Pastors, Politics, and the American Republic

For those reading from the States, today is Independence Day, the peak of America's summer. So in the midst of cookouts and fireworks, let's do a quick dial back to the founders.

America and its founders. Now that's a conversation folks can get passionate about, whether in political rhetoric or some Christian circles. However, beyond any dispute on the role Christianity played in those early days, we can say undoubtedly that public opinion in 1776 considered Christians beneficial to the American republic. In short, the consensus was that Christians bring a lot of societal good in a representative democracy.

The man who led the way in articulating this benefit was John Witherspoon, founding father, Presbyterian minister and president of Princeton University, among other things. Though he flies under the radar in many history classes, Witherspoon's influence is significant. And while he embodied the major intellectual traditions of his day, he has a helpful word on the gospel's influence in society.

Witherspoon contended that the contribution of "true religion" to the public order is the morality of its adherents. Or said another way, the gospel's influence on society comes by the means of transformed lives.

And this influence is stewarded by the church's pastors. Witherspoon writes,

The return which is expected from [pastors] to the community is, that by the influence of their religious government, their people may be the more regular citizens, and the more useful members of society. I hope none here will deny, that the manners of the people in general are of the utmost moment to the stability of any civil society. When the body of a people are altogether corrupt in their manners, the government is ripe for dissolution.

Good laws may hold the rotten bark some longer together, but in a little time all laws must give way to the tide of popular opinion, and be laid prostrate under universal practice. Hence it clearly follows, that the teachers and rulers of every religious denomination are bound mutually to each other, and to the whole society, to _watch over the manner of their several members.1

How might pastors influence their people to be "the more useful members of society"? Or how might they "watch over the manner of their several members"? By "feed[ing] the saints with such meals that they go out strengthened and robust and able to do the study and do the courage and do the action needed as salt and light in this world."

  1. "Thanksgiving Sermon," in Works, 5:265, quoted in Jeffry H. Morrison, John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic, (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 2005), 23, paragraphing and emphasis added.