In 1750, a young Massachusetts pastor named Jonathan Mayhew gave a sermon titled “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers,” which interpreted the 13th chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans so as to enable his fellow colonials to rebel against the British Crown.
The apostle enters upon his subject thus—“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers; for there is no power but of God; the powers that be, are ordained of God.” Here he urges the duty of obedience from this topic of argument, that civil rulers, as they are supposed to fulfill the pleasure of God, are the ordinance of God. But how is this an argument for obedience to such rulers as do not perform the pleasure of God, by doing good; but the pleasure of the devil, by doing evil; and such are not, therefore, God’s ministers, but the devil’s!
Whatever Paul might have made of this take on his cautionary advice to the small community of Jesus followers in Rome, the sermon, published in Boston and then in London, would later be called the opening volley of the American Revolution.
It also helped establish a pattern of resistance to perceived injustice by religious Americans—some of it legal, some of it not so much.
Pride of place should go to resistance to racial oppression, which featured anti-slavery societies, included abolitionist activities ranging from the Underground Railroad to armed revolts by the enslaved and by John Brown, and eventually extended to the civil rights movement (viz. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”) and Black Lives Matter.
Throughout American history, the religiously motivated have been on the front lines of many struggles against the policies of the civil authorities, urging prohibition of alcohol, opposing wars, supporting women’s equality, working for the rights of labor. And then there’s the Christian right, now entering its fifth decade as a force in American politics, whose resistance to abortions rights and gay rights continues apace.
None of this conforms to Romans 13. Rather, under a Constitution ordained and established by “We the People,” religion has served—for better or worse, depending on which side you’re on—as a higher authority by which citizens of the United States take it upon themselves to pass judgment on the civil authorities.
You’d think Attorney General Sessions would have been aware of this before he cited Paul’s injunction, telling opponents of the Trump Administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their families at the border “to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”
As for the opponents, it’s hard not to see them embracing Jonathan Mayhew’s view of our contemporary civil authorities as not performing “the pleasure of God, by doing good; but the pleasure of the devil, by doing evil; and such are not, therefore, God’s ministers, but the devil’s!”