions, have for their object the public welfare and happiness. These are the Characters, who abhor calumny and evil speaking, and who will never descend to News paper revileing.” (Cappon, page 277)

Jefferson will answer Abigail Adams in a letter from Monticello dated September 11, 1804: “I tolerate with the utmost latitude the right of others to differ from me in opinion without imputing to them criminality. I know too well the weakness and uncertainty of human reason to wonder at it’s different results. Both our political parties, at least the honest portion of them, agree conscientiously in the same object, the public good: but they differ essentially in what they deem the means of promoting that good…My anxieties on the subject will never carry me beyond the use of fair and honorable means, of truth and reason: nor have they ever lessened my esteem for moral worth; nor alienated my affections for a single friend…” whom Jefferson notes, may have opposed him politically. (Cappon, page 280)

Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson both note from significant American political experience that despite false charges and calculated misrepresentations of character in the American political arena, there yet exists those honorable civil servants, politicians on both sides of the aisle, who sincerely have the public’s welfare and happiness in mind, who sincerely see the positive, constructive role government can play in promoting social tranquility and civil accord, who sincerely understand that cooperation and compromise between competing ideologies are necessary to govern.

And it is to this highest, most sacred calling of civil authority that the Apostle Paul encourages Christians to submit to, to honor, to respect. Writing in Romans 13:1-7, Paul believes that civil authorities are instituted by God to maintain the public welfare by promoting the good and punishing the bad. Paul believes that God is Presbyterian and wants things done decently and in order! Thus civil offices and civil office holders are public servants of God promoting a public tranquility and peace as they honorably pursue God’s justice, love, and mercy in this present age.

Paul says that public office holders are servants of God – even Paul believes if they do not acknowledge the same God Paul obeys. Paul calls them servants, lieturgemoi, the same root word for which we derive the word liturgy, the work of praise to God. Civil office holders work out praise to an orderly, peaceful God as they pursue in the public arena and for the public good the justice, love, and mercy that characterize God’s righteousness. As servants of God, they are under God’s judgment. What Paul implies, and our Reformed/Presbyterian tradition has always upheld, is that public servants who disregard their divine calling and usurp God’s justice and mercy for self-serving political and economic purposes; when civil authorities make a mockery of God’s desire for public welfare and peace by pursuing their own selfish agenda – those civil authorities can and should be replaced, even opposed if necessary.

Paul says that Christians should be subject to governing authorities not only because they keep proper civil order, but also out of conscience…out of conscience. What I think Paul means is what John Calvin so eloquently stated, that civil authorities and the offices they hold are a calling from God – a sacred, holy, most honorable undertaking. Their office is to honored as ordained by God for the public good; those who hold that office are to be respected and supported as they work for societal peace and justice.

My biggest concern for this nation is not what happens on Tuesday with the presidential election. My biggest concern is what happens on Wednesday and the days, weeks, months and years beyond Tuesday. Despite the contentiousness of this presidential election, I hope you will join with me in supporting, encouraging, respecting, honoring and constantly praying for our next president and all our politicians who hold sacred office for the public good; who give of their time and intellect and energy to a holy calling to promote public tranquility and peace.

I pray that we, you and me, will be the leaven in our homes, our neighborhoods, our places of work and leisure, be the leaven this country needs to change the tone of oppositional, destructive political rhetoric; to hold political views reasonably; to engage in political discourse honorably; to respect each other as fellow Americans and honor each other’s particular political contribution to the grander fabric of this great nation’s civic dialogue and trust. Because of conscience, it is our Christian duty and obligation to do so.