Volume > Issue > The Conflict Between Civil Piety & the Right to Life

The Conflict Between Civil Piety & the Right to Life


By Stephen Settle & John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe | November 1985
Stephen Settle is a Milwaukee writer. John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe is a Washington, D.C., writer.

Civil piety is as old as government and formal religion. In trying to satisfy the demands of both, mankind has often succumbed to an idolatry that equates political order with a predetermined cos­mic design. Government and its laws are venerated as incarnate testimony to a transcendent plan, and any claim that rejects any item of the civil agenda is automatically condemned. God and country are wed as one, but with the Almighty relegated to a decidedly ancillary role in matters relative to the secular realm. God, in fact, “evolves” as nothing more than a ceremonial apologist for the civic or­der, and it is the state — purportedly endowed with divine license — that acts as arbiter of human rights. This has been the governing “genius” of an­cient oligarchies, medieval monarchies, and even modern republics. Indeed, the influence of civil pi­ety is especially evident now in the conflict over America’s abortion laws.

Whereas civil piety is a logical artifact of pa­gan cultures where ruling elites are seen as direct appointees of a supernatural power, certain vestiges of civil pietism can be traced within traditional Christianity as well. In Nationalism: A Religion, Carlton J.H. Hayes noted that “modern national­ism first arose among peoples that were traditional­ly Christian….” Throughout most of Western his­tory A.D., Christians of all denominations have proclaimed civil compliance a paramount moral vir­tue, the badge of “a good Christian.” Consequent­ly, whatever the mutually professed boundaries be­tween formal church and state, the alliance of be­liever and government has been characteristically tenacious, a coalition enthusiastically entertained by the state militant, most brazenly during periods when the church has basked in the placid light of secular approval. Such civil religion has been inclined to eliminate its critics, with the concurrence of ecclesiastical sympathizers who have abhorred as iconoclasts all who question the temporal marriage of civil and religious authority.

The apostle Paul encouraged early Christians to submit their lives to valid civil charge. To the community in Rome he wrote, “Let everyone obey the authorities that are over him, for there is no authority except from God, and all authority that exists is established by God,” warning that penal­ties for mindless rebellion could prove severe: “the man who opposes authority rebels against the ordi­nance of God: those who resist shall draw condem­nation down upon themselves” (Rom. 13:1-2). But to appreciate Paul’s admonition in its context, we should recall that he was addressing an audience sorely tempted to rebel against all civil stricture, due to the hostility Christians had already suffered under Roman rule. Paul knew that, as disciples of the Prince of Peace, Christians must distinguish themselves from the larger horde of malcontents defying civil order from without and within. Chris­tians were to testify by word and action to their willingness to abide by secular laws, so long as such laws were in keeping with the moral order ordained by God. With this in mind, Paul implied a qualifier in verse 7 of Romans 13: “Pay each one his due: taxes to whom taxes are due; tolls to whom tolls are due; respect and honor to everyone who de­serves it.”

In later years the scholar Jerome would place great emphasis on this passage, insisting that, whereas authority is indisputably advanced by God, it is a conditional trust. Those empowered must continually evince good faith and steward­ship, for otherwise they abdicate their authority, acting instead as tyrants. Christ had taught, “Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s” (Mk. 12:17), leaving the set­tling of these claims largely contingent upon cir­cumstances. Facing this dilemma in his own apostolate, Paul experienced firsthand the cost of pro­claiming the Gospel against the proscription of civil agents. He was arrested and jailed on numerous occasions, fulfilling the prophecy that there would be those “brought to trial before rulers and kings to give testimony before them” (Mt. 10:16).

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